By Jenny Neyman
Sometimes, home is a choice. Other times, especially for kids, home is an imposition.
Growing up, Les Nelson’s home was by his parents’ choice on the central Kenai Peninsula, with a house in Soldotna and school in Nikiski. As an adult, he’s chosen somewhere as vastly different as it is vastly distant — the Philippines.
A main factor in that choice is to help those who haven’t had a say in where they call home, and end up living in situations no one would purposely choose for them.
Nelson has embarked on an effort to benefit disadvantaged youth in the Philippines, those who are underfed, uneducated and in same cases living on the street, with no resources to improve their situations and, therefore, little chance of ever doing so.
Nelson hopes to construct an art school in Camarin, Caloocan City, part of Manila, Philippines, that will give youth a chance to have a career, stability and some choice in how their lives progress. To do so, Nelson is seeking support from his old home to help build his new one, and has launched a campaign to raise $50,000.
“I think we’re all neighbors,” Nelson said. “What happens in one city in one part of the world affects people all over.”
Nelson got interested in the Philippines about three years ago through an Internet correspondence with a photographer who documents life in the country — children living on the street, youth trapped in the sex industry and impoverished farmers in rural areas. A graphic artist and photographer himself, Nelson noticed Ralph Matres’ work on the photo-sharing Web site Flickr and was captivated by the images.
After striking up a friendship, Nelson went for a visit in October and November 2008 to help film a documentary. He saw the beauty of the country and culture for himself, and also the debilitating poverty in which some people live. He was particularly struck by the kids, who were friendly and upbeat, even living in abject poverty. Nelson saw an extended family of 13 people living in a hut about the dimensions of a king-sized bed, and others who weren’t lucky enough to even have that.
In the overcrowded Philippines, there is little chance of finding a job that pays a living wage without having a college degree, Nelson said. But for kids born in poverty, they may not get even an elementary education, much less the opportunity to attend college.
That was the case for Jeff, whom Nelson met on his first visit to the Philippines. His mother is incarcerated for life for selling drugs, and his stepfather abandoned him to take care of his own kids. Jeff, who was 14 at the time, was sleeping outside a Chow King fast food restaurant. He was illiterate and had never been to school.
Nelson met him outside a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant and tried to give him some chicken and rice to eat, but Jeff was too ill to eat, lying down on the sidewalk and clutching his stomach.
It was this and similar encounters that moved Nelson to find a way to help. Being a 23-year-old without much of a bank account at the time, he couldn’t wave a magic, monetary wand and cure all the problems he saw. He figured all he could do was make the most of what he had to offer. In his case, that was art.
Nelson is a practiced artist in many mediums and started his own Web design firm when he was in high school. He decided to get creative about the problems he saw, and designed an idea to found the art school. It’s called Ferdinand Center for the Creative, as in Ferdinand Magellan, and Nelson started a magazine called “Ferdinand,” as well, as a fundraiser to help support the school. His goal is for a school that can house and feed young artists, teach them English and literacy, as well as classic art techniques and computer design. The school will be supported through donations and corporate support, and by selling students’ artwork on graphic posters and T-shirts. Students would work on real projects from companies and nonprofit organizations throughout the word.
His idea for the school found plenty of support, among the new friends he’s made who want to volunteer at the school, city officials and youth with which he’s come in contact. Nelson said he’s been amazed at the natural talent of some of the budding artists he’s met who could benefit from the school.
“I think art is pretty core to who a person is,” Nelson said. “If someone’s an artist, I think people discover pretty early, even if they don’t go to school, they discover this need to always be creating.”
On a recent trip to the Philippines this fall, he and his friends found a site they could use for the school. It is an overgrown, undeveloped lot, a rarity in the shoulder-to-shoulder development in Manila and outlying areas.
“The property feels lush and tropical, full of coconut trees, overgrown grass and shrubbery, like a jungle in the middle of a metropolis. It’s kind of bizarre, really; the neighborhood almost feels like a tropical Old Town Kenai,” Nelson said.
They also found an architect who designed a three-story building for them, with a soaring art gallery, a computer lab, art room, kitchen, a room for screen printing, bunk rooms for students and volunteers who need a place to stay, and an apartment for Nelson. The architect happens to be the niece of the town mayor, so Nelson figures that can’t hurt their efforts to get permits and governmental approval.
“Everybody’s been very accepting and enthusiastic about it. She started thanking me for working on this project, but it’s not just me working on it. It has become tons of people. I’m just the most public face of it now,” Nelson said.
Being a white American in the Philippines, Nelson’s face sticks out. He gets a lot of looks and curiosity, he said, but people have been friendly to him and open to his efforts.
“There’s probably some novelty to it,” he said. “The part of Manila I live in, you never see white people, really. I live in a very densely populated, shoulder-to-shoulder, poverty-stricken part of Caloocan. It’s not a place where you see tourists. They probably think Americans are rich. But I don’t have a problem meeting people. Everybody’s been pretty trusting of me.”
That trust weighs on Nelson now that the art school project has entered the funding stage.
The architect estimates construction costs will be about $46,000, so Nelson has set a fundraising campaign of $50,000. To do so, he’s utilizing a Web-based fundraising service called kickstarter.com, where organizations can describe their projects and make a plea for support. Anyone wanting to donate can make a pledge through the secure site, and their credit card is charged once the campaign deadline is up.
Nelson instituted levels of support. For $25, donors get a link to a Web site of their choosing on Ferdinand’s supporters’ page. For $50 or more it’s a link and a limited-edition poster made exclusively for Ferdinand Center for the Creative. For $100 or more or $300 or more, it’s all of the above plus a name written in graduated-sized, three-dimensional letters on a supporters’ wall in the school.
Nelson also designated one slot for a $5,000 donation or greater. That level comes with all the previous perks, bigger letters on the supporters’ wall, “and I will get whatever hairstyle you request,” Nelson wrote on the site.
Kickstarter requires organizations to set specific financial goals for specific projects under a specific time frame, with 90 days being the longest allowed. If at the end of 90 days the fundraising goal isn’t met, no pledgers’ credit cards will be charged and the project gets nothing.
“It looked like a lot of people were successful in their goals,” Nelson said of his research on Kickstarter. “I think the time limit spurs people on to donate, and also the threat of us not getting anything if we don’t reach our goal may push people to donate. But it’s also terrifying to me. That second I had my finger on the mouse and I had to press ‘publish project.’ That moment right there was really scary because there’s no changing things after that,” he said.
As of Wednesday, Ferdinand Center for the Creative has 79 days left — until March 13, 2010 — to reach its goal of $50,000.
In the meantime, a feeding program for Filipino street kids continues, with Nelson’s friends in Caloocan City organizing lunch events. And Nelson has kept up a tutoring program he helped start, even though he’s back in Soldotna for the winter. He conferences with a student — Jeff, the boy Nelson met who was too ill even to eat — over the Internet. On Nelson’s recent trip back to the Philippines, he found Jeff again, who was much healthier, and started teaching him English and basic reading skills. Now Nelson’s roommate sets Jeff up on a computer for tutoring sessions via Web cam until Nelson gets back in March or April.
That kind of interaction is representative of what Ferdinand means for Nelson: Using one’s abilities and the technologies available today to share the benefits someone has in Soldotna, or anywhere in the world, with those in need of them elsewhere. In that sense, Nelson isn’t really leaving his home on the peninsula, he just wants to re-create a part of it in the Philippines.
“If you get enough happy people in one city, that’s a happy city. If you get enough happy cities, that’s a happy country,” he said. “I think we’re all connected and all just need to be pushing for the betterment of everyone.”