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Built out of recycled 40-foot shipping containers, Jane Walker's school will house more than 1,000 children.
Photo caption: Children are silhouetted as they fly kites made of plastic and twigs collected from garbage at a slum area in Manila Feb. 23, 2010. (Cheryl Ravelo/Reuters)
MANILA, Philippines — Jane Walker did not have an easy life growing up in Southampton, England.
Shuttled back and forth between the homes of her divorced parents her family was, she says, "dysfunctional," requiring repeated visits by social workers to monitor her and her sister Angie’s well-being.
"Both my sister and I felt completely powerless as children. It was really very traumatic," Walker said.
So in 1996 after visiting one of the world’s worst slums — Manila's Smokey Mountain garbage dump — Walker decided to help the poorest of the poor by building a school here.
“I’d read about the poverty in the Philippines and then I went to Smokey Mountain. I’d never seen anything like it in my life — it was a shock," Walker said. "I saw all these children working in the dump site, and they were completely powerless to change their situation. That’s exactly how I felt as a child.”
Smokey Mountain has long been a visible reminder of the poverty suffered by nearly half of the country’s 92 million people. It's also a source of embarrassment for the city's 12 million inhabitants, about half of whom live in slums.
The place got its name from the constant smoke billowing from the 20-meter-high mound of toxic garbage, decomposing waste and refuse fires.
The dump was officially closed in 1990 and several government housing projects were built here, cramming some 30,000 people into nearby tower blocks.
The government’s plan was to remove the waste and convert the area into residential housing for the poor. But the money soon ran out, and the project was never completed.
Now, just across the street from the old Smokey Mountain dumpsite, a large portion of land remains a permanent open dump. Legions of children and their parents sift through Manila’s daily rubbish looking for anything usable to resell — with hopes of earning just enough money to eat for the day.
Walker’s vision for educating these children grew from here. The former publishing executive gave up her comfortable lifestyle to set up the Philippine Community Foundation, a British charity that provides education, health care, food and skills training to the families living in Smokey Mountain and other Manila slums.
Dividing her time between the U.K. and Manila, Walker in 2002 established a school in the Smokey Mountain area, as well as feeding programs and livelihood projects.
But her most ambitious plan is about to be realized with what she calls the world’s largest, fully equipped “container school.”