Friday, August 19, 2011

Making Waves in New York to Help Out Filipino Kids!

Below is an article written by eKindling on the website - a feature on my favorite cousin and wonderwoman, Ayesha! I am reposting this for all of you to read. Be inspired! 

From Investment Banking to Community Co-Investment with Ayesha Vera Yu of Advancement For Rural Kids
Investment banker turned social entrepreneur Ayesha Vera Yu is changing the lives of Children across the Philippines

Ayesha Vera Yu makes things happen! As CEO and Co-Founder of Advancement for Rural Kids (ARK), Ayesha has been intimately involved in developing the vision, implementing the mission, and ensuring that the organization makes a real impact. Prior to ARK, Ayesha “sold her soul” and “worked like a dog” in investment banking for 12 years as a Director at the largest French Bank, BNP Paribas. In 2006, Ayesha invested in restructuring the family farm into an organic and integrated one – where carabaos, chickens, ducks, and goats live happily with rice and vegetables. Ayesha studied biology and chemistry at Mount Holyoke College and received her MBA from Columbia University. She lives in NYC, and you can reach her at

My cousin, Ayesha, with first-grade kids of Sibariwan, Capiz. 

You co-founded a non-profit called Advancement for Rural Kids, can you tell us about it?

Advancement for Rural Kids partners with communities to improve primary education and health of children in rural areas in developing countries, starting in the Philippines.

In addition to the local communities, ARK collaborates and partners with volunteer professionals, students, schools and universities to develop innovative solutions that will keep kids in school, in better health and armed with the critical tools to access opportunities that would lead to a future devoid of poverty.

ARK’s programs are school-based, community-managed, financially sustainable at the local level and results-oriented and include:

Keystone feeding program - ($15/kid/year) for a nutritious lunch of protein and vegetables
Provisioning of school supplies - ($5/kid/year), for donated books and computers
High school scholarships - ($50/kid/year) for school fees, uniform, supplies, and much needed tutoring
Infrastructure projects like rain water catchments, school houses etc.
For-profit projects for the community (currently in development)
We have grown exponentially since we founded ARK in December 2008. Now, ARK sponsors over 1,260 students and partners with over 700 parents and teachers in four villages in Dumarao, Capiz.

What was the inspiration for ARK ?

In January 2008, I visited my family’s farm in the village of Sibariwan in Dumarao, Capiz. The first grade teacher in the local school, which was 15 minutes away from our farm, heard that I was in the village. Breaking away from Pilipino tradition (especially in the provinces), the teacher was so persistent in her visits and invitation, and would not let me leave the village without meeting her students. When I walked in her classroom, over 50 kids ranging in age from 4 to 11 were excitedly shouted in unison “good morning maam”. I saw 3-4 kids huddled around each textbook that was literally in tatters. I saw a gaping hole taking up almost a third of the ceiling and found out that if it rained, class is suspended and that kids get sick. I saw students holding pencils that are 2 inches long and learned that teachers come out of pocket for students’ school supplies and test papers as students barely come to school with food, much less supplies. Given the teacher’s initiative, the beaming kids, despite the shocking conditions, I could not leave without trying to help. So I took whatever cash I had, $300 or so, and handed it over to the teacher to get the roof fixed and the kids some school supplies.

I went back to NYC and told Jerry Topitzer, my co-founder, about my experience and showed him pictures of the school and the kids. A month later, Jerry and I heard back from the teacher. She happily reported that the roof was fixed in about two weeks. Because the parents banded together and volunteered to fix the roof for free, there was excess money to buy school supplies for the 1st, 2nd and 3rd graders, accounting for 2/3rd of the school population!

While the finance sector was getting enveloped by doom and gloom in 2008, we were presented with a teacher who went out of her way to find a solution to what she knew to be a problem; a group of parents that would work together for the betterment of the whole; and a model for co-investment. At this point, we could not just sit idle and do nothing!

In December 2008, Jerry and I went back to Sibariwan, this time with some more donated funds, books and two computers - and despite only 1 day’s notice, were welcomed by over 400 parents, teachers and students in the pouring rain. It was during this visit that we saw intimately that people have ideas and understand (much better than us) ways to solve the challenges that face them. Donated books and computers, and locally purchased school supplies, were not going to make a dent in improving education if the kids are hungry. Our meetings with the community – and listening to the parents, teachers and community leaders led to an idea to try to solve what was clearly one of the biggest issues: malnutrition. With the donated funds we decided to pilot what would later become our keystone feeding program, which we launched in January 2009. This important initiative has proven to get kids back to school, fight malnutrition and spur weight gain, while providing additional income to the local community.

What inspires you to do the work that you do?


Seeing kids excitedly pouring over books and selecting them over toys as prizes on our student workshops…

Seeing student attendance levels go from 70% to 90% within a week, and seeing students gain, on average, 10 lbs within 3 months of implementing the feeding program…

Learning that ARK scholars like 15 year old Jurel Evangelista would wake up at 5am to get ready and prepare his lunch by himself while the rest of the household slumbers, walk to school for an hour and get to school by 7am on time for class every day! He, like the rest of the 49 scholars, are committed to finishing 4 years of high school, are getting better grades than they got previously, and are excited to be a step closer to their dreams…

These positive, tangible and measurable results excite and inspire me.

Who or what have had the biggest influences in your life as a changemaker?

My mom is the ultimate change maker. I have idolized her for as long as I can remember. To discuss how she influenced me would be another interview altogether.

What's one of the failures/challenges you experienced in your changemaking career? And how did you overcome it?

The first challenge has been trying to communicate, coordinate, and continue to keep everything on track in the Philippines from over 8000 miles away in New York. We have been able to overcome that with the continued commitment of the teachers who call us at least twice a month and email the required reporting. Typhoons, patchy cell service, and language barriers all present challenges. Cultural differences are also not to be underestimated – living in a fast paced urban area like New York, one has to adjust expectations with regard to the pace of life in the rural provinces. Lastly, everyone in the community has different perspectives and often some members may not be used to ARK’s methods of community development. For any program, we look for community contribution or counterpart. We also audit to ensure effectiveness and to account for every expense. Not all parents and teachers are used to being accountable for every peso that is distributed to the school. Expenses that are not supported by receipts have to paid by the program members, team leader and school head. This rigor requires training and consistent reinforcement but it is so critical for us to demonstrate our effectiveness and differentiate ourselves as an organization.

How can those reading now get involved in ARK and why do you think it's important to get involved in giving back to the Philippines?

Like us on Facebook at Visit and support us on Email us your ideas and wishes at

For Filipinos, it’s not a question of why it’s important to give back in the Philippines. Filipinos all over the world already do this! We send money, clothing, balikbayan boxes packed with chocolates and spam all the time. Repatriations prop up and fuel the Philippine economy right now.

The more appropriate questions when we give back - whether it’s family or a nonprofit organization are: Can you trace your dollar? Is the program sustainable, and the results immediate and long lasting? Do you want to just hand out money, or do you want to co-invest with a community or a parent who is doing something effective to get themselves out of poverty?

~~~ o ~~~

A Feeding Program at one of the ARK-partner schools in Capiz.

Packing children's books donated by the good people of New York! 

Advancement for Rural Kids (ARK)
- improving primary education for rural communities in developing countries

My cousin is an amazing woman. I cannot even begin to imagine how she does it. Imagine being on top of the corporate ladder and giving all that up to help kids in her homeland. She lives in New York and yet, her heart is with the Philippines. 

If you're willing to help out or are interested in finding out how you can be a part of ARK, like their Facebook page here or visit their webpage at

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