Success Story: Melissa Villa of Project PEARLS

By Alpha Miguel-Sanford

Melissa Villa’s Project PEARLS is so compelling that when you see the pictures of the children whom she supports, you will say to yourself, ‘how could this ever happen?’ Take a look at her picture below with the kids in Tondo, Manila.


Do you see what I am saying here?

Melissa Villa reminds me of Mother Theresa’s kindness and willingness to help out the poor and the destitute. To me, she seems like she was born to create and sustain Project PEARLS for the impoverished communities. She is caring, sensitive and compassionate to the kids of Ulingan, a community in Manila.  Not every woman has the kind of courage to do what she does.  Not every woman has the vision to help others, most especially the neglected souls. She, along with the volunteers of  the Project PEARLS  feed, support and love the children who live in the landfills of Tondo, Manila. She is beautiful inside and out and a rare gem in this world.

This is Melissa Villa’s story:


AMS:  Tell us about yourself. Your education, training and where you are currently involved in.

Melissa: I was born and raised in Caloocan, Philippines; I have a bachelor’s degree in Economics from St. Paul College and received my masters degree in Global Management at University of Phoenix.  I moved to California almost 25 years ago and have been living in San Francisco Bay Area since then.    I founded Project PEARLS with my daughter, Francesca back in 2008.

AMS:  Tell us about how you become involved in your current project and its mission?

Melissa: Project PEARLS started as a mother and daughter project only, helping two underprivileged girls to go to school.  In 2010, I was introduced to the children of Ulingan photographers Sidney Snoeck and PG Silo and since then my life has changed.  Project PEARLS has grown significantly in the last two years in terms of our mission, outreach programs, volunteers, supporters and vision.  Project PEARLS is a registered non-profit organization both in the U.S. (a 501.c.3 charitable organization) and in the Philippines. Its mission is to help the poorest of the poor children in the Philippines to have a better life by giving them PEARLS: Peace, Education, Aspiration, Respect, Love, Smiles through our various outreach programs.  Because we are still relatively new and small, we focus our outreach efforts only on the community of Ulingan.  Ulingan is a small slum community in Tondo, Manila that sits on a dumpsite. The community is supported by charcoal factories that emit toxic smoke; there is no electricity, no access to toilets or sanitation. Children and families have no choice but to live with soot, garbage, mosquitoes, flies, vermin all day and all night. Children as young as three-year olds work in the charcoal factory to help their families.  The common meal is “pagpag”(leftover food from fast-food restaurants scavenged from garbage sites) “Pagpag” literally means to shake away the dirt and maggots in the food.  

AMS:  What is your vision of these projects?

Melissa: Our vision for the children of Ulingan is to see them in school and not working in the charcoal factory and/or garbage dump.  Our longrange objective is that they finish school and leave Ulingan and to get out of poverty.  Project PEARLS Scholarship Program supports their educational dreams and needs.  My vision for Project PEARLS is to see it replicate its outreach efforts in other under-servedcommunities in the Philippines and to duplicate our successt at Ulingan in facilitating scholastic, nutritional  and  health benefits transferable to under-privileged children.

AMS:  Who or what inspired you to be who you are? Have you always been involved in similar projects?

Melissa: My half-sisters, Veronica and Nella are both instrumental in helping me obtain an education in my formative years.  They both encouraged me not only to stay in school but really to do good in school.   My career has tended to migrate towards non-profit organization and education.

Mother Teresa has always been an inspiration.  As a mother, I too will give and dedicate my life for my one and only daughter.  And not only Mother Teresa did that for thousands, she inspired others in her generation and the generations to come.  Kindness inspired kindness.

AMS:  What are some of the greatest achievement that you’ve had?

Melissa: When we set foot in Ulingan for the first time two years ago, we just wanted to feed the children who are mostly malnourished.  But two years later, not only have we established a weekly feeding program where we feed at least 250 children every Saturday, we were able to build a Learning Center where pre-school children attend. 

Scholarship Program – we believe that their main key to escape poverty is education.   This school year, we have sponsored over 200 scholars from preschool to high school.  We provide scholars with complete school supplies, uniform, shoes, backpack; and provide them other school supplies they need for school projects.  Our scholarship program includes the following: 

Early Childhood Education and Nutrition Program – Provides a nutritious breakfast to Pre-school scholars who may otherwise skip breakfast not as a choice but a necessity their family cannot provide.

School Baon Program – Each scholar will receive a sandwich to bring to school which will be prepared by the scholars’ parents or guardians as part of the scholarship application agreement to ensure the community is involved. 

Food for Learning Program – For Elementary and High School scholars only. Attendance should be 85% a month. Scholars will get 3 kilos of rice and 3 canned goods at the end of the month.  

Our other outreach programs are: 

Birthday Program – As most of the children in Ulingan do not get to celebrate their birthdays (some do not even know their own birthdays), we celebrate their birthdays each month.  When there is enough funding, we bring the monthly birthday celebrants to Jollibee or we celebrate at Ulingan with clowns, magicians, birthday cake, ice cream, spaghetti or pancit.  It’s really a celebration and thanksgiving of their life. 

Medical Mission – we hold a medical and dental mission every quarter.  Because of their hazardous environment from the garbage and toxic smoke from the charcoal factories, most children, if not all have different respiratory illnesses and skin diseases.  We provide free medical check-ups and medicines. 

Brain Booster Program – after the feeding, we break down the children per age level for educational activities.  We offer homework help, basic math, reading, writing and spelling tutorials; we do arts and crafts, singing and dancing. 

AMS:  Who are/were your motivators?

Melissa: The children of Ulingan are my major motivators.  The resiliency of the children of Ulingan to obtain an education given their living condition motivates me to dream with them; to hope with them; to make these dreams and hopes realities for them.  

My husband, Clif and my daughter, Francesca are my great motivators.  Their immense support, understanding and patience validate that I am doing something right.  

My late father and mother motivated me to be a better person.  My half-sisters motivate me to be strong and confident.

The dedicated volunteers who come to Ulingan religiously each Saturday morning, rain or shine, flood and mud, heat and soot.  My brother, Juan who has been our leader on the field; his dedication motivates me to dream larger; to work harder. 

Our volunteers and supporters around the globe motivate me to be humble, to believe in the kindness and good of humanity. 

AMS:  If you were to tell us what are the most important skills that you need in order to be successful in life- what are they?

Melissa: First and foremost, one should have the excellent people skills and this should not be limited to the workplace or to someone’s professional life, it must also apply to one’s personal life. People skills must include an ability to communicate effectively and honestly with others; to lead by example; to motivate when no monetary compensation is involved; to have an ability to turn dreams and hopes into reality no matter the odds.

AMS:  What are your next goals for yourself?

Melissa: I would like to ensure Project PEARLS’ long-term sustainability expanding its effectiveness and outreach.  I would like to provide for adequate resources and infrastructure so we can better serve those in need.
My personal goal for myself is to travel around the Philippines and to learn more about the different background and culture of its people.  I would love to meet new friends, allies and partners in making Philippines (and this world) a better and kinder place.  I would love to see more people from different walks of life empowering and inspiring themselves and others.

AMS:  What is your definition of success?

Melissa: Having a child thanking me for providing opportunities that he perhaps was not even aware of prior to Project Pearls; having a child succeed in obtaining an education or healthcare when none was previously available or obtainable. Watching the pain on a child’s face turn into a glowing smile.  Success is when you close your eyes at night with the comfort that the people around you have been given the chance to have PEARLS: Peace, Education, Aspiration, Respect, Love, Smile.


About the Author: Alpha Miguel-Sanford, is the founder and editor of Aspire.Motivate.Succeed. She is also the author of the book “The Best Inspirational Storie I Ever Read: Guide to a Purposeful Life”.You can contact her at, follow and like her on Facebook Page AMSDaily and be friends with her on Twitter @identitysolved.