UNICEF is coming to town
How UNICEF Philippines continues to help school children affected by Typhoon Pepeng
Pangasinan, November 2009 - Puelay Elementary School in Villasis was one of many affected schools in Pangasinan province after Typhoon Pepeng, internationally known as Parma, hit the region on the 8th October. The heavy rain caused the San Roque Dam to release more water, increasing the amount flowing into the Agno River, leading to portions of the river dike to collapse. Situated near the dike, the school was completely flooded and when the water receded, it left behind half a meter of smelly mud.
‘Three of our classrooms were totally destroyed, as well as tables, chairs, blackboards and computers.’ Principal Ms. Belen Bautista says. ‘The play area was covered in mud and both the children and the teacher’s books were damaged.’
With help from parents, students and people in the community the school was able to open again after nine days. However, with most of their study material damaged, the school had to rely on local donations, as well as help from former residents living abroad. A request for assistance was also made to UNICEF and representatives from UNICEF attended the school, handing out school packs to all of the 1,145 students.
The children lined up in the courtyard, ready to receive their backpacks containing notebooks, pens, crayons, glue, slippers, a drinking bottle and a pair of scissors. Tricia Mae, 8, was one of them. She is in third grade and her house is located right next to the school. ‘We were not sleeping when the water came. My aunt said we should go to the church, but I don’t remember how we got there. When we came back to the house the next day all my clothes were gone and my school books were wet and muddy. I also lost my shoes.’ She eagerly opened the new school bag while she talked: ‘I was surprised when I saw the school was damaged and I wished there was classes to go to. But now I am happy that I am back at school and that I have new notebooks and pens.’
There are more happy children at San Blas Elementary School, one of the other heavily affected schools in Villasis. All of the 333 children had gathered in the courtyard, singing a familiar Christmas tune: ‘you better watch out, you better not cry, better not pout, I'm telling you why: UNICEF is coming to town.’
So Christmas came early to San Blast this year, but this was not the situation just over a month ago. ‘Everything in the school was damaged. The water came all the way up to here.’ Mrs. Gloria Orena, one of the teachers points to a mark about a meter and a half up the wall. ‘The blackboards and all the learning material we had put on the walls got destroyed. It took us over a week to clean the school, but now the classrooms are full of students again and everyone has returned back to school.’
However, not everyone thought they would be able to return to school after the flooding. The two cousins Raiza Mae and Alex, both 8, had their houses destroyed by the water and now they are living with their families at their grandparent’s house. ‘We left our house before the water came.’ Raiza Mae said ‘and I was shocked when I came back and found all my clothes on the farmland next to where our house had been.’ Alex, whose favourite subject is math, added: ‘We lost all our school books and then we didn’t think we could go back to school, but then some nice people gave us some notebooks and now we are back at school.’
After all the children received their new bags, they gathered in the classrooms, excitingly checking out the contents of the bags. ‘My parents will be so happy for this’ Eldieboy, 10, called out. The rest of the class shared his opinion and shouted a big ‘Thank you!’ to the UNICEF staff as they left.
More assistance is needed
UNICEF has so far distributed school packs to 23 schools in the affected areas of the country, benefitting 30,659 school age children. However, there are still many more schools which are in need of help. Two of these schools are situated on the other side of the Agno River, in Rosales. Carmen Elementary School and Robert Estrella National High School are right next to each other and they were both badly affected by the flooding. There are still piles of mud in the court yards and along the pathways, and several of the classrooms have lost their walls. Damaged books are lying outside on the ground, the titles barely readable as they are still covered from the thick mud.
The central office for the Department of Education has made Carmen Elementary School their first priority for repairs, but there is still a need for more assistance. ‘We lack food and school supplies for the children and the teachers.’ Principal Arturo de la Cruz says. ‘We also have a problem with children dropping out of school because they have lost their books.’ He says that numerous children are coming to school irregularly or have stopped all together.
Many of the students come from Carmen East and Carmen West, two of the worst affected Barangays in Rosales. Here several hundred families lost their homes and many are still living with relatives or are living in tents at a relocation site in the nearby Barangay San Pedro. It is some of these children who are finding it hard to return to school. Left without schoolbooks or enough money for transport, the children stay at home instead.
Marjon, 14, is one of them. He is living with his family in a tent in the relocation site in San Pedro. ‘I have only been to school once since we were evacuated here. When we lived in Carmen I went to school everyday and it makes me sad that I haven’t been able to go.’ Some of the children at the relocation site have been able to transfer to a school nearby, but for the rest of the children, the days are spent hanging around the tents.
UNICEF’s long experience in disasters and conflict has demonstrated that returning children to school as quickly as possible is one of the most valuable emergency interventions that can take place. Education is essential to children’s long-term opportunities, and must not be interrupted. In addition, schools provide children with a sense of normalcy, which is crucial to their psychological well-being. It is therefore important that the children in the relocation site, as well as the many other children who have stopped going to school after the typhoon, receive assistance to return to school. So far UNICEF Philippines have received 255,508 USD from private donations, however more funding is needed.
Back at the relocation site in San Pedro, Marjon and his friends are hoping to return to school in the nearest future. ‘I just want to finish school so I can find a job to support my family,’ he says, ‘but I have no idea where I will get the money from.’
Written by Silje Vik Pedersen, Emergency Communication Officer