Big brother on the streets
B y R O N A L D S . L I M
Being a social worker certainly has a romantic air about it, one of being able to change how the world works by simply helping other people. Mother Teresa immediately comes to mind, roaming the streets of Calcutta and helping those who cannot help themselves.
To be a social worker who works with children is doubly impressive, as one not only gets to change the world, but does so with the future leaders of our country.
But along with the fulfillment that comes with the vocation come fatigue, frustration, and sometimes, even the loss of idealism. In place is the pragmatism of being on the streets with the people you’re helping out.
Youth and Campus Bulletin, on a day at work with 23-year old social worker and street educator Leo James Portales, learns that effecting a change in others requires more self-sacrifice than most people realize.
Portales got his degree in social work at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila (PLM). But even in college, he already had an inkling of how his life would go.
"A professor once told me that I would never get rich doing social work," he says with a laugh. "I knew that coming into this job but that didn’t stop me. My mother was a social worker herself, and she has always been my idol. As a child I always wanted to do what she was doing," Portales avers.
The decision to do social work among the metropolis’ street children was influenced by his practicum spent with the Pangarap Foundation. It was during this experience that he encountered one of the street educators of Childhope Philippines, a non-profit organization that works for the liberation of street children from working and being abused on the streeet.
1:30 p. m.
The start of Portales’ day is easy enough, with him accomplishing feedback reports in the spacious lawn of the Childhope home base on Peñafrancia Extension in Paco, Manila. The forms detail the progress reports on the different children that Portales has been working with on the streets, as well as all the incidental expenses he has incurred on his daily trips as a street educator.
His rounds as a street educator usually start around five in the afternoon, stretching all the way into nine in the evening, sometimes even way past midnight, depending on the temperament of the street children or the weather.
Today however, Portales will be going out at around three in the afternoon, not only for the benefit of the Youth and Campus Bulletin, but also for the crew of a television show that plans to include Childhope Asia as a beneficiary of one of its popular segments.
While waiting for the television crew to arrive, Portales relates the first time he started working as a street educator for Chidlhope. and what a session with the street children—from ages as young as seven all the way to 16 years old — usually entails.
"When I started working with Childhope, I didn’t have any difficulty working with the street children, since I already had prior experience at the Pangarap Foundation," he relates. "The only difference this time around is that the children I work with are spread all over the area. In a center, you call for them and they’re there, but as a street educator you have to search for them in the streets and make them feel important. They have to feel that somebody really does have their interest at heart."
Once the children are found, one of two things happen.
If Portales has the Childhope Philippines’ mobile education van with him, the children are treated to educational and values formation videos. He finds these visual aids as an invaluable help to his job.
"All of us street educators take advatange of the mobile van resource whenever we can," he relates. "The lessons we teach them are always more concrete when the children have something that they can see, and outside of the sessions the children remember the values in them, if not necessarily the story."
Portales can definitely attest to the effectivity of the mobile education van, relating one episode where the street children he was teaching helped push a stalled van because of a lesson learned in one educational video. The video had one striking line in it: "Hangga’t kayang tumulong, dapat tumulong," and this line was what prompted the children to help out.
If the mobile van is unavailable, Portales will have to do it the old-fashioned way — with felt tip pens, manila paper, and a lot of visual aids.
The TV crew finally calls to tell the Childhope people that they will not be joining this afternoon session after all, and with today being a non-mobile van day because of color-coding, Portales and I are out of the compund by 4 in the afternoonand walking around the streets of Faura, heading towards Plaza Ferguson.
We venture out into many side alleys that either smell of urine or human waste, and one by one we find Portales’ students, and the easy way with which Portales mingles with them is proof of the two years of experience he has amassed while on the job.
While it is easy enough for Portales to talk to the children and joke with them, he relates to me that these children are sincerely in need of help.
One of his female charges, Portales reveals, used to be involved in prostitution, while most of the children are heavily abusing solvents. We even chanced upon two boys engaged in "sparring," a sort of mock fistfight that eventually degenerates into actual brawls.
It is around this point that most wannabes realize that this may not be what they signed up for.
"When I first started out doing these, I felt that there was no hope for these children," he says. " When you’re new, you feel like you can help everybody out, but eventually you learn not to expect. The process is slow, and sometimes, even if it’s painful, you have to admit that you can’t help all the children."
Time spent with these street children has also taught him a lot of what it means to move around in the world that they inhabit.
"When you say street children, people always think of negative things," he says. "Oftentimes they are only in these situation because their parents were already in that situation before them. And all the stuff they do — stealing, lying, abusing solvents — is usually the easiest way for them to survive on the streets. This doesn’t mean that we condone these activities, but we have to understand why they do these things. They know ways to get by in life that can not be learned in any school."
As such, Portales advises would-be social workers that aside from a genuine concern for the plight of these school children, they need to learn to move in an environment that may very well be beyond their comfort zone.
Classes finally begin at around this time. The children are rowdy and it takes quite a while to get them in line so that Portales can begin his lesson on children’s rights. A stern voice is essential, because most of the children Portales works with are very rowdy. Activities are usually carried out with expletives regularly bandied about between the students. In the middle of the session, a young boy nicknamed Tolits is found with a rugby container. One wonders how Portales manages to keep his patience.
"One has to be a people person in this line of work," he explains. "You’re in the company of addicts, sometimes even murderers, and you can’t cover your nose or choose who you’re going to associate with. You have to help as many people as you can, looks or situation regardless."
His work with these children has also instilled in Portales a measure of pride in their accomplishemnts. One of his students, a young boy named Lorenzo, has already become a junior advocate for Childhope. Another, a 15-year old named Charlie, shows a particular aptitude for tonight’s lessons.
"A lot of these children are talented and intelligent, it’s just that they have not been given the same opportunities that other children have been given," he says. "A lot of these kids want more than anything to get out of the streets and be in school."
The session ends, the childern no less rowdy or crude. But Portales assures me that there are no one-shot deals in social work.
"Rehabilitation is a long process; a child’s life isn’t fixed just becaus of one conversation," he says. "Even when you think they’ve retained nothing, there’s always something that sticks in their minds. Besides, the frustration is always outweighed by how rewarding it feels when these kids finally get off the streets, and you encounter them — clean, in a school uniform, and totally different from how they used to be. This is what keeps me in my job, and what keeps me enjoying it."