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June 29, 2017

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To school without a swim: 'Boats of love' bridge Taiwan and Philippines

Among the stories about Taiwan and the Philippines that involve boats and the sea, in this one, love and hope is the message.

In the impoverished mangrove village of Layag-Layag, about 700 km from the country's capital of Manila, some 400 children used to have to wade through the sea at low tide to get to school and swim home at dusk when the tide is high.

But Ryan Lai, a Mandarin Chinese teacher at the National Yilan Senior High School, has helped change all that by raising funds to build boats for the Filipino kids so that they can get to school more easily.

The 30-year-old Taiwanese did not see himself devoting himself to the purpose when he first arrived on the island of Cebu as an alternative military service Mandarin teacher in 2011.

But during a short trip to the Philippine city of Zamboanga, where the Taiwanese Buddhist charity Tzu Chi Foundation has a presence, Lai learned about a project it coordinated with the local Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation, which aims to get the children living in the mangroves to school safe and dry.

The fact that local children had to swim about an hour for 2.5 km between school and home shocked Lai, who remembered spending the same amount of time taking the train to his own high school.

"Everything we take for granted does not work the same way in the Philippines," he said. "You can't imagine how much opportunity and hope a boat could bring to a kid's life."

After his assignment to the country was completed, Lai published a book about his time in the Philippines and donated part of the royalties, along with his income during his military service, to the project, which helped build two boats costing some NT$12,000 (US$400).

The yellow boats, each of which is three meters long, can carry about eight children.

One of the boats is named after Lai's mother, while the other is called "Taiwan," in commemoration of the friendship between people of the two countries, he said.

During a promotion for his book, which recently went into a second edition, Lai shared his stories, helping to generate more funds for more boats.

His book also won recognition from Anton Lim, co-founder of the Yellow Boat of Hope Foundation.

"As our Yellow Boat of Hope Community ambassador to Taiwan, Ryan continues to create positive ripples," Lim said in a note to congratulate him on the publication of the book.

"This book is a testimony that you don't have to be Bill Gates to make a difference."

While his stories have inspired Taiwanese people and contributed to 13 more boats, a modest Lai said his goal is only to try to get as many people involved in the charity efforts.

There may be considerable differences between Taiwan and the Philippines, but to Lai, the distance is not beyond reach when love is the bridge.

"The distance from Taiwan to the Philippines is from mangrove to school, from wet to dry, from poor in the past to the hope in the future," he said.

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