Tondo Community Initiative (TCI): A summary of 2020

Nicky Wilkinson
Firetree Philanthropy
13 min readFeb 26, 2021


What an awful year 2020 was. No words I can think of can capture it.

This blog is to openly and briefly share what we, as Firetree, did in the awful madness that was 2020.

First, just a brief structural reminder that Firetree is a slightly unusual organisation in that we operate as a group structure under the Firetree Trust. Our ‘group’ encompasses:

Tondo Community Initiative (TCI), a collaborative initiative in Tondo, Manila working with our long-time partners Stairway Foundation, with support by Starfish Education and a number of community organisations. TCI is a Filipino non-profit that is currently fully funded by Firetree Philanthropy. You can read how TCI fits with Firetree Philanthropy’s work here.

Firetree Philanthropy, which funds people, grassroots organisations and networks that are building more inclusive, equitable and just futures in the communities in which we collectively work. You can read more about our partners here. We are a small team with one dedicated staff member on this, working part-time.

Starfish Education is an integral part of Firetree’s DNA, being the program most directly connected with the work of Dick Haugland. Starfish’s mission is to provide all children in Thailand with an equal opportunity to access quality education through innovative learning programs and technological solutions that seeks to fill public education gaps through public and private collaboration. Starfish is not directly funded by Firetree Philanthropy as it has a dedicated endowment within the Firetree Trust. You can read more about how Starfish and Firetree are related here.

This blog shares some of what TCI did over 2020 and comes from reflections written by the TCI team.

TCI is located in barangay 128 in Tondo, Manila (a barangay is the smallest administrative division in the Philippines.)

Barangay 128 is also known as “Smokey Mountain” from the infamous garbage dump that used to occupy the largest part of this area.

TCI’s mission is to support and enable communities in Tondo to access rights and opportunities equal to those available in other communities in Metro Manila.

TCI partners with the community, local governments, schools, training centers, health institutions, government agencies, civil society organizations, and private employers to directly facilitate access to existing public services, education and employment opportunities, while developing long-term viable solutions that improve its overall accessibility for all.

TCI designs and implements — directly and through members of the community — programs to address current gaps in the services and opportunities available to our communities.

The facilities TCI manages must be accessible by all children and youth of barangay 128 who need educational support and skills to find and secure regular jobs. This is because education is now widely available but it needs supplementing — with tutorials, remedial classes — and youth from our community need additional soft skills to compete with their peers in accessing quality jobs beyond Tondo.

TCI can offer facilities such as a large computer room and free internet access that has become fundamental for children and youth during 2020 and will undoubtedly remain so in the future. TCI aims to offer such services to the largest possible number of users since the need is great.

In terms of livelihood programs, TCI is now focusing on cooperating with employment and training organizations that can offer viable (and better paying) formal jobs to youth from Barangay 128, Tondo, since lack of access to formal employment is a critical social issue in this community. Our building facilities allow TCI to cooperate with various organizations to host online trainings as well as in-person training and employment programs — strictly under TCI’s direct management, enhancing our ability to run successful livelihood programs.

To show its commitment to TCI’s long-term mission, in late 2019 and early 2020 Firetree Philanthropy invested over 9.5 Million Pesos (over US$195,000) to strengthen the structural aspects of the centre (reinforcing the entire steel structure and eliminating rusted areas), completely revamp the electrical systems and greatly improve fire safety, water and sanitation facilities and waterproofing.

As TCI opened its gates after the repairs, a large number of children and youth (over 450) immediately started participating in its programs, which came to an abrupt end in March 2020, due to the pandemic.

Year 2020 was a challenging year for almost everyone, especially for the most vulnerable members of TCI’s community. The year was characterised by emergencies and crises, but it also highlighted the bayanihan spirit (community spirit) within the communities and those who work with and for them. Tondo Community Initiative has been involved in several key program during the pandemic, some of which were part of the original plan for the year, while most were added or modified to respond more effectively to the needs of the community as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the community quarantine.

As it fulfils its role of community centric organization, TCI is making our best endeavors to employ members of the community of Barangay 128, Tondo. To this effect, it employs 4 staff who live in barangay 128 and work at all levels of the organization, from senior management (Finance Director) to program officers (educators, trainers) and support staff). Additionally, one of its six trustees, Sister Winnie Valencia, is a child of Barangay 128 who was born and grew up on Smokey Mountain and whose family still resides in Barangay 128 (Permanent Housing).

TCI key program areas for 2020 can be classified into the following:

  1. Disaster and Fire Response
  2. COVID-19 Response
  3. Educational Programs
  4. Livelihood Programs
  5. Direct Services
  6. Networking Building

Disaster and Fire Response

Typhoon Response (Rolly/Ulysses)

Nov 1 -2 2020 (Rolly)

Nov 11–13 2020 (Ulysses)

Several areas within Barangay 128, Tondo are vulnerable to flooding and landslides during typhoons. Their houses are not built to withstand these conditions and pose serious safety risks, especially to those with younger and aged family members.

To protect families in these areas, TCI supported Barangay 128 and Manila Department of Welfare and Social Development (DSWD) and opened its centre to become an official evacuation centre and accommodate evacuees from the typhoons Rolly and Ulysses.

Together with the DSWD and Barangay 128, TCI was able to provide sleeping areas, tents, food, water, and other basic necessities to evacuees. TCI was also able to provide urgent medical care through an in-centre clinic.

At the peak of Typhoon Rolly, TCI hosted 73 families composed of 327 individuals evacuating from various areas. Two weeks later, at the peak of Typhoon Ulysses, TCI hosted 161 families composed of 694 individuals mostly from Upper Smokey Mountain and the bridges.

Because of its stable structure and flood-free location, TCI’s building served as a back-up evacuation center and helped augment the disaster relief efforts of the barangay. As a result, vulnerable families were able to safely weather the typhoon and rebuild soon after — in the aftermath of these typhoons, TCI’s social workers visited the affected families to assess and offer immediate assistance to rebuilding families whose homes were in critical condition.

Build Forward (Outreach)

April 2020 — October 2020

Over a thousand families residing in nearby Barangay 105 lost their homes in a fire on April 18, 2020, making them more vulnerable to greater poverty and risking contracting COVID-19 at evacuation centres.

To augment city local government relief efforts, TCI launched ‘Build Forward,’ a program assisting afflicted families in rebuilding their homes while building relationships and participation within the community.

TCI provided affected families with access to credit in the form of housing materials. Families identified as the most vulnerable through assessment formed cells, which are groups composed of maximum six families tasked with helping each other rebuild their homes. The loan is repaid when all cell members are able to complete their houses.

46 families composed of 233 members were able to rebuild their homes through the program.

The families shared that the project provided them with the opportunity to discover harmonious ways of working together and build trust and respect for one another. Today, the 46 families are safely living in the houses they built.

COVID-19 Response

April 2020 — Sep 2020

In 2020, the Philippines had one of the longest and strictest lockdowns in the world and became Southeast Asia’s worst affected country from Covid-19. The lockdown caused many working individuals in Tondo to lose sources of income without enough time and resources to transition to other sources sufficient for supporting their families. This created scarcity in food distribution within the community and posed infection risks for those leaving their homes to buy food.

While quarantine restrictions have eased recently, some community members are still unable to find stable sources of income, causing difficulties in accessing food and medical needs.

In response to these effects of the quarantine on community members, TCI provided immediate support so that families can progress towards stabilizing their living conditions and survive through the quarantine.

TCI distributed essential goods such as food packs, hygiene kits, and water to families in barangay 128 and 105.

TCI distributed 24,772 food packs composed by an average of 3–5Kg of rice (for a total of 73,000 Kg), over 1.1 of sardines (for a total of 29,567 Kg), micronutrients and ready to use food supplements, milk, coffee, and noodles (donations from the local Parish and from our food suppliers) to 8,827 families from Barangay 128 and 4,600 families from Barangay. 105.

All distributions — both door to door in the community and at TCI Building — were facilitated by SK volunteers and planned directly with community leaders to ensure coordination with Barangay and city local government units.

Educational Programs

Drop-in Centre

January — March 2020

The drop-in centre provided a safe space for children where they can play, learn, and interact with peers. It also served as a space where they can practice proper hygiene, get rest, and eat nutritious meals.

Children ages 5 and above came to the centre for prepared activities and interacted with their peers with the facilitation of staff.

Activities in the centre included indoor games, outdoor games, sports, music and movement. Children were also able to access a library where they can read, write, study, or make art.

Over the course of the three-month operation of the drop-in centre, pre-pandemic, a total of 455 children ages 5–15 years old attended the drop-in centre activities. Of the 455, 51 children (21 boys and 30 girls) attended regularly (an average of 3x per week).

Continuous Learning during Community Quarantine (Children)

May 2020: Home-based learning activities
June — July 2020: Small group learning sessions

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced schools and the government imposed a 24-hour quarantine on children and youth (below 21 years old). As a result, they have been staying home since March and have limited access to learning opportunities.

The program has two phases: home-based learning (phase 1) and small group learning sessions (phase 2).

Phase 1 was implemented while the country was placed under Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ). The children and their parents were given learning kits that contained a drawing book, writing and colouring materials, and activity plans that focused on proper hygiene and freehand/structured composition. Each activity plan came with a feedback/evaluation form where the parents can check what competencies the children were able to or not yet able to develop in the activities.

A group chat on Facebook Messenger was set up in case they have any questions, or would like to share their children’s outputs. A “dropbox” system for sending in evaluation and feedback questions was set-up in order to continuously get feedback from the parents with minimal to no contact involved.

When the country shifted to General Community Quarantine, where gatherings of up to 10 individuals were allowed, phase 2 of the program was implemented. Phase 2 provided children with learning opportunities through discussions on COVID-19, arts and crafts, and children sharing their experiences. The small group learning sessions followed health protocols such as temperature reading, hand sanitizing, and physical distancing.

  • 87 children (57 boys and 30 girls) aged 3–12 years old from Building. 20 received home-based learning packets.
  • 66 children (33 boys and 33 girls) aged 5–12 years old from Building. 20 attended small group learning sessions.
  • 98 children (51 boys and 47 girls) aged 3–12 years old from Building 16 received home-based learning packets.

Continuous Learning during Community Quarantine (Youth)

June — September 2020

With community members being quarantined in their respective homes and TCI facilities being closed, there was an opportunity to provide distance learning opportunities to youth community members.

The program aimed to develop reading comprehension and writing skills among youth aged 13–22 residing in Barangay 128 and 105 from their homes.

156 youth (57 male, 99 female) aged 13–22 years old from Baragay.128 and 25 youth (14 male and 11 female) aged 13–22 years old from Baragay 105 participated in the program.

Livelihood Programs

October 2019 — present

Tondo youth face challenges with securing employment opportunities, ranging from lack of work experience to external circumstances such as unstable living conditions amongst epidemics and fires.

TCI partnered with Messy Bessy (who are also funded through Firetree Philanthropy) to provide accessible employment training opportunities to Tondo youth and boost their competitiveness. Messy Bessy is a social enterprise that works alongside its sister non-profit, HOUSE (Helping Ourselves through Sustainable Enterprises) Foundation, a Filipino organization dedicated to providing at-risk or marginalized youth with work training, values formation classes, and self-sustained education.

TCI nominates and refers youth from Barangay. 128 and 105 to Messy Bessy’s program and directly operates a Messy Bessy’s satellite office inside TCI, while travel restrictions and challenges continue, so that youth can be employed and receive a much needed salary. Through this program, 11 youth members from the community have been employed by Messy Bessy and have been continuously earning incom.

TCI also partners with Homer Foundation, Makati — Magsaysay Center for Hospitality and Culinary Arts, Inc (MIHCA) and COSTA to provide youth from Barangay. 128 and 105 access to opportunities to develop employable skills.

Through the program, youth participants gain access to full or partial scholarships to training schools where they can develop vocational skills such as culinary arts, food and beverage, and housekeeping.

So participants can focus on their training, TCI also provides meals, transportation, and lodging to the participants. 16 youth from Tondo have successfully participated in vocational skills training.

Direct Services

Birth certificates processing

Jan 2020 — present

Public services such as hospitalization and schooling require legitimate identification documents to be accessed. However, many children in Tondo are not registered with the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) or with the local civil registrar due to several reasons: families giving birth at home, lack of awareness about processes and the importance of identification, the inability of the attending “hilot” to process birth certificates — among others. This prevents them from accessing such public services and benefitting from available government programs. To respond to this need, TCI launched a direct service assisting families in securing birth certificates.

TCI assisted families from Barangay. 128 and Barangay. 105 in processing their birth certificates by educating them about the importance and process of securing identification documents, as well as providing end-to-end assistance in securing birth certificates from the proper authorities.

To date, TCI has disseminated information about the importance of and processes around securing birth certificates to 180 families. TCI has also directly assisted in processing 233 birth certificates, of which 87 have already been successfully released.

By helping families secure birth certificates, children have been able to exercise their right to acquire their names and nationality and enjoy public services. They have been able to comply with requirements for formal schooling or Alternative Learning System (ALS), and have been able to acquire tablets for online learning. Members of the local and national Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) Pantawid Program were also able to comply with the requirements by submitting birth certificates.

Case management

January 6, 2020 — Present

TCI provides case management services to children and families with special cases who need multifaceted interventions. These families can be going through complex biological, psychological, social, economic, or spiritual difficulties that affect the safety of their children.

TCI provides a collaborative space for its client families to receive support, geared towards building the family’s capacity to achieve their desired goals and ensure their well-being.

In Barangay. 128, TCI managed cases of 35 families composed of 136 individuals, of which 7 were successfully closed. In Barangay. 105, TCI managed cases of nine families composed of 42 individuals, of which four were successfully closed.

Enrolment support

September 2020 — November 2020

The pandemic has compelled families and children to adapt new ways of learning, however many are still left unequipped to adjust for several reasons — prioritizing generating income over continuing school, lack of familiarity with the new enrolment process, lack of educational resources to cope with distance learning, among others.

To help ensure continuous learning during the pandemic, TCI surveyed 200 children in Barangay. 128 and 105 to understand what roadblocks they are facing in the new mode of schooling and provide various forms of assistance to help them cope, including facilitating online enrolment.

Of these 200 children, 23 were found to be unenrolled at the time of assessment for various reasons, ranging from complex socioeconomic or health problems to difficulties with enrolment. Nine of these wished to enrol this school year but decided to skip the year because of challenges with completing the enrolment process.

TCI facilitated the enrolment of the nine children, both online and offline through home visitations, completion of requirements, coaching, and coordination with school authorities.


Tondo Children Protection Network

Tondo is saturated by non-government organizations working for children and communities. However most of these are focused on educational sponsorship and health services.

While education and health services are important in this community, it is also equally important to look into the situation of children that are abused and exploited. Current approaches to child protection in Tondo are fragmented and largely uncoordinated. As a result they often fail very large numbers of children.

One immediate task is to identify and address gaps in child protection continuously and link children to various and appropriate actors — both within TCI and within the larger Tondo community.

With this in mind, TCI began building a Tondo Children Protection Network that aims to:

  • enable local organizations to conduct child protection advocacy activities among the general public, government and non-government organizations, and other relevant local stakeholders;
  • raise awareness among NGOs (working in the buildings and through the One Tondo network) and Barangay/building officers on child protection.

TCI was able to provide Basic Child Protection Training to 9 organizations and volunteer groups.

TCI has also begun initial coordination and discussion on child protection with Barangay 128 kagawads (councillors) and the Permanent Housing building president. To more seamlessly respond to women and children protection needs, TCI has closely coordinated and partnered with the Barangay, the Women and Children Protection Desk of the Philippine National Police, and the Local Social Welfare office.