by Rowena Villareal

My name is Rowena Villareal. I am a Filipina mental health advocate, volunteer teacher, and now the founder of Backpack of Life charity which promotes quality education for the underserved areas of the Philippines in partnership with different public schools.

In 2010, I was raped and then diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I tried to commit suicide and engaged in self-harming behaviors. In 2016, I lost my job due to severe anxiety attacks and was almost put in a shelter for abused women. While the paperwork was being processed for my admission into the shelter, I decided to pack my things and traveled to Binangonan Province in Rizal, Philippines to unwind.

As I was wandering around the province, I passed by a slum area. When I saw the residents’ poor living conditions, I offered to help them by giving free education to the parents. This short vacation led me to envision a charity where the participants gradually increased from grandparents to parents to kids.  I found out that children who go to public school are not proficient in reading and writing. I also learned why crime rates are high in slum areas, and in 2017 when the crime rates affected my community, I started to become active publicly to promote quality education to prevent the poor from doing illegal things.

Along the way, my faith has been tested. I acquired an immune system shock while promoting the charity, and had to rest for several months.  When I went back to the slum area months later, I proposed the Backpack for Life projects to Libis Elementary School where children attend regularly, and I committed to help them improve the quality of education for the kids. Backpack of Life is now working with different

companies to reach out to the poor. Kids in public school in the slum areas are now learning to read and write well. We provide training for teachers so they can properly handle the large volume of kids inside the classroom. We also provide training to parents so they can help to mold their kids’ behavior at home, and we also help provide families with their basic needs to lessen their work loads.

Backpack of Life strongly believes that every child has the right to have access to quality education and every poor family deserves a chance to have a better life.  Aside from my charity, I am also active in promoting mental health awareness for women of domestic violence. I advocate for the importance of strong government support systems for mental health sufferers, especially because of the increase in physical and sexual abuse towards women in the slum areas of the Philippines due to the drug wars.  I want to highlight that the death penalty for criminals will not make us victims smile right away because many people are not aware of the psychological effect crimes have on victims. Our treatment is expensive, and so if this tragedy happens to women in slum areas they won’t be able to afford the treatment.  Rather, they will be sent to public hospitals with fewer facilities resulting in more psychological complications. If we can strongly increase awareness to society about what mental illness is, the government will then provide more facilities and quality programs to support the sufferers. I am currently active in preparing my proposal to the senate congress to speak for the rights of every woman of domestic violence.

If I’m helping to teach the children, or teaching the parents, or sharing my story and teaching the people in government how to help PTSD survivors, this is the mission of Backpack of Life: to give a better life to people through quality education. The term “Backpack of Life” was derived from my backpack I loaded with school supplies in the early days of my volunteering. That which is inside the backpack will give everyone a better life through quality education.

What is needed is greater humanity through education.