18 Things You’ll Learn From Volunteering in the Philippines

Volunteering at an Orphange in the Philippines
Elsa volunteering at an Orphange in the Philippines


This is a guest post from Elsa Thomasma, who fell in love with the Philippines when she volunteered there in 2009 and now lives there fulltime.

18 Things You’ll Learn From Volunteering in the Philippines

International volunteer programs and study abroad programs are much more similar than you may think. Although volunteer programs are focused on giving back, lending a hand to those in need, providing essential resources, and supporting people in the ways they need it most, most volunteers come home utterly astonished at how much they actually learned, about themselves, the world, their passions, during their time abroad.

While you will no doubt spend a great deal of time teaching skills, raising awareness, and sharing your knowledge during your time volunteering in the Philippines, you will also learn a plethora of life lessons that may prove to be more impactful than the act of volunteering itself.

Whether big or small, these life lessons will likely stay with you forever and continue to change the way you live your life at home, regardless of how similar or different your home is from the Philippines.

Elsa and her boyfriend serving food at her community center in the philippines
Elsa and her boyfriend serving food at her community center in the Philippines

So what exactly will you learn by volunteering in the Philippines?

The list below is a collection of lessons you will surely learn by immersing yourself in the Filipino way of life.

1. Being “fat” is not necessarily a bad thing.

Having a “bit of meat on your bones” actually illustrates your ability to properly supply your body with the nutrients it needs to “grow bigger,” which essentially means you have enough money to do so. Therefore, as your weight on the scale increases, so does your perceived wealth. Lets be honest, it takes money to gain weight. And in the Philippines, having money is something to be grateful for, so similarly, being told you have “grown fat” is something to be proud of.

2. When the sun is shining, you aren’t actually required to “take advantage” of it.

After you live in a place that experiences sunshine about 350 days a year, you will come to realize that the sun can actually be a bad thing. Regardless of any Filipino’s obsession with having white skin, you may actually come to love the shade more than the sun after a few weeks in the scorching hot, humid weather of the Philippines. Even more so, when the sun is shining, you may find that taking refuge in an air conditioned building is far more pleasurable than sunbathing (unless of course there is a pool or body of water within arms reach, literally).

3. You don’t always have to be doing “something” – there is an art to doing nothing.

It is possible to spend a whole day doing nothing without ever being bored. In the Philippines, time off is meant to be spent in “off” mode, which means not making any plans, never looking at a clock, and never resisting the urge to stare off into space for an hour or doze off for a few more hours. You may just learn how to enjoy the passing of time before your eyes, instead of cursing lost time or stressing about not having enough time.

Elsa with one of the kids at her community center in a rural village volunteering in the philippines
Elsa with one of the kids at her community center in a rural village in the Philippines

4. It can be snack time, any time.

Just because you finished lunch 20 minutes ago doesn’t mean you have to say no to the delicious deep fried banana being sold outside your house. And, when the clock strikes 3:30 p.m., don’t be surprised if you see office workers flocking to street food vendors, children begging for pocket change, or jeepney drivers stopping for a quick snack. If someone gets even the slightest ping of hunger at almost any moment of the day, don’t be surprised when snack time follows, even for those who never thought they were hungry in the first place.

5. Getting mad, won’t make anything work better or go faster.

Whether you are waiting in line for take out, trying to extend your visa, or navigating the chaotic streets, getting mad won’t make anything easier. Filipinos tend to react to anger with either silence or laughter, which definitely won’t make you any happier either. Instead, you will learn to follow their plan of action, and never take anything too seriously. Oh, and that patience is a real virtue.

6. Just because people ask personal questions, doesn’t mean they are nosy.

Filipinos are most often innocently curious and intrigued by foreigners. Their motive isn’t to pry into your personal life as much as it is to learn why you would want to come to their country and live, in most cases.

7. Fashion doesn’t actually matter.

When you’re popping out in the morning to grab groceries for breakfast, heading to a friends house to spend the afternoon, or going to your placement for the day, comfort and simplicity are more valuable than being “fashionable.” Although Filipinos do value cleanliness greatly, they don’t place so much emphasis on the brand of shoes you are wearing or whether or not your pants match your shirt. Maybe it is the heat constantly drenching their clothes that prevents them from caring about fashion too much or the fact that fake name brand clothing and accessories can be found affordably in any city, or maybe it is just a more realistic understanding of what actually matters in life.

8. Bucket showers are in fact “real showers” and a real way to bath.

After a long day building houses, changing diapers at an orphanage, or teaching 50 students mathematics, you will come to live for that ice cold bucket of water dumped over your head. What may seem like torture during a U.S winter, will be heaven in the tropical climate of the Philippines.

9. There are people who wash all their laundry by hand, and enjoy it.

Though doing laundry at home may be as easy as clicking three buttons, there is actually a manual way to do it that can become quite a relaxing, and almost meditative, weekend activity. Hand washing your laundry is a life skill you aren’t likely to learn at home, but taking the time to learn it while volunteering in the Philippines will make you appreciate what your washer does back at home.

10. Everyone can have an island to themselves for a night.

With over 7,000 islands, and many left uninhabited, it is possible for every volunteer to spend the night camping out on an island. Sleeping under the stars with no sign of human life in sight will make you feel like you are in another world entirely.

Canigao Island volunteering in the philipines
Beautiful Canigao Island in the Philipines

11. It is possible for a motorbike to become a “family vehicle.”

Just because the motorbike’s regulations express it can only hold two people, doesn’t mean it can’t actually hold more. While volunteering in the Philippines you will get more than used to seeing whole families jammed onto one single motorbike. There is even a form of transportation, a habel-habel, that is a motorbike with a seat extension and bamboo roof added to accommodate up to five or six passengers.

12. Respecting your elders, can go a long way.

The amount of respect that children show their elders can be somewhat astonishing to volunteers upon arrival. And the actions of respect you witness will also be reflected in the language, as terms like “Ate,” “Kuya,” “Nanay,” and “Tatay” are all used before the name of someone your senior (Don’t worry you will get the hang of it, and once you do you won’t have to worry about forgetting someone’s name!)

13. Kids don’t need technology to be entertained.

Whether you are walking by a neighborhood basketball court and there are kids bowling with their slippers or you see children at a school racing each other up and down the sidewalk on their snack break, you will surely notice that children in the Philippines have their own way of occupying their time, and staying happy doing it too.

14. Just because it is hot, doesn’t mean you can’t be fully clothed.

Modesty is highly valued in the Philippines, and every volunteer should not only respect this value, they should also follow it even more strictly than the locals. Although “modesty rules” for men may be more lax, female volunteers especially should be mindful of wearing low-cut shirts, short shorts or dresses, or even tank tops. Be mindful of what other people your age are wearing, and try to take their lead when selecting your clothing each day.

15. Consistent access to clean water is a luxury.

At home you may turn on your shower without considering the possibility of no water coming out, dispense cold water from your refrigerator effortlessly, or throw your clothes in the washer, knowing you will have clean clothes in under an hour; but in the Philippines, this is not the case for the majority of people. Therefore, you should be aware of your water consumption, and also expect that sometimes you won’t be able to take that refreshing shower in the afternoon if your neighbor or host mother just finished doing the laundry.

16. Just because you don’t understand their language, doesn’t mean they don’t understand yours.

Many Filipinos will be too shy to speak to you in English, but don’t take that as a sign that they have no idea what you are saying. Filipinos are taught English in elementary school all the way to high school, and all universities and colleges utilize English as the language of instruction. Any child that has finished elementary school, teen who has finished high school, and especially any adult that has finished college, does in fact know English. So when you are riding on public transportation talking loudly about your personal life because you don’t think they know what you are saying, don’t be surprised when they laugh at your joke or you get a few awkward glances.

Happiness is a choice

17. Happiness is not defined by what you have, it is a mindset and a choice.

Some of the poorest people you will meet may be the happiest people in the world, while the rich are often consumed by their “problems.” The truth is, we can’t be happy unless we choose to be, so choose to be happy everyday and you will have a life filled with happiness, regardless of what is in your wallet, or bank account.

18. Life must always go on.

Focusing on the negative aspects of life won’t make them go away or change what has happened, instead Filipinos prefer to get over things quickly and move on. The only way to get over loss in life, challenges, and hardships is to keep your chin up and keep moving forward. Next to nothing can get a Filipino spirit down, Bahala na!


This was a guest post from Elsa Thomasma, originally from a small town in Michigan, US, but her heart has lived in the Philippines ever since she volunteered there in 2009. She now lives in the Philippines full time as an Editor for GoAbroad.com and serves as director of the company’s nonprofit, the GoAbroad Foundation. Elsa devotes each day to helping people see what the world holds beyond the surface, and spends every free moment fundraising and developing community programs in a rural village.

Have you volunteered abroad? What did you learn from the experience? 


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Global Gallivanting June 8, 2015 at 9:25 pm

Elsa Thomasma

Michelle Rommel DeSilva June 9, 2015 at 12:28 pm

Inspiring. You have definitely put your Faith into action.

Laila Uyvico June 10, 2015 at 1:12 am

Nice one Elsa Thomasma, I super love it! <3


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