The word cart wheeling evokes images of free-spirited and overflowing joy, not to mention an acrobatic ability to move one's body over and about. Children often engage in it, accompanied by raucous laughter and clapping of hands. As we grow older, and bones become brittle and thin, we learn to engage in a different kind of cart wheeling, one that takes place in the soul.
For Gina Alfonso, what brings her joy can't be bought from the mall or procured from any known merchant. Happiness is a school room full of kids eager for life. Joy is handing a person his or her own steer. master his or her own destiny. Delight is finding the people you have touched paying goodness forward. And ever since she founded Cartwheel Foundation in 1998, Hundreds have experienced the lightness of spirit that only helping others can bring about.
Cartwheel Foundation started as a philantropic endeavor to the indigenous tribes of Mindanao, specifically the Tala-Andig of Miarayon, Bukidnon. What was supposed to be a simple desk chairs donation turned into one of the most viable development schemes in the region. Their programs are centered on Indigenous Tribes, recognizing them as one of the marginalized sectors and believing in their capacity to participate in developing their communities. At first, they focused on early childhood education following the precepts that molding a child and making them capable of adapting to life starts at an early age. In an interview for the organization's newsletter, Gina explained that, "Early childhood education is keu to ensuring each child's survival in disadvantaged learning environments. Given the basic preparation in reading and math before beginning elementary at the public schools, they are less likely to drop out despite challenging realities in provincial schools."
This was seconded by Cartwheel Foundation's current Executive Director, Coleen Rae Ramirez. She explains that the situation in provincial schools can present many road blocks for the children to access quality early education, and she cited one, "The schools are far from the communities and some of them would take an adult hours to walk, so imagine how it would be for a child.". With this in mind, Cartwheel assists communities by providing schoolrooms for pre-school education, as well as training address the need for quality education and making it accessible for their children.
The pre-school endeavor in Miarayon proved to be a stellar success, and it wasn't long before they started replicating the project in other communities. What started out as a small endeavor has grown wings and taken flight. Cartwheel now works with communities in the provinces of Bukidnon, Agusan, Maguindanao, Zamboanga del Sur, Nueva Ecija, Isabela, Ifugao, Mindoro and Palawan, all of which has benefited from the organization's education efforts.
Aside from providing infrastructure for pre-schools and training mothers, the foundation also engages in music and art sessions for the tribes and has helped countless children their cultural identities. Often enough, amazing pieces will showcase just by how much the children are learning to take pride and find joy in being who they are. The artworks are sometimes broght to Manila to help highten awareness and appreciation of the diversity of Filipino culture.
Cartwheel also provides Alternative Learning Sessions for out-of-school youth and adults who are interested to learn. They are provided lessons in English, Math, Science, Health and Life Skills all of which are grounded on their daily experience. Coleen explains that, "After establishing the pre-school, the parents of the pupils in Miarayon also asked if they could learn some lessons. We teach them arithmetic and languages just so they won't be bested in negotiations or computations when it comes to their work."
All of these works are being handled by 3 full-time staff and a retinue of volunteers. They are conscripted through referrals, friends and schools. At present, they have about 20 members and most of them are unbelievably committed to their work. The volunteers serve as resource persons for the art therapy workshops, health and livelihood trainings and the other capability programs being offered by Cartwheel.
Of all the programs they implement though, Coleen states that the scholarships they provide through the Pamulaan Center for Indigenous People's Education is what she's proud of the most. In 2005, Cartwheel became one of the founding partners for the development of the Pamulaan Center. The thrust of the proram is to create culturally appropriate and relevant pathways of professional training and formation for indigenous yout, community leaders and development workers. The school offers courses in Bachelor of Science degrees in Indigenous Education and Bachelor of Arts degrees in Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development as well as Peace-Building and Multi-cultural Studies. They also have short-term courses in Organizational Development and Management, amongst others. All of their programs uphold the indigenous people's educational system which values education, promote cultural integrity and empowerment as well as encourage analytical thinking and responsible attitude.
They accepter their first batch of IP youth in 2006. Four years later, Cartwheel has sponsored 19 graduates and all of them have returned to their communities to help enrich their tribes' learning. "A lot of them are teachers, community organizers and youth leaders. For me, that has the biggest impact.", says Coleen.
Cartwheel Foundation is a proud investor in FPSDC, citing that the latter's cooperative banking scheme yield higher rates than commercial banks. And in a small organization, maximizing their funding resources is an uncanny necessity. "They also help us develop new ideas to become a better orgaization. We thank them for all of the assistance and for the constant communication as well as opening up possible opportunities for us. And more than that, they provide a vast network of organizations which could be our valuable partners in the future."
Speaking of the future, Coleen was very clear on what she sees for the foundation in the years ahead: a leader in providing quality education for the indigenous people who are able to participate actively in their communities. "We will measure this by the number of pre-school graduates we have, how many communities we have helped, how many years, and how many college are back in their communities serving their own people."
It seems that Cartwheel truly lives up to its name by moving things forward in a spirit of brightness and hopefulness. They provide the Indigenous youth a cause for joy and believing in an empowered future for their tribal communities. Using the words of Mother Teresa, Gina alfonso sums up the reason why they will keep doing what they do, "The work is only a drop in the ocean. But if you don't put the drop in, the ocean will be one drop less."