New York based non-profit goes beyond dole-outs

Filipinos are a giving people.
That is a statement that banker-turned-social entrepreneur Ayesha Vera-Yu strongly believes in.
Indeed, it is not a question of why it is important to give back to the Philippines. Filipinos all over the world are already doing this – through remittances and other informal channels – we send money, clothing, balikbayan boxes packed with chocolates, Dove and Spam all the time.
Ayesha says, “The more appropriate questions when we give back – whether it’s family or a non-profit organization are: Can you trace your dollar? Is the program sustainable and the results immediate and long lasting? Do you want to just hand out money or do you want to co-invest with a community or a parent who is doing something effective to get themselves out of poverty?”
With those questions, Ayesha framed her ideas and planned to create an organization that would help the Philippines one village at a time. Ayesha is the CEO and Co-Founder of Advancement for Rural Kids (ARK), a grassroots, non-profit organization that partners with communities to improve the primary education and health of children in rural areas in developing countries, starting in the Philippines.
Compared with other non-profit and non-government organizations, Advancement for Rural Kids (ARK) is not a charity.
“We co-invest with an empowered community,” she explained.
A dollar investment goes a long way with ARK’s multi-pronged approach in helping these families in the rural areas. For their feeding program, it only takes $1.25 to feed a child – for one month.
Gaining Roots
Back in January 2008, Ayesha visited her family’s farm in the village of Sibariwan in Dumarao, Capiz. The first grade teacher in the local school, which was 15 minutes away from the farm, heard that she was in the village.
“She knew I was in the farm and she wanted me to see the children in the school, so I went.  I saw one of the classrooms and I noticed this big, gaping hall. If it rained, the classes were cancelled. I saw how four to five children sharing one tattered book. I had about $300 in my pocket then and I gave it to the teacher so she can have the roof fixed,” she recalled.
Ayesha went back to NYC and told her husband Jerry Topitzer, ARK co-founder, about her experience and showed him pictures of the school and the kids.
“A month later, Jerry and I heard back from the teacher. She happily reported that the roof was fixed in about two weeks. Because the parents banded together and volunteered to fix the roof for free, there was excess money to buy school supplies for the 1st, 2nd and 3rd graders, accounting for 2/3rd of the school population,” Ayesha said.
That same year, Jerry and Ayesha went back to Sibariwan, this time with some more donated funds, books and two computers – and despite only a day’s notice, they were welcomed by over 400 parents, teachers and students in the pouring rain.
“Our meetings with the community – and listening to the parents, teachers and community leaders led to an idea to try to solve what was clearly one of the biggest issues: malnutrition. With the donated funds we decided to pilot what would later become our keystone feeding program, which we launched in January 2009. This important initiative has proven to get kids back to school, fight malnutrition and spur weight gain, while providing additional income to the local community,” Ayesha said.
Going Strong
ARK is now on its fourth year and the organization is currently helping four schools, with five more schools waiting for their chance. They focused the first three years on making sure that the programs worked and that they were effective in solving issues, such as malnutrition.
Because of this, the feeding program was born. It focused on providing healthy meals to the school children. Ayesha believes that a community must be strong to commit and have a feeding program in their elementary school.
“It is through the feeding program that everything else picks up. If the children don’t come to school, it’s a waste giving them school supplies and books, it’s a waste giving them scholarships,” she said.
The feeding program involves parents who take turns in volunteering to feed all the school children every day while the school is in session. There is a cook who is in charge of the kitchen and she is paid a hundred pesos a day.
The community in Sibariwan has embraced ARK and their programs and they have committed their services to make sure that the programs work properly. Through ARK, they began tending a small garden where they planted various vegetables. Now, these vegetables are harvested and are used to feed their children in the feeding program.
The sustainability of the feeding program depends heavily on volunteerism, sourcing food ingredients locally, and the strength, enthusiasm and support of the community. Because of all these combined elements, a meal for one child in Sibariwan Elementary School costs P2.50 or a total average daily cost of P550 for 220 children, which translates to $13-$14/day for 220 children or $1.25/child/month (FX rate of 42 pesos:1 dollar).
It is the community that manages the programs, ARK gives them the blueprint and the funding.
“We don’t believe in a hand-out system, we believe in partnerships with communities in the rural areas. How can we at ARK make the most impact? We had to look at where the community spirit is strongest. That’s why we concentrate on rural poor, because they are the ones that need the most help. The drop-out rates in the schools are staggering,” Ayesha added.
She also explains that when we look at it as an investment to the children’s future, as a partnership with the community, it does not become a hand-out, and that the programs actually work.
“We understood that everyone in the community wanted their kids to have a better future. We were inspired and we wanted to help improve their lives. They had incredible initiative and spirit, and just like the rest of us, they just wanted a better life for their children,” Ayesha added.
The problem, the target demographic and the potential donors are not new. But ARK’s principles and its methods of operation separate it from other organizations in the development field. As a result, ARK has quadrupled its target population, strengthened its partnerships, expanded its programs and more than doubled its funds raised in less than two full years of operation.
In addition to the local communities, ARK collaborates and partners with volunteer professionals, students, schools and universities to develop innovative solutions that will keep kids in school, in better health and armed with the critical tools to access opportunities that would lead to a future devoid of poverty.
The organization has grown exponentially since it was founded in December 2008. Today, ARK sponsors over 1,260 students and partners with over 700 parents and teachers in four villages in Dumarao, Capiz.
From the first day that the school implemented ARK’s blueprint, Ayesha and her team of supporters have seen results, mostly positive, tangible and measurable. From seeing student attendance levels go from 70% to 90% within a week, and seeing students gain, on average, 10 lbs within 3 months of implementing the feeding program to just heading each student’s favorite dish from the feeding program.
“We have ARK scholars like 15 year old Jurel Evangelista who would wake up at 5am to get ready and prepare his lunch by himself while the rest of the household slumbers, walk to school for an hour and get to school by 7am on time for class every day! He, like the rest of the 49 scholars, are committed to finishing 4 years of high school, are getting better grades than they got previously, and are excited to be a step closer to their dreams,” Ayesha said.
With more than a decade of experience in investment banking with a top global bank, Ayesha is now using her experience capitalizing companies big and small to design and operate effective and sustainable programs that fight hunger, malnutrition and illiteracy among some of the world’s most vulnerable children.
At ARK, Ayesha is supported by an entire team of experts – bankers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, students, teachers, business owners, film editors, artists, designers, cops, farmers, carpenters, social workers, psychologists, consultants, musicians, nuclear physicists, surfers, travelers – and they have all bonded together to contribute funds, volunteer their expertise, time, energy and passion as they work together for a better future for the rural children, one village at a time.
(NYNJ Mag August 3, 2012 pg.2)

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