With little knowledge of the language, culture, and the country in general, Dominique Lemay left France for the Philippines more than two decades ago with an assignment as a social worker… barely knowing that he would stay for a long term.
Five years from his arrival in the country, Dominique founded Virlanie Foundation, one of the country’s largest organization catering to street children and their families.
Dominique Lemay, social worker, founding president of Virlanie foundation and People Asia’s People of the Year 2008 awardee, talks about the why he left France and a relatively comfortable life to effectuate change in a community 13,000 kilometers away from his homeland.
Listen to or read this interview as Dominique speaks to Greater Good Philippines about how he has come to love the Philippines and adopt to its culture, one that is far from his own.
Jay-R Patron: We’re here with Dominique Lemay, founding president of Virlanie Foundation. You founded Virlanie in 1992?
Dominique Lemay: 1992, yes.
Jay-R Patron: What do you do as president of the organization?
Dominique Lemay: I have three or four different ways to work at Virlanie. As founder, I try to keep the mission from the beginning of the foundation. Our mission is very simple, to take care and love our children, to give education to them and teach them to be responsible adults. The second thing is, when I am abroad or even here in the Philippines, we need money. Now we have one group to do that but before I was in charge of raising funds for the foundation. Number three, I am here not to stay here in my office. I am here also to go everywhere—to visit the children, to look into our programs, and to go outside to the streets and the bigger community to see what the problem is with the poor people and the children. Number four, for me it’s also to think about the future of the foundation. What is the challenge today? What will happen in five years, ten years? Find the problems today and try to give answers to these. Today, I’m working with children 15 years old and below, because two years we had a new law. The law said that we cannot put children below 15 in jail but unfortunately, we continue to put children below 15 in jail, for different reasons. The challenge today is to try to push the politicians and the government to the change the ways and try to give answers to this problem.
Jay-R Patron: What is an ordinary day at work to you like? I know you have mentioned that you have different tasks, but what about when you’re in the office?
Dominique Lemay: In the office, if I’m still in the office, I answer to my emails, I meet the staff, and I also go around the office. Sometimes I go, two times a week, outside to the jails, in the streets, to the province, but not so much anymore. I miss that. I feel that I’ve become too much administrative but you know if you’re the boss you have to make time for this. I’m a social worker and sociologist, I’m not an administrative guy or a manager but I have to do that.
Jay-R Patron: Briefly, will you tell us what Virlanie Foundation is? What does it do?
Dominique Lemay: I’ll tell you the most important for me. We started Virlanie Foundation to take care of the children that people do not like to take care. That means if I go to jail, if I walk in the streets and see children, in my mind I see that I should take care of them. Why do I have to take care of them if they have mothers? We started the program to address a specific need. The foundation is ready to answer to that. Of course, we have families because the children come from families, we also take care of the families. 20 years ago we have many children in the streets, now we have families in the streets, why? Because the children become adults, live together in the streets and then have children. Before we had the tendency to separate the child. It is a big problem to separate the kids from their families to put in to homes. We have to keep the family as one, keep them all together. It’s like that.
Jay-R Patron: How many children are there in total that is under Virlanie Foundation?
Dominique Lemay: Inside the 13 homes we have 270 children, from zero, because they are babies, to 23. And we have an area for special children. Of course, even if the child turns 22 or 23 years old, from children they become adults, we cannot tell them to go. If you’re a special person and we let you out in the streets, what will happen to you? We have two homes in the province, in Cavite, to take care of them. We train them to make various products.
Jay-R Patron: What was your drive in putting up this kind of organization?
Dominique Lemay: Good question. Before I came here I was working in Caritas France. I try in my own way, and I’m not perfect, to follow the gospel. The gospel teaches that you have to love others and love yourself. What’s important is to try to follow the gospel, take care and love the people, particularly the children. That’s what I do, to take care of the children. Particularly as a Christian I have to do that. Second thing is, I have received many gifts in my life—from my parents and others. I have to give back. For me it’s not a job, it’s my life.
Jay-R Patron: You first came to the country in 1987, what made you come to the Philippines?
Dominique Lemay: A French NGO asked me to come here but I didn’t know anything about the country, as in zero. Imagine 13,000 kilometers away from my country, from France.
Jay-R Patron: What was your first impression of the country?
Dominique Lemay: When I arrived here, I only knew two names—Marcos and Cory Aquino. I didn’t speak English. Of course, I didn’t speak Tagalog. Imagine, I went here to make a study. The one in charge, the president of this NGO called me, “Dominique, you have money, maybe you can start a non-profit for children in Manila.” I said, “Why? I don’t know anything about the Philippines.” She said, “You go there for one or two years, you go back to France. You just start the NGO.” I remember in Paris I worked in one church. I went inside the church and prayed to God. When I walked out of the church I wanted to know what I had to do, if I should stay in France or go to the Philippines. When I went outside, I felt like I had to come here. I went here for two years and flew back to France and worked for a big NGO. After six months, I felt like I have not done what I had to do here. So I came back.
Jay-R Patron: What has made you stay in the country?
Dominique Lemay: In my mind really, I feel comfortable in the country. I’ve been to Africa, to South America to do some programs but, because my character—the way I walk—it’s compatible with Filipinos. Of course, we have very different cultures. Even after 20 years, sometimes I still don’t understand my staff. But I say always, in Virlanie we have two different cultures but we respect each other. And two have two different cultures, it’s much better as we can grow faster and better. But it’s not always easy. Sometimes my staff goes, “Dominique is going crazy again.” But my staff also knows how to play with me.
Jay-R Patron: What do you think are the traits of Filipinos that you find unique?
Dominique Lemay: I feel that Filipinos are very open. I feel that anyone can work with you. What I say is that you have to respect each other. Even if you don’t understand each other you have to respect. You have your character, I have my character; you have your culture, I have my culture, and what I like about Filipinos is that they respect, and also, of course, the smiling. When my friends ask me about Filipinos I say that they are really Asian people. In my culture, to go from point A to point B, I will go directly. But as Filipinos, you don’t go straight—you go up, right, left—and maybe someday you will at B. But you still get to point B. It’s two different ways and I respect the other way also. After 20 years, I’ve known the character of Filipinos but what’s nice also is that every time I discover new and different things. In my heart, I don’t want to go back to France. I feel very comfortable here.
Jay-R Patron: And you have European volunteers. How many are they?
Dominique Lemay: Around 30.
Jay-R Patron: That’s a lot. And they come from which countries?
Dominique Lemay: Many from France, Switzerland, Belguim, Germany, European countries. But we also have in Canada in Quebec because we have a branch there. We also have volunteers from Korea, we have a Korean foundation.
Jay-R Patron: What do you do outside Virlanie? What do you do for fun? Do you have any hobbies?
Dominique Lemay: I have that (points to the aquarium), the fish. I have aquariums everywhere but I don’t have much time to take care. Before, I did a lot of feeding and cleaning but not so much now. Last year, I was crazy about making a stamp collection. When I was younger I did that. I also like to read, and watch movies.
Jay-R Patron: Do you watch classical French movies?
Dominique Lemay: I watch a lot of American films. I also do watch French movies. I’m very open to different genres. But what I don’t like, and Filipinos like very much, are horror movies. Actually that’s one of the differences between Europeans and Asians, even Americans because they like horror movies.
Jay-R Patron: How did your career as a social worker start?
Dominique Lemay: When I was small I was in seminary. I made some accounting studies and when I was 25 years old, Caritas asked me if I wanted to work in one center in Paris. After 10 years in Caritas, I took a Masters in social work. In France, you have to have social work experience to have your Masters.
Jay-R Patron: So you don’t have your formal classroom program to get your Masters?
Dominique Lemay: In the beginning no. I worked in the field. It’s good also because after one year in school you make your Master outside. But you have to work for 10 years.
Jay-R Patron: How was your life back in France? Can you describe how life was when you were younger?
Dominique Lemay: I have a family—three brothers and one sister, we’re five. My father was an engineer for a big company, my mother stayed home and took care of us. Even when I was younger I wanted to do good. That’s why I went to the seminar. In France, in the ‘50s there was a revolution in people’s way of thinking. So in the seminary we started studying outside, not inside. I was 22, 23 years old.
Jay-R Patron: How does family play in molding you as a person?
Dominique Lemay: I have children. Four daughters, two in France and two here. I realized, to do this kind of job, to be very busy, it’s difficult to have a family. My daughter, one day she said, “You know papa, I want to do what you are doing.” It was a long time ago but she continues to say that. “When you become old, I’ll take your place.” It’s difficult. I know I don’t spend enough of my time for my children. But my teacher in philosophy said that if you want some things, you have to say no to other things. It’s difficult, for me, to be a president or founder of an organization and lead a family life. I try to spend time with them, go out on the weekends or go on vacations.
Jay-R Patron: How about faith? How does faith play in your life?
Dominique Lemay: Very important. I’m not the guy who prays every time. But what I believe totally is that I am not alone to do this job. I lost my son 10 years ago, and I am sure that he is with me to do this job. He is God or somewhere, I don’t know where. But I believe that he is with me to do this job. Because I know I am not capable in doing this alone. To believe in God, for me, is very important. Because if I’m here to do this job, I believe that God asked me to do that. Why did I come here? Imagine I’m 13,000 kilometers away. Why did I come to the Philippines? I didn’t speak English, I didn’t speak Tagalog, and I didn’t know anything about the country, but I knew I had to start a foundation. My faith in God gave me the permission to do that. I think God asked me to do that and gave me the opportunity to do that. I feel it’s like that. I’m not perfect, I’m a sinner. I don’t pray that much, but many people pray for me.
Jay-R Patron: Why is it important for people to give back, volunteer, engage in causes greater than themselves?
Dominique Lemay: When God asked me to be here, I’m very very happy to do that. If I don’t do this job, I won’t be happy. I would be frustrated. I do this because it makes me happy. If I’m not happy, I won’t do this job.
Jay-R Patron: What has been your greatest challenge and how did you overcome it?
Dominique Lemay: My first challenge was working with poor people in France because I didn’t know anything. But that was my way to give back. Now, when you talk about the Philippines, before I arrived here, I’ve read about the country in the newspapers and magazine. In Paris, it was very violent because of the drug problem. I said to myself, “If I didn’t work with street children, what will happen to me?” What was happening in France was already violent. For me, it was a big challenge to come here. What I like to do here is really to try to change the people, the children. If I can see one child smiling, for me that is progression from the challenge. But we always have challenge, and that’s what I like also in my life. Every time there’s new challenge. If we finish something we have to do other things.
Jay-R Patron: What would you consider as your greatest life achievement?
Dominique Lemay: I think Virlanie, this foundation. And I hope we continue this somewhere, I don’t know where.
Jay-R Patron: If there was one message that you would like to tell our readers or listeners about our conversation tonight, what would that message be?
Dominique Lemay: Always smile. What I say to my staff, when they’re down, when they’re upset, to smile only. When you go to the street, when you go everywhere, when you see one child or a family, smile at them, you don’t have to give money. Maybe that can change their life. You don’t have to do big things to change a life.
Jay-R Patron: What can we expect from Dominique and Virlanie in the next months, years?
Dominique Lemay: We have to stabilize the foundation. With the big problem in the world, we might have problems with sponsorship. We have to stabilize financially the foundation. But as always, we’re going to give the best we can give to our children, to our families. Even in 10 years, we will continue to give. You always have to try to push and say to yourself that even if it’s difficult today, because the children need that. So many things happen to those children and they need even more of what we give them. I say to the people when they ask why we need to do this to the children. I say, “What you do with your own children, you have to do with them.” There’s no difference. This is what I want to say to my staff and to the people. If no people love them, what will happen in their life?
Jay-R Patron: That’s it. Thank you so much.