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From SCV to NGO: How I Helped Start a Disaster Relief Organization in the Philippines


Posted: March 16, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: March 16, 2014 2:00 a.m.

An aerial shot, post-Typhoon Haiyan, of Young Pioneer Disaster Response volunteers and workers reconstructing a building on Bantayan Island in the Philippines. Katlyn Murray/courtesy photo

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For the past three months I have been on Bantayan Island in the Philippines working as the Media Director for Young Pioneer Disaster Response, a startup NGO – or non-governmental organization - created by my friends and I in response to the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan.

I grew up in Saugus. My story started in the same vein as most kids from the Santa Clarita Valley.

I went to school, lived in a comfortable home that matched the homes of all my neighbors, played in manicured parks, and worked in the mall as a teenager.

Like many of my peers, I felt stifled by the order and monotony of suburbia. I longed for adventure and chaos; to see faraway places and step outside my comfort zone. And I loved photography.

I spent much of my youth learning how to use a camera and write with the intention of leaving my hometown behind and seeing the world. I took after-school photography classes at CalArts, worked my first jobs as a photographer at Timeless Photos and Sears in the Valencia Town Center, and even wrote an article for The Signalwhen I was a freshman in high school.

At 17, I left Santa Clarita and began what would be a ten-year journey of traveling and photojournalism.

I drifted to Hawaii, Northern California, and Europe before landing in China for four years, initially through a study abroad program at Humboldt State University.

Though I was achieving modest success as a photographer and got to live my dream traveling to dozens of countries in Asia and Europe, I still felt like something was missing.

I wanted my work to mean something and to have a positive impact on the world. I decided that after production wrapped on a documentary I was working on in Beijing, I would return to the U.S. to pursue graduate studies in hopes of positioning myself in a more influential media role.

Then Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines and everything changed.

Two of my good friends, Christopher White and Joseph Ferris III, had been planning a holiday in the Philippines, a country that we had all come to love during previous visits.

When they got word of the devastation caused by the unprecedented Super Typhoon, Chris sent Joe a message on Facebook in a group we had set up for our friends suggesting that they do a disaster relief mission in lieu of their vacation.

Knowing that I had a few weeks between leaving Beijing and starting graduate school, I decided to join them.

Three weeks later, we were on a plane to the Philippines and were making our way to Bantayan Island, one of the regions hit hardest by the typhoon.

We brought with us the clothes on our back, $10,000 USD of crowd sourced funding raised by Chris and our buddy Marshall Mayer, who was living on my couch at the time, a small army of volunteers from all over the world, and the intention to rebuild a school.

What started with the idea that a group of skilled individuals, each working to their maximum potential, could affect great change in the world, quickly ballooned into a full-fledged NGO registered in the Philippines.

Since we landed three months ago, the Young Pioneer Disaster Response has quickly grown and adapted to meet the needs of the local community.

While we initially had only planned on rebuilding a school, we soon realized that this would only be a drop in the bucket in terms of the help needed on the island.

We have since expanded our organization to offer six reconstruction programs including a housing program; a school rehabilitation program; water, hygiene, and sanitation (WASH) program; an emergency response program; a medical mission program; and a community outreach program.

Our housing program is partnered with Polish Humanitarian Action, the biggest NGO in Poland, and has built 414 storm-strengthened homes to date by training and employing 99 local carpenters who work with our volunteers to construct the homes.

We currently have the materials and funding to give an additional 700 families safe, new homes.

The Young Pioneer Disaster Response School Rehabilitation Program has repaired dozens of destroyed classrooms at four schools on the island, removed over 100 tons of debris, and created gardens. We plan in the future to use shipping containers to replace completely demolished classrooms and act as storm-proof community shelters in the event of another disaster.

Our WASH program has repaired all of the toilets, hand washing, and water facilities in a local high school. We are currently in talks with Oxfam to rebuild the water and sanitation facilities at all the schools on the island.

Our Emergency Response program rescued 300 people from a stranded ferry and our joint medical missions with our partner organization SAMU, a medical assistance program from France, have treated over 2500 patients.

The Young Pioneer Disaster Response Community Outreach Program has presented educational puppet shows about hygiene to over 3,500 hundred children and hosts regular beach cleanups.

While it feels like we have accomplished so much in such a short amount of time, there is still so much work to be done here on Bantayan Island.

Most of the big relief organizations have focused on Tacloban, the region hit worst by the Typhoon, leaving the people of Bantayan without adequate aid.

Many people are still homeless and have no access to running water or medical treatment for injuries sustained during the typhoon.

A few weeks ago, I got to take part in an aerial survey of Bantayan Island and its surrounding islets thanks to Helimission.

We started very high off the ground so I could take some wide video shots and what I saw brought tears to my eyes.

There was complete destruction. The smashed houses, piles of rubble, and snapped-off trees gave the impression that someone had painted a picture of the apocalypse over this once idyllic tropical paradise.

I was starting to become disenchanted; to question our ability to cope with the massive task that lay before us and how people who had suffered so greatly could recover.

Then, the helicopter lowered down. We flew over our job sites and all of a sudden I saw the little white hard hats of the Young Pioneer Disaster Response volunteers and workers bobbing around.

I saw nice clean playgrounds and new roofs on schools that had been filled with wreckage and debris only weeks earlier. I saw hundreds of strong new homes gleaming in the sunlight, replacing the unstable shelters that had toppled like a house of cards in Haiyan’s strong winds.

And I felt the strongest sense of hope.

After the survey, I walked through the community that has embraced me with open arms. People who were strangers only months before came out of their homes to say “Katy, we saw you in the helicopter! So cool!”

People gave me high fives and asked to see if they could be seen in my videos, and to ask me to use that video to get more help for Bantayan from the outside world.

I knew then that I was exactly where I needed to be; that this work is the best use of my skills and the most fulfilling thing that I could be doing with my life.

That evening, I sent an email to my graduate program to inform them that I won’t be attending.

I broke the news to my family that I was going to stay on the island until the job is done.

As the Media Director for Young Pioneer Disaster Response, I spend most of my time behind the scenes taking photos, shooting video, and reaching out to the world from behind a computer screen.

My job doesn’t have as much glory as swinging hammers to build a home or playing with children in the schools but the knowledge that my photos have the ability to inspire people from around the globe to sponsor building homes and schools for people they have never met gives me a tremendous amount of satisfaction.

Being here has also given me a newfound appreciation for the hometown I was once so quick to dismiss.

After living in a disaster zone for three months, the running water, sturdy homes and expansive parks I grew up with seem like such an unbelievable luxury and I now feel so privileged to come from a place like Santa Clarita.

So I make my plea to all of you, who have shared with me the blessing of growing up in a safe community untouched by immense poverty and natural disaster, to give a little to people who haven’t.

Please visit to learn more about our organization and to support our ongoing programs.

Editor’s Note: While Katlyn might possibly have had reservations notifying her family that she wouldn’t be attending her graduate program, her mom Rena couldn’t have been more proud and contacted The Signal to share her daughter’s story and photos.


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