#ConnectedWomen: Rachel Harrison, Owner Of Zambawood Luxury Resort

Rachel is blazing trails by building awareness for the autism community and pioneering sustainable living for adults with special needs. Read about her inspiring vision and advocacy in this exclusive interview!

As women continue to be a driving force for change in the Philippines, this series aims to highlight those who demonstrate an exceptional commitment to creating an impact.

They are the leaders, activists, innovators and visionaries – whether in the public eye or behind the scenes – who are revolutionising the way we think and live. They are the #ConnectedWomen.

In our second interview for the #ConnectedWomenseries, Connected Women caught up with Rachel Harrison, mum, and owner of the luxury resort, Zambawood. Inspired by her autistic son, Julyan, Rachel describes Zambawood as a social enterprise, which not only aspires to the highest standards of luxury and personalised service but also has a fundamental non-profit goal.

Tell us more about you and how the vision for Zambawood came about?

My training is in architecture and I worked as a stewardess based in Hong Kong for 11 years. I always knew I’d end up in the resort/hospitality business because of my background. My training in building, interior design and the service industry were both very valuable to what I am doing now in Zambawood.

Zambawood was conceived because of our son, Julyan, an adult with autism. When he turned 18, we needed to find a place where he could live freely without the stress of being in the city. The goal was to find activities to keep him happy and purposeful, and create a community where he would be included, accepted, loved, and cared for.
I enjoy meeting people, entertaining, and decorating – they are my passions. What I did not realise, is how I would achieve these goals because of a need and purpose.

We first planned for an organic farm, then we built a house. We opened our house to fee-paying guests to sustain Julyan’s activities. They love that we are able to share our life through our home. Our natural setting, the peace and tranquility are a sanctuary for Julyan and, now, also for others to discover and enjoy.

There are plenty of resorts in Zambales, so what sets Zambawood apart?

The beauty and the ability to make it completely private are very important, but the story behind our boutique resort makes us different. The original inspiration came from a need for our son, but it’s much more than this alone. We aim to provide work in our enterprise for adults with special needs. We believe this not only helps the individuals concerned but also society at large, by spreading awareness and understanding in the community.

People are willing to travel to be “away from it all” in the real sense of the word, and yet still have all the comfort of an enjoyable holiday. The experience that we offer is giving our clients the complete mental rest, the peace and balance that the soul craves. By the time they go back to the city, they really feel physically and mentally recharged. The view of the forest and the sea beyond is refreshing and quite stunning.

How does Zambawood serve your non-profit goals and support the local community?

We have a pilot project to involve special-needs adults in the business, giving fun and purpose to them (and us) in their lives (“giving Fun & Purpose” is a key part of our mission statement by the way). We work with adults with special needs to give them skills training to enable them to be employed in the business. This can either be as our service staff or farmers or art and craft work. For example, Julyan has a programme in which he farms, does some food preparation and takes part in arts and craft activities. Our guests appreciate and benefit from this by eating fresh food from our farm, having their veggies beautifully chopped and having the opportunity to buy unique merchandise as gifts.

We do this whilst maintaining the highest level of quality, for service, food, farm produce, and arts and crafts merchandise with the active involvement of highly skilled and dedicated professional staff.

The food we serve is all from the farm and the local village. The meals are typically of Ilocano origin, which we tweak sometimes to make it interesting.

If you could do this all again, what would you do differently?

Firstly, I would have started earlier. Secondly, a lot of the building and set up was managed remotely; during my frequent visits, there were always changes to be made, some rather costly. So, next time I would just stay on site. Same goes for the early days of running the business. I wish I had just stayed there for Julyan, the guests and the business. But priorities played a part and I chose to spend more time with my husband.

It must take a special group of people to run a resort like Zambawood, what’s your leadership approach?

I am blessed to have a young, innovative, hardworking, committed, and dedicated team. The attributes I most love about my team is that they have the passion and heart to do their job and desire to be with us on our journey. I am very fortunate to be supported by my family in this endeavour. My sister, Carol, helped me by supervising the construction and my brother, Joel, is my structural engineer. They both played important roles when I started this endeavour.

I’m a macro manager. I give a clear vision to the staff on the goal and then I leave them to figure out how to deliver. Communication and managing expectations, as well as being responsible for the decisions they make, is what I encourage.

Your positive outlook and tireless dedication to your cause is inspiring. What keeps you going?

I live by a lot of positive words. I love saying these lines and my husband, children and my team certainly hear them a lot! We practice and live by these words at Zambawood and back in the city.

A disability does not mean you cannot have fun and purpose in life.”

There is no limit to your ability. Whatever you can imagine can happen. It’s only you who puts a limit on what you can do.

A dream is just a dream if you don’t start doing something.
Live in the now. People will always remember how you make them feel.

My favourite is from the Bible:  “Ask and you shall receive.”

Are you looking to expand Zambawood? How do you see it in 10 years’ time?

Yes, definitely. As we build the community for adults with autism, we plan to expand our business to other Zambawood activities where we can create employment. However, even more importantly (because of the multiplier effect), over the next few years I would like to inspire others to think in the same way and consider letting us help them build new and ever-growing social enterprises. As we develop, it is important to be inclusive. It is my desire to see the opening of Zambawood-inspired communities in other parts of the Philippines, as well as the region.

We are raising funds to build an art and skills training centre at Zambawood to train people with autism and other disabilities to learn employable skills.

Be a partner to this pioneering cause – your generosity will make a difference!
When a family has a member who has a disability, it is important to develop and nurture their talents and skills to create an activity to make them sustainable. Parents naturally go to the next world first, and the siblings of the disabled person may not always be there to financially support them.

In the Philippines, a million people have autism. They do not have the skills to find jobs, support their own well-being and contribute to society. There is no government support to develop their skills. Our goal is to address the needs of people with autism and other disabilities to lead productive, purposeful and sustainable lives through skills training programmes.

Rachel Harrison is an activist and visionary dedicated to giving people with disabilities the chance to learn a skill and find their fun, unique purpose in life. Her committment to the empowerment of children and adults with special needs is an inspiration to us all.


 Do you know a #ConnectedWomen that is driving change and creating impact?


Zambawood is a sprawling ranch estate where guests can spend their days exploring the mystical qualities of the shores of Zambales. Part resort, part haven, part creative think-tank, part organic, part movie-esque, take your best shot at allowing yourself to be swept up in the embrace of this magical place.

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Gina Romero

Gina Romero is a community builder who harnesses technology to drive the success of women entrepreneurs. Working with corporate partners, local organisations and government agencies, Gina creates initiatives that strengthen the regional startup and SME ecosystem. She is the Founder of Connected Women.

Read Gina's recent interview on 'How One Woman Is Bringing Opportunity To More Women In Southeast Asia'.

Edited by Nedda Chaplin
Image credit: Rachel Harrison.

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