In 2008, Melissa Villa and her daughter, Francesca, started a humble project of helping Melissa’s deaf and mute childhood friend, Luz and her two young daughters. Two years later, Melissa was introduced to the community of Ulingan by Manila-based Belgian photo journalist, Sidney Snoeck, through his photos posted online. The powerful effect of the photos defied physical and territorial boundaries. Upon seeing pictures of children covered in black soot and dirt, Melissa was so touched and she knew that she had to do something for those children. Together with Francesca and her husband, Clif, established Project PEARLS in California as a 501c3 non-profit organization.
In August 2010, under the leadership of Melissa, her brother Juan Villa, Sidney Snoeck, Pedro Gerardo Silo together with a handful of volunteers and friends from Photo Kalye , Project PEARLS established their roots in Ulingan. The community (Ulingan is a Filipino word for “charcoal factory”) is located in a reclaimed area near the breakwaters of Manila North Harbor. The residents’ main source of livelihood is production of charcoal. The families – where mostly women and little children contend all day with the heat, fumes, dust, stench, flies, mosquitoes, and vermin – work all day to earn a paltry income of around Php 100.00 ($ 2.00) a day. To say that the living and working conditions in Ulingan is unsanitary and inhabitable is an understatement. It was pure miracle that the families were able to survive the extreme pollution and poverty in that place.
Thankfully, in 2013, the National Housing Authority relocated the families from Ulingan to a newly developed community in Brgy. Batia, Bocaue, Bulacan. The children can now freely play in a safe and smoke- free environment. Up to this day, Project PEARLS continues to support the relocated families by conducting outreach activities every month and by giving scholarship grants to the children. A Learning Center was also established in Brgy. Batia for the nursery scholars to whom we also provide free breakfast everyday.
Photos by Sidney Snoeck & Pedro Gerardo