Athletes for Hope

Volunteering Abroad During COVID

By: Bri Leverenz

No one is truly prepared for a global pandemic, but I can personally testify that as a 22-year-old, alone in a developing country, I was completely ill-equipped to respond. I had brazenly sought out to see a new part of the world, and it never crossed my mind that I would come home from an insightful journey to be in a complete government-mandated shutdown. I sat down to write this post months ago to share my story and to encourage others to start their own. However, I myself did not understand my journey’s conclusion enough to verbalize it. It has now been 5 months since I landed in the United States, which is longer than the length of time I was in the Philippines. Now that I have had the time to process, this is the story I want to tell.

Some necessary background:

The US Department of State created an international leadership mentoring program called the GSMP, and it was through graduates of this program that my dream came to life for a learn-to-swim program in the Philippines. Dr. Ashleigh Huffman helped me craft the initial idea for the trip and instilled in me the confidence to undertake such a project. Geraldine Bernardo was my Filipina wonder woman who gave me all the connections I needed to make the trip feasible. These two strong women gave me the power to dream, the resources to make it possible, and modeled the leader I aspire to be.

Now the story:

Do you remember where you were when the world went on lock-down due to COVID-19? I was in Cebu City in one of the only handicap accessible pools in the Philippines. I had intended to host a one day swim clinic with a group of individuals with various disabilities. For this particular event, I was fortunate enough to get to work with another graduate of the GSMP, JP Maunes. JP approached me with the desire to teach swimming to people in his community living with disabilities. In return he would teach me to paddle a dragon boat. On March 11th, I spent the morning on a dragon boat, the afternoon in a pool, and the evening worrying about how to get back to the United States. The timeline for the virus seemed to be in hyper speed in my life.

Halfway through my clinic, President Duterte’s office announced that they would be shutting down all transit in and out of Manila, the major international airport, in 72 hours. My mother spent days, literally, on hold and I sat vainly in the airport for hours trying to get a flight out. I even called the US Embassy to notify them of my predicament and see if they could assist. Never did I imagine that I would be attempting to figure out a way to get back to my home country during a global pandemic.

Meanwhile, my Facebook was blowing up with an outpouring of support from every Filipino I had met in the past few months. They were offering me their homes to shelter in or any assistance I could need. Even in the face of their cities going on lockdown everyone was kind enough to think of me. That support embodied the essence of the Filipino hospitality I had been graced with for months and that I felt sad to be leaving behind.

Finally, on March 19th just one day before the Cebu airport shutdown, I boarded a plane to Hong Kong that would connect me to San Francisco. Watching the sunset over the Filipino ocean as I flew out, I cried from relief, exhaustion, and sadness. Emotions that seemed so powerful at the time, now seem so distant behind the closed doors of the home I hardly leave.

The Philippines both welcomed me and sent me off with open arms. (Literally… a total stranger took me to the airport because she wanted to know I would make it out safely among the chaos.) Every chapter of my trip was distinguished by a different kindhearted host and a dazzling Filipino landscape.

From January 8th to March 19th, I slept in 22 beds, hosted clinics in 18 cities, swam and taught swimming in over 50 bodies of water, and gained unimaginable insights about myself. People like Noli Ayo, JP Maunes, and Dina Bernardo gave me the gift of understanding a new culture, a platform to tell my story, and the ability to engage with thousands of young athletes and coaches.

While I am safely back in the cocoon of my shelter-in-place restrictions, my mind often wanders back to my days in the Philippines. I think back to one tiny child named Jacob, who clutched my arms as he put his face under water for the first time; or to the young homeless kids in General Santos who splash in the edge of the ocean to clean off after spending a night on a cot in the market; or to the dozens of families who shared their food with me and taught me their language. While my trip did not have the ending I intended, the collection of all of my experiences was undeniably impactful. I can empathize with a population of people that I didn’t even know at the beginning of the year.

COVID has turned our focus away from sport, but I hope that my experience serves as a reminder for the hope and joy that comes with the athletic experience. I am grateful to partner with Athletes for Hope in their mission to educate, encourage and assist athletes in their efforts to contribute to communities, both inside the US and globally. I hope my story inspires others to do the same and utilize their platform.

Some folks I would like to acknowledge for making this possible:

All of those who donated to Athletes for Hope in my name, thank you.

Geraldine Bernardo, a former national athlete and now a sports entrepreneur and champion for female athletes, gave me a warm welcome to the country. Geraldine, or “Dina,” made this opportunity possible because she has a heart to learn and share. She taught me to keep an open-mind and welcome the vast opportunities the country would give me.

Noli Ayo, a sports coordinator and visionary, guided me through my first several weeks in the Philippines. It was through him that I got to work with the Mindanao Peace Games, a group that aims to create platforms in sports to empower women to be inspirational and transformational leaders in initiating better and peaceful communities. It was a group of kindred spirits who understood the gift that sport could bring to a community.

JP Maunes and the Philippine Accessible Disability Services Inc. (PADs). My time with PADs was a truly humbling and joyful sendoff. PADs is a unique organization that gives all individuals, regardless of physical ability, the opportunity to compete at an elite level in dragon boat racing. JP and his athletes empowered me through their strength in the face of adversity. They also further solidified my belief in sport as a means for positive change, both personally and community wide.