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With dedication and prayer, a young volunteer firefighter sponsored by Unbound battles blazes for her community in the Philippines’ Navotas slums.

In the city of Navotas in the Philippines, 18-year-old Cleo Soffia receives a notification from a group chat on her phone. It says “10-92.”

The message is an emergency signal code. There is a fire in the community. Cleo Soffia, a volunteer firefighter, must make haste to assist.

She puts on her uniform, helmet and gloves, which are all borrowed from the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP). Her fire boots are the only piece of her attire she owns. She joins the rest of the firefighters, all men, at the Navotas Fire Station a few blocks from her home where she will ride on the fire truck to the scene of the fire.

There, Cleo Soffia and another firefighter hold the water hose to fight the fire. Cleo Soffia’s motivation for gaining firefighting skills was born of a need she recognized while growing up in a fire-prone area, called “a squatter’s area.”




Prayer and a Love of Helping Lights her Path

Cleo Soffia was a friendly, active 7-year-old when she became a sponsored child through Unbound. She loved singing, dancing and reading books, with a genuine love of learning that Unbound program staff helped her cultivate through activities and seminars she enjoyed attending at the local office.

Now in her first year of college studying criminology, Cleo Soffia dreams of one day being financially self-sufficient and providing a more comfortable home for her parents. Cleo Soffia’s father works as a fish vendor, buying and selling just enough fish every day to put food on the family’s table, while her mother has worked as a maid.

Cleo Soffia wanted to help her community and, one day, a friend in her neighborhood introduced her to the idea of being a volunteer firefighter.

Every new firefighter receives training from the BFP. Being one of very few women in the BFP, Cleo Soffia challenged herself to learn the techniques.

“At first, there was nervousness of doing the actual thing,” she said. “But eventually, I was able to adjust myself and learn the strategies on how you can help the group of firefighters at the scene.”

To Cleo Soffia, a firefighter’s greatest power is prayer, followed by their gear and equipment. “We pray for our safety in the truck while we are heading to the fire scene,” she said.


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A firefighter’s greatest power is prayer, followed by their gear and equipment. #catholicmom




Life in the Fire-Prone Slums

As a highly urbanized area in the National Capital Region of the Philippines, the city of Navotas where Cleo Soffia lives and volunteers has just under 250,000 residents, many of whom make their homes in the tightly clustered neighborhoods known as “the squatter’s area,” or slums.

Unbound Philippines Regional Reporter Teejay Cabrera often finds himself covering stories of those who make their homes in the slums, anywhere from underneath skyway bridges or footbridges and vacant lots to riverbanks, abandoned buildings, or overcrowded urban streets.

“Some were there since birth, and even from the birth of their parents,” Cabrera said. “Some find it good because their source of income is just around the corner … [but] some stay in the squatter’s area because they don’t have the capacity to acquire a better shelter for their families [due to] lack of financial aspect. It is not their choice, but they don’t have any other choice.”

Those shelters, often hastily put together with whatever the family can find or afford, are made from light materials—wood, scrap materials like tarpaulins and canvas, and plywood—that are easily destroyed by fires or typhoons.




The Courage of a Navotas Firefighter

Besides the obvious dangers of fighting the fire itself, the main challenge she faces as a Navotas firefighter, according to Cleo Soffia, is sometimes the desperation of the crowd as they refuse to stand helpless, watching their homes burn.

“There are areas that people are violent, they are forcibly taking the hose from you,” Cleo Soffia said. “Sometimes we just let them get the hose rather than getting hurt by them.”

No one understands the plight of the anxious crowd better than one who has lived among them. For most of her life, Cleo Soffia, her parents and four siblings, lived in the squatter’s area before taking the opportunity to move into a government housing project that is better structurally and less crowded, but still close to the family’s main sources of income.

To be a firefighter, Cleo Soffia said, it takes courage, dedication to training, patience and perseverance.

“For other youth seeking a career in the field, I say focus to your goals and don’t forget to pray always so that you will be guided,” she said.



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