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  • This Family Goes to Remote Communities to Provide Children With School IDs

    The couple brings their kids to volunteer and show them how these IDs open doors for other children.
    by Kitty Elicay .
  • Sarah Medilo with her husband Mik and their 19-month-old son, Dakila.
    PHOTO BY courtesy of Sarah Medilo

    Moms love to take photos of their kids — open her phone, and we’re sure her camera roll is filled with thousands of snapshots. But for Juan Portrait, an organization that uses photography as a platform to support various communities in the Philippines, its volunteers discover that for the people they reach out to, these photos become more meaningful than they have ever imagined.

    Sarah Medilo, 40, a mom of three, dedicates some of her time volunteering for the organization. “As a mom, photography for me was an avenue to capture and preserve memories of my kids. It was only when I joined missions of Juan Portrait in remote areas like Jolo, Sulu, and in Pactil, Mt. Province, that I realized the impact of photography in relationships as well as individuals,” she shares in an email interview with SmartParenting.com.ph .

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    Portraits change lives

    Sarah with other Juan Portrait volunteers and kindergarten students from Mt. Pulag.
    PHOTO BY courtesy of Sarah Medilo

    Juan Portrait was inspired by photowalks taken along Escolta, Manila, by its founder, Atty. Chris Linag. “During his early photowalks, Atty. Cris met a little boy named Negro along the streets of Escolta in 2008. Atty. Chris took several portraits of Negro and had a chance to get to know him and his family better as he returned to give him the prints from the portrait shoots he did with the kid,” Sarah shares.

    Unfortunately, in 2009, Atty. Linag learned Negro passed away and was lost in the banks of the Pasig River. It triggered something in Atty. Linag, and it led him to start Juna Portraits with his friends in 2011.

    At present, Juan Portrait has four core projects for their missions. The first is Portrait Treks, which has a simple goal: take photos of kids and elders from their supported communities and provide them with prints before leaving the community.

    “We have been able to provide thousands of printed portraits to Northern communities in the Cordilleras, those who speak Kalanguya, Kankanaey, Ibaloi, Ifugao, and Kalinga. We also reached communities in Tacloban, Pag-Asa Island, Maguindanao, Cotabato, Zamboanga, and Sulu,” Sarah shares.

    Their second project is Community Frames, where they teach photography to children and allow the kids to share their culture and their towns through their own lenses. After pairing volunteers with school children to learn photography, the children are allowed to borrow the camera for a month to take pictures of local scenes in their communities. After collating the photos, volunteers will then identify the best photographs and mount an exhibit in the children’s community. 

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    Juan Portrait's Project ID provides children with student IDs that can help them avail of government benefits and services.
    PHOTO BY courtesy of Sarah Medilo

    “The photographs taken by the kids always gives us great pride. Especially since even for our most experienced photographers, the ‘eye’ and the point of view of the children always surprises us,” says Sarah. “The world is revealed to us in ways we never thought was possible every time.”

    The third project is Juan Hundred, where volunteers take photowalks and are encouraged to get to know their subjects better. More than taking photos, this project also provides an avenue for other people to be inspired by the stories of the subjects.

    Their fourth project is Project ID. As the name implies, the goal is to provide identification cards (IDs) for school children in various communities. “School IDs may be simple enough for us city-folk, but for people in the remote areas that we serve, most of them have never really gotten a chance to secure an ID,” Sarah explains.

    She adds, “These IDs open doors for the children — allowing them to join regional competitions to represent their schools — their towns even. It also makes it easier for them to gain access to government services like securing their PSA birth certificates or availing of other government benefits by presenting a proof of identity like their school ID.”


    “We go into these missions thinking we are the ones giving, only to realize that we were the ones given much, much more.”

    Sarah, whose day job is a chief advocate for a digital solutions provider, is no stranger to volunteer work (she has helped build classrooms in remote areas in the Philippines for Klasrums ng Pag-asa). But Juan Portrait has made a significant impact in her life.

    “These kids have never seen themselves in print before. Holding their photos for the first time gives their eyes a twinkle that is truly inspiring,” she shares. “No matter how far or how hard the places are to reach, it is a small price to pay for the inspiration and the positive vibes given to you in return.

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    What volunteer work teaches kids

    Sarah with her husband, Mik, and kids Chloe, Erin, and Dakila.
    PHOTO BY courtesy of Sarah Medilo

    At Juan Portrait, Sarah is joined by her husband, Mik, and their three kids, Chloe, 20, Erin, 15, and Dakila, her youngest who is 19 months old.

    “Dakila’s two elder sisters started their volunteering journey early in their childhood, too. Chloe was only 7 years old, and Erin was 2 years old when we first volunteered with Coke for a coastal clean up along Manila Bay,” Sarah shares. “Our two girls were 10 and 5, respectively when we first journeyed to Mt. Pulag for our first out of town mission with Klasrums ng Pag-Asa.”

    When Sarah got pregnant with Dakila in 2017, she and her husband hand to beg off from out-of-town missions because it was a delicate pregnancy. “We had to wait for Dakila to be confident in walking before we decided to take him on his first Juan Portrait mission. Naturally, we were all excited to be back and be able to help with whatever skills we can share.”

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    Dakila with a Juan Portrait volunteer and the kids at Mt. Pulag.
    PHOTO BY courtesy of Sarah Medilo

    Sarah and Mik have always wanted their children to live with simplicity, and volunteer work helps them teach it to their kids.

    “By exposing [Dakila] to other cultures, particularly in rural communities, we hope that it will help him appreciate a simple life. His sisters grew up being exposed to these communities at a young age, which actually helped them be aware of the realities of life such as poverty and social and environmental issues,” Sarah shares.

    Sarah is proud that her older kids have reaped positive benefits from their experiences as volunteers. Chloe is a student leader and a scholar in the College of St. Benilde, while her eldest, Erin, is a youth peace ambassador for Teach Peace Build Peace Movement, an organization that facilitates peace-building sessions for children in places like Mamasapano, Maguindanao, and Porac, Pampanga.

    “We hope that when the time comes, Dakila can develop like his sisters, and [he can] contribute to the betterment of our nation and our society,” Sarah shares.

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    “We may not be wealthy, but we hope our kids have a rich life experience [and learn] the things that matter the most: to be good and to do the right thing, even when it’s hard.”

    Sarah shares that Dakila seemed to thrive even in unfamiliar environments. “Even if Mt. Pulag was very chilly and high up, Dakila enjoyed walking in the mountain ridges and running around with the kids at school. In Naguey, which is a valley community and where it was hot and humid, Dakila easily made friends with the children.”

    Dakila with dad Mik on their way to the Mt. Pulag community.
    PHOTO BY courtesy of Sarah Medilo
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    Since joining their volunteer work, Sarah has noticed that Dakila’s social skills have improved greatly. He has made new friends in different communities and enjoys playing with kids of all ages. His toddler spirit has been infectious — he’s able to share happiness and joy to children and other volunteers in every Juan Portrait mission that he joins.

    “Importanteng mamulat siya ng maaga,” Sarah notes. “It’s very important that he is able to grow up in the right values and know that even small ripples can make huge waves of positive change.”

    Juan Portrait is open to volunteers of all ages who are willing to give a helping hand and pack a spirit of camaraderie. They welcome volunteers with skills in art, writing, and cooking. This August, they are making a call for donations for digital cameras that they can use for their upcoming Community Frames project in October in Dingalan, Aurora. Visit their website to learn more about their core projects and connect with them on Facebook for information about their latest missions.

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