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Project PEARLS and the Children of Ulingan

She is living a good and comfortable life. She could continue to build a successful and prosperous life in the States, but this generous soul keeps on returning to the Philippines to help and serve the poorest of the poor. She didn’t have to but she felt it was her calling. She and her daughter Francesca founded a small and private outreach program that helps uplift the lives of a slum community located on a garbage dumpsite in Ulingan, Tondo.  Her name is Melissa Villa, a Filipino-American based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Melissa Villa, together with her daughter, Francesca founded Project PEARLS over four years ago but for two and half years now, the focus of their outreach efforts is to help the children of Ulingan have a better life through PEARLS: Peace, Education, Aspiration, Respect, Love, Smiles.  Project PEARLS, a US-based non-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO) doing outreach work in Ulingan, an impoverished slum community in Tondo, Manila, is getting the recognition and support it deserved from all over the world.

 It started with me and my daughter. We just wanted to give out school supplies to the squatter areas where I grew up. Until I was introduced to the children of Ulingan”, says Villa.

Ulingan comes from the word “uling,” which means charcoal.  Ulingan is a small slum community in Tondo, Manila that sits on a dumpsite that is surrounded by charcoal factories that emit toxic smoke.  There is very limited access to electricity, toilets and sanitation.   Children and families have no choice but to live amongst the soot, garbage, mosquitoes, flies and vermin all day and night.  The common meal is “pagpag” – leftover food from fast-food restaurants scavenged from garbage sites.  “Pagpag” means to shake off the dirt and sometimes maggots in the food.

Project PEARLS operates various outreach programs for the children of Ulingan, including a feeding program where it serves a hot and nutritious to over 250 children every Saturday; after the feeding, its volunteers offers tutorial and homework, arts and crafts, singing and dancing through its Brain Booster Program.

This NGO believes that education may be the only the way out of poverty for these children.  In 2010, they built a day care center in Ulingan where 70 nursery and kindergarten scholars attend.  In total, they have over 200 scholars from pre-school to high school.

“I want these children to finish grade school, high school, college.”, Villa comments, “We want to help them make their dreams a reality. Because most of them want to be teachers, lawyers, and doctors. So we want to help them throughout their lives as much as we can.”.

They also run special activities for children on the birthdays.  Their Birthday Program gives the children of Ulingan the chance to celebrate their birthdays, celebrate their lives.  Living in extreme poverty, there are several children who do not celebrate or even remember their own birthdays.

In 2011, Melissa Villa and her Project PEARLS made it to Manila Bulletin’s list of 10 inspiring people of 2011 who made the impossible happen with their faith, talent, and determination.  In January 2012, National Geographic online did a story about Ulingan and how Project PEARLS is trying to help keep children in school, and improve the living conditions in the Ulingan community.  LEGO Foundation in Denmark supports Project PEARLS’ Brain Booster program and has donated several boxes of LEGO toys.  For its humanitarian efforts, Project PEARLS was given recognition as a finalist in the 2012 GawadGeny Lopez Jr. Global Bayaning Pilipino Award.  Project PEARLS have been featured in different documentary shows by TV networks, ABS-CBN and GMA.  “Power ngPinoy”, an award-winning TV program which airs on GMA Pinoy TV,  recently featured the inspiring story of its founder, Melissa Villa.

“Project PEARLS is not a fancy outreach ministry; it is nothing large or grandiose; it doesn’t compete or seek for glory. We just simply want to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and hold the hands of those who hurt.” – as written on their Facebook page.

Juan Villa, Melissa’s brother together with their amazing and dedicated volunteers runs the weekly outreach activities at Ulingan.

“Rain or shine, flood and mud, trash and flies, soot and smoke – nothing can really stop these amazing Project Pearls volunteers from going to Ulingan every Saturday morning. Their unconditional love and genuine compassion for humanity humbles me greatly.” Villa said in her Facebook post.

Melissa Villa, a truly inspiring Filipina, and all the volunteers of Project PEARLS…’Yan ang Power ngPinoy!

(For questions about this article please email Find out more about Project PEARLS and how you can share your time, talent and treasure:

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