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Education fuels change in former conflict zone

© UNICEF Philippines/2008/Alquinto
UNICEF Representative Vanessa Tobin and UNICEF National Ambassador Gary Valenciano with Teacher Monica Sison, the woman behind Sitio Avocado’s transformation.

UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, shows how education can be a powerful catalyst for change in conflict-affected communities.

During the first field visit of UNICEF country representative, Vanessa Tobin, with UNICEF National Ambassador Gary Valenciano to Negros Oriental’s community of Sitio Avocado, the UN organization voiced its concern for hundreds of Filipino children suffering as a result of conflict around the country, especially in Central Mindanao.

“Armed conflict can destroy a child’s life before it has even begun. It robs children of their parents, their childhood, their health, their education and sometimes their own lives. We should all remember, no matter what their involvement in conflicts, a child is still a child, in need of love and care; their right to an education should be protected by all,” said Tobin during her visit to the school.

In the 1980’s Sitio Avocado was a no-go area, as regular battles and skirmishes took place between the rebels and the military. But after the arrival of former nun Monica Sison as the new principal, the school and community started working together and slowly restored the important place of education in the community. Now the classrooms are full, and as well as children inside, parents and former rebels have decided to lay down their arms and go back to school.

“The story of this school and the hard work of the teachers and parents here, should be an inspiration to us all. Where children are concerned we have to redouble our efforts until they are safe, being cared for and getting a good education. As for a mother, the work for children never ends,” said Tobin.

UNICEF has been assisting the school for 10 years, starting with the installation of clean water and toilet blocks, training teachers and providing teaching and learning equipment. Gary Valenciano, who is celebrating his tenth year as a UNICEF ambassador, emphasized how a little help can go a long way:

“I am inspired by what the teachers and parents have done here. I had read the stories about Sitio Avocado, but it’s different when you see it. I see it in the eyes of the children, they’re happy being here. No teacher was telling them how to answer, they just responded directly. It’s amazing how many of them want to become teachers. Obviously the teachers are doing a great job for them to want to be teachers, and to do the same for the generations to come,” he said.

During the visit, Valenciano and Tobin met teachers and students, took part in a sound and music exploration, and participated in a ground breaking ceremony for a new pre-school classroom. They also heard inspiring stories from children themselves who study hard to fulfill their dreams.

Sixteen year-old Jonalyn Olis dreams of becoming Avocado’s first nursing graduate. “We don’t have access to quality health care here in Avocado. I want to learn how to take care of people,” says Jonalyn who was one of the top graduates of her class. 

On departing Sitio Avocado, Ms Tobin said:

“During my visit today, people told me that they felt shunned and forgotten by other communities. I hope that by Gary and myself visiting here, we can remind everyone that we should always unite where children are concerned and put their rights and needs at the heart of our efforts. When we do so, we create a society that is not only best for children, but best for all.”

“The greatest challenge for me is that no matter how influential I may seem I’m just one person. I have to let people know about Sitio Avocado because the more people know about it, the more people see it first hand and get involved in more ways than one,” Valenciano added.



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