Feature – ‘Project Smile’: On the Power of the Youth

by Jeremy Alvarez

Sam Tamayo – Photo provided by Project Smile

History is filled with youth movements that have sparked change in the world. From the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, to the events at Tiananmen Square, to the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, to modern movements started by students like Joshua Wong in Hong Kong and Greta Thunberg in Sweden. In the Philippines, I get on a Zoom call with Sabrina Tamayo, another young person doing her part to fight for a better world.

Sabrina, Sam for short, found a desire to serve her people when attending the University of the Philippines. The University of the Philippines is known to raise socially aware and socially involved students. Once she was able to afford it, Sam decided she wanted to give back to the Filipino people who paid for her education. She started by giving away food packets on the streets, until one Christmas, when she and some friends decided to organize a Christmas Party at a local home for the elderly.

“During this party,” she says, “I saw the smiles and emotions from the lolos and lolas (Filipino for grandparents, but also used as an endearing term for the elderly). Some were crying. And I thought that if something simple like this can make an impact, maybe I could set up a non-profit.”

Sam looked at the world around her, at the marginalized and the overlooked, and thought that this is where change needs to happen. She started Project Smile, a youth-led, non-profit whose, mission statement reads “to uplift the lives of neglected and underprivileged Filipinos – one act of kindness at a time”. While the mission is written in vague terms, the group has done indisputable work that has garnered some attention and recognition from the international community.” The team aims to create sustainable solutions that will provide marginalized people with the ability to survive and thrive, rather than rely on charitable handouts, their two biggest campaigns being the #PeopleWith campaign and the Accessible Assistance Alliance.

The #PeopleWith campaign aimed to erase the stigma and discrimination of people with disabilities (PWD). From this campaign they were able to highlight stories of PWDs to remind others that their value as humans does not diminish because of their disabilities. Stemming from this campaign, Project Smile was able to launch the first tricycle that is run and managed by PWDs, which provides PWDs with income that would otherwise be difficult for them to acquire.

The second campaign, the Accessible Assistance Alliance, provides counselling and therapy services to financially challenged families of children with disabilities. The goal is to help prepare the children and families with the tools needed to cope and function in the outside world.

While the organization has faced challenges of establishing its credibility and finding financing to run these programs, Sam is proud of the work that her youth-led group has accomplished. What started out as an idea she pitched to friends has grown into a functioning NGO with a whole team that has made an impact in people’s lives.

“When the youth come together, these are the things we can create,” Sam says. “We can take our space, with action.” While she’s happy with what she’s accomplished, there is still more that she thinks they can accomplish. In the long-term, she hopes that the programs her team runs will provide opportunities to equip people to sustain themselves rather than rely on one-time charitable donations. “We can’t have the I’m-here-to-change-the-world-and-save-you mentality. Marginalized people aren’t voiceless, they just don’t have the platform,” she states. She hopes that, even after she moves on, that Project Smile will continue to empower the youth to empower the marginalized.

If you’re reading this and want to get involved in your community but don’t know where to start, Sam has some advice for you:

  1. Know your why. You need to know the reason why you’re doing what you’re doing. You will get challenged and disheartened, you need to know your why to keep you going
  2. Immerse yourself in the community. You can’t come up with sustainable solutions if you don’t properly understand them.
  3. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Risk is an opportunity to grow, so don’t be afraid.
  4. Partner with people. Whether that be friends, family or mentors, building a community of people to learn and work with makes the work more meaningful. The community will also lift you up when you get knocked down.
  5. Don’t be afraid to start small. Every movement that made a big impact started small.

ACTIVATING A GENERATION