By: Leah Subijano GK Harvest is an annual event bringing together Gawad Kalinga volunteers who have participated in recent immersion activities, their friends and family, in order to share experiences and celebrate achievements.

A GK immersion trip is an experience like no other. The goal for a group of Australian volunteers is to build homes and relationships with the poor, historically in the Philippines but now including such countries as Papua New Guinea and Cambodia. An immersion trip which the volunteers join through programs like Outbound, Bayani Challenge and the GK Health Tour, is physically, mentally and emotionally challenging. But the participants return from the trip, taking with them bonds formed with the kapitbahayan of those places they had served. They also carry with them the experiences of seeing first-hand the power of their presence and how it could empower local communities. All these make the personal sacrifices worthwhile.

Not having been on an Outbound trip for a while (well, one year and three months), it was refreshing to be surrounded again by a sea of faces, many of them new to GK, and hear their stories, from funny anecdotes to how the experiences have changed their perspective on poverty and privilege.

Our hosts, Christian Rei iligan (Chun), Chris Davidson and Xandria Cortez, greeted everyone with warmth and humour, and their infectious energy kept the crowd constantly engaged. I loved listening to people’s sharings, noticing how each experience was inherently personal and differed from trip to trip. The heart-warming videos showed the changes that GK has brought to communities – turning slums into colourful homes and restoring the dignity of the poor through a culture of caring and sharing. These reignited the vigour and desire to be part of the movement once again.

GK Harvest culminated with Andrew Chalk, the chairman of GK Australia, handing out certificates to the newly graduated “alumni” of the GK trips to recognise the significance of their work. Volunteers proudly accepted the certificates as a symbol of their accomplishment.

The impact of a GK experience goes beyond the two-week immersion. Before the trip, university students, who comprise a sizable proportion of the volunteers, could have typically focused their energies on completing their degrees and finding good jobs, partying away, and entertaining themselves with “essentials” like iPhone and facebook. The GK immersion takes them beyond that comfortable, self-centred world and challenges them to refocus their energies and talents to endeavours that can have a meaningful contribution to the lives of people in need.

My favourite part of the event was a skit performed by a group of volunteers who portrayed a typical scene of poverty in the Philippines juxtaposed with one from Australia. This brought home a point – that sometimes, when we are distanced from a problem, we are more inclined to help. Seeing images of poverty in other places seems more real than what is happening in our own neighbourhoods. Shanty towns, children rummaging through rubbish to find food or basic things to sell on the streets, and similar images of social injustice, spark in us a desire to help. We tend to think that poverty on that scale cannot possibly happen in a wealthy country like Australia. But poverty does exist right in our backyard. Perhaps news about yet another failed policy or scheme to bridge the gap between indigenous communities and the rest of Australian society barely reaches our ears. Or maybe we are just desensitised to the homeless people begging on George Street in Sydney. I know I’m guilty of walking past the beggars and their signs asking for money when I’m on my way to uni.

GK Australia is shifting gears and is broadening its scope to include issues within Australia. It will now provide an opportunity for young Australians to be involved in projects that will help them understand the complexities of the problems facing indigenous communities and other disadvantaged groups in their country such as homelessness, substance abuse, alienation and violence. The causes of some of these issues are deep and long-running. The effort required to address them effectively will require collaboration among government, private and non-profit sectors and by people with specialised knowledge in these areas.

I’m excited about the new structure and direction of GK Australia and where it is leading us – not only with our partners in overseas countries, but now also with our brothers and sisters with whom we share this sacred land we all call home.

GK Harvest 2012 was a celebration of achievement. More than that, however, it encapsulated why people continue to get involved with this movement by giving us a vision of how we can channel our energy and passion into alleviating the problems of marginalised communities overseas and those right here at our doorstep.

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