A Cultural Journey to South Korea and the Philippines

I am a proud member of the YMCA Asian Pacific Islander Leadership Network (APILN) International Leadership Institute (ILI). The APILN selected 7 YMCA leaders from across the United States, all of whom are ofAsian-Pacific Islander descent, to join in a year-long commitment as members of the 2022-2023 ILI cohort.  The ILI is designed to cultivate leadership skills, cultural competencies, cross-cultural understanding while creating a platform for intercultural dialogue and learning in the YMCA movement.  In April 2023, the APILN-ILI group embarked on an international trip to Asia in an effort to bring back experiences, knowledge and collaborative opportunities to our respective YMCA communities. Let us tell you what we saw, who we met and what we did on this unforgettable journey. We all experienced personal and professional growth, while gaining a new perspective and expanded vision of the YMCA Global Movement.

After 5 months of virtual meetings, the APILN-ILI cohort met in-person for the first time at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and began this adventure together with anticipation and excitement as we were led by Ms. Trang Truong-Hill, YUSA Director of Global Services.

During the 10-day journey, our team met with key YMCA and community leaders of South Korea and the Philippines for cultural understanding, support and information sharing.


Our learning in Korea focused on the history of war and the road to peace and reunification, including progress in key areas such as youth empowerment, civic engagement, climate action, university YMCAs, international programming and more. YMCA Korea is part of a collective effort to strengthen peace efforts with Korea and Japan and helping to build awareness of this important cause.

We are grateful to our hosts, National General Secretary Kim Kyung Min and International Secretary Deaun Yang, who curated a special program that provided access to spaces not typically available to visitors as well as insight into local history and culture.  <see PHOTO 1>

One of the most powerful moments was a special tour in Cheorwon-Gun, a county in Gangwon Province located next to the border with North Korea in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

We visited the site of the Memorial Tower of Baengmagoji Battlefield,where the bloodiest fight took place during the Korean War. We also saw the Cheolwon, the Korean Labor Party Headquarters, which was constructed by North Korea before the war.

We stood on the Geumgansan Mountain Electric Railroad Bridge, which connected the North and South until the outbreak of the Korean War and has since been abandoned.  Almost seven decades after the Korean War, the DMZ remains strewn with land mines and continues to be a painful reminder of the division of the Korean peninsula.

Peace action and reunification of the Korean people is a focus and passion of civic organizations and the YMCA.  We visited the Border Peace School near the DMZ, and later participated in a peace action movement.  During that time, we gained a better understanding of the deep scars and wounds during the Japanese colonial rule and the pain that remains deeply ingrained within the Korean people.

The group engaged in deep discussions with Korean YMCA leaders and Nam Boo-Won, the General Secretary of the Asian Pacific Alliance of YMCAs (APAY).  Boo-Won shared inspiring messages of solidarity between our YMCA communities.  During the special visit on Jeju Island, we viewed the site of the new APAY Headquarters and Global Peace and Ecology Center, nestled within a pristine horse farm and healing forest.  We visited historical places in Jeju while learning about the history and culture of Jeju, particularly the story of the Hae-nyeo, who are Jeju women who earn their living by diving into the sea.  These women have been doing this job for the past 1700 years, representing the strength and resiliency of women.


As the ILI traveled to Manila, the group spent extensive time meeting and learning from the Ys in the Philippines.  For the 6 of our ILI cohort being of Filipino descent, this was a homecoming.  The group spent a lot of time meeting and learning from the Ys in the Philippines and connecting  with passionate board volunteers and staff. The Philippines YMCAs gave us the warmest welcome, including special banners, programmed agenda, home-cooked meals, all while sharing their culture. They all definitely embodied the traditional Filipino greeting of Mabuhay, which translates to “long live”! One of my favorite welcoming gifts was a portrait drawn by one of the youth scholars at the YMCA of San Pablo, who spent nearly 5 hours per portrait to share his talent and offer us a memorable gift.

Here are the key areas for these YMCAs:

National Council of YMCA Philippines. The national office provides capacity to build local Ys in the Philippines through national training programs such as digital and media literacy, youth leadership development, CEO/career development, green ambassadors and more. Learn more about the YMCA Philippines: https://ymcaphilippines.org

YMCA of Manila. Key areas of focus at this Y include community development, youth development, engaging college students, providing scholarship opportunities, supporting adult work & physical education, hostel operations, & membership development. Learn about YMCA of Manila: http://www.ymcamanila.org

Makati YMCA. Key programs include livelihood assistance in the form of microloans through the “Tulong sa Kabuhayan” and “Tulong sa Puhunan” programs. They provide employment opportunities, education seminars, workshops, academic competitions, health and fitness seminars, medical missions feeding programs in low-income communities, and climate action through the collection of used plastic objects, annual tree planting, and the recycling of waste materials. Learn more about Makati YMCA: https://ymcamakati.com

YMCA San Pablo

Leaders from YMCA San Pablo and the visiting YMCA of Albay presented on their current programs and projects, including the Climate Action Project C.A.R.E. (Cultivating Action Through Responsible Education), in conjunction with 2 U.S. YMCAs (YMCA of Ann Arbor and YMCA of Florida’s First Coast).

Our time in San Pablo also included a visit to the Baloc community, where people struggle to find resources to provide for their families. Many use the local landfill as a means to generate income. Some of the youth served by the YMCA in San Pablo are originally from Baloc, and with the support of the Y, they continue their education and community service in hopes of redirecting the trajectory of their personal and family’s futures. The support allows the youth to enjoy school and they now see themselves as teachers or chefs in the future. We continued our service by providing food to the children and staff at the Bagong Pook Elementary School.

Our visit in San Pablo concluded with a lovely home-cooked meal and most importantly, a reunion for the different “graduating years” of Batang Y Scholars. From the current year to the original group, each elected one or two members to reflect on ways their lives have been positively impacted by the Y. Some noted a noticeable change in their physical self-confidence, while others now have full-time jobs at the Y or in schools.  It was incredible to meet board members and staff who passionately shared about their programs and to learn about their vision and hopes for the future.

The final day in the Philippines included tearful “goodbyes,” a board meeting with the National Council of YMCA Philippines, a visit to the National Museum of Natural History, and a group dinner at Barbara’s Heritage Restaurant.

Each member of our APILN-ILI cohort continues deep discussions on these experiences, including how to bridge the gap between our YMCA communities, how to create awareness of the YMCA global work, and sharing the newfound perspective we have on the Y movement.