A school for Manila's slums

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.”

Built out of stacked and recycled 40-foot shipping containers, the school will house more than 1,000 children when it opens in June.

“It would have been a lot cheaper to build if we hadn’t had to go so deep through the mountain of garbage to lay the foundation.” Walker said.

The school is air-conditioned, with wireless internet throughout. It has a library, computer room and art room. There is even a roof deck that will be used as a recreation area. To build the school Walker enlisted the pro bono aid of engineers and architects. The Philippine government gave her the land. The 78 shipping containers were all donated.

“The thing that makes it ground breaking is that it is stacked four stories high," Walker explains of the new structure.

Walker is also trying to support the families of her students. She has set up a recycling center where many of the children’s parents work, making bags and jewelry out of garbage that are sold at posh stores in London.

The workers are paid more than they could ever earn from picking through the garbage heap, Walker says, and in proper working conditions that meet international standards.

Walker aims to have the proceeds from the recycling center pay for about half of the Philippine Community Fund’s charity work within five years. The rest of the funding comes from private donations, grants, individuals who sponsor children and fund-raising events.

Walker has many other plans to help the poor in Manila, including sanitation and more livelihood projects.

But for now she will focus on the opening of her container school and, as she puts it, “giving back the kids their childhood.”