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Eighteen-year-old Max Heald of Bedford films interviews of homeless children in Manila. (COURTESY)

Bedford high school senior raises awareness for Philippines

BEDFORD - For many high schoolers, senior year is a time for preparing for college and having as much fun as possible before graduation.

But for Bedford resident Max Heald, senior year is about trying to change the world, a little at a time.

The Phillips Exeter Academy senior has created an awareness project about homelessness and child sexual abuse in the Philippines, and earned recognition as a finalist in the Prudential Spirit of Community Award program.

Heald said he has a friend in the Philippines who would often tell him stories of the living conditions of children there.

"He was telling me about all of these horrific things," Heald recalled. "And we wanted to do something about it. We really wanted to make a difference."

Heald, who had already worked to set up a television station at the school, came up with an idea to help that was in keeping with his experience.

"The most logical thing for me to do was to put a camera to it," he said.

Heald got busy immediately, putting together a group of six of his peers who were also interested in the project.

Heald spent weeks researching what equipment would be necessary to film the documentary, and secured funding for all parts of the project, including the trip to Manila.

The group connected with the Stairway Foundation, a learning and resource center for children's rights, and made plans to film a documentary, which set out to illustrate not only the plight of more than 1.5 million street children in the country, but also the Stairway Foundation's mission to help them.

"This was completely student-run," Heald said. "I'm definitely proud of what we've accomplished."

The group of students finally arrived in the Philippines at the end of July, but Heald said they weren't prepared for what they saw.

A recent typhoon had flooded the area, leaving their hotel without power and the students wading knee-deep in water.

"It was pretty scary for us, a bunch of prep school kids," Heald said. "It was the first time most of us had been in a Third World country."

Heald said children wandered the streets of Manila, many living under tarps and in cardboard boxes, and described a world of children who had been abused, drugged and sexually exploited.

"You think you can envision what it will be like, but nothing can really prepare you for seeing it live," he said. "The worst thing is, people aren't doing anything about it."

The 20-minute documentary is on YouTube, and Heald is also taking the project on the road, talking to other students about his experience as well as the concept of youth activism.

"I don't think kids realize that there are things they can do to make a difference," Heald said, adding that not every social issue will touch every heart, but one person may be deeply affected by just one.

"All I'm asking is for them to do something about it," he said. "There is no better time than when we have no real responsibility to put forth an effort to address these large issues."

Heald's mother, Sheila, said she is proud of the effort her son has put into the project, and that his trip to Manila on his own was a bit nerve-wracking.

"But we knew that what he was doing was interesting and shedding light on a situation that was untenable," she said.

The project, and the challenge Max is offering up to kids his own age as a result, illustrates what can be accomplished with a shoestring budget and plenty of determination, Sheila said.

"To him, it's also about letting other teenagers know that if he can do it, they can too," she said. "When he puts his mind to it, he knows how to get things done ­- he just finds a way."

Heald said he isn't sure where his future will take him, but getting involved in projects that will make a difference for those who need it will likely be at the forefront.

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