Background: The focus of the Foundation’s humanitarian work is on Culion Island and its surrounding smaller islands, in the province of Palawan, Philippines. Culion is historically the location of the former Culion Leper Colony. With a population of about 20,000, it is now a remote agricultural and fishing community with a proud and evolving history.
About 100 surviving leprosy patients still live in the community with their families. Suffering from this terrible disease, though largely controlled by modern medicine, extends beyond the patients themselves. Social stigma, geographic isolation, seasonal weather extremes, limited medical facilities and educational opportunities, malnourishment and unemployment are still major challenges. Isolated populations beyond the town include indigenous villages that offer their own challenges.
The Foundation: Through the efforts of Patricia Hilao, Vice-Mayor of Culion, the Foundation was created to address these challenges, primarily by financing the education of Culion children who could not otherwise afford to attend school. Although public education is technically free, students must still pay school fees, purchase books, uniforms and lunches. Some students are supported through higher education as well. The Dr. Theresa Kohen Foundation was issued a Certificate of Incorporation as a non-profit organization by the Securities and Exchange Commission of the Republic of the Philippines in August of 1999.
Ms. Hilao is still the President of the Foundation and the driving force behind its efforts. The history of the Foundation is best told in her own words:
“This Foundation came into existence only out of my deep gratitude to Dr. Theresa Kohen of England, who helped my children in their studies. Being a daughter of leper parents, I did not have the means to support my children in their education, as I myself was a working student, working so hard just to finish a course, for I believe only education can lift us from the stigma of leprosy that we suffer once we are out of Culion.”
Dr. Kohen, who was elderly at the time, assisted financially during the first year, but was soon unable to continue, and she died in 2002. Ms. Hilao continued the efforts as best she could, but the Foundation was largely dormant until a small group of church people in the United States became involved.
The Philippines Project: One church member had been privately supplying nutritional supplements and other financial aid to the family of a leper patient in Culion for many years. In 2004, she was introduced to Ms. Hilao and the Dr. Theresa Kohen Foundation. In 2007 the Philippines Project, a non-profit organization in the state of Maine, was created to funnel financial support to the Dr. Theresa Kohen Foundation. Since that time, the Philippines Project has provided the sole financial support for the Foundation. Most of the fundraising is now done through St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Marco Island, FL.
In addition to scholarship aid for over 100 students annually, the Foundation provides support for medical assistance, food, holiday gifts, housing renovation and many other needs.