Teeners learn to hug, love street kids even if they smell
First posted 05:44am (Mla time) June 15, 2006
By Yolanda Sotelo-Fuertes
Editor’s Note: Published on Page A1 of the June 15, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer
DAGUPAN CITY, Pangasinan — The night Gale Serafica, 15, and Shirley Carrera, 17, first approached some street children in this city, they were so nervous and embarrassed.
“We did not know how they would react to us, if they would welcome our friendship or not. We were afraid some of our classmates would see us and wonder why we were mingling with dirty and smelly children,” they recalled of their first “assignment” to “socialize” with street children.
As it turned out, the children were friendly and welcomed the attention.
“They are easy to get along with. In five to 10 minutes, we became friends and we started playing,” Serafica said.
Serafica and Carrera belong to a group of youth volunteers called Aguik Ya (My Sibling), a street-based education project of the Liwawa ed Asinan Foundation (LEAF) Inc. which was started in July last year.
Their identification cards bear the phrase, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother,” and a photograph of a butterfly, which, they said, symbolizes hope.
The youngest volunteer is a 12-year-old girl.
Lina Tan, LEAF executive director, said Aguik Ya aims to reduce the number of street children in the city by taking care of their basic needs and giving them education, love and attention.
Dealing with the children was an eye-opener for LEAF volunteers, most of them high school and college students.
“I thought those kinds of lives are only seen in the movies or soap operas. Their stories are real,” Carrera said, speaking in English and Filipino.
Take the case of 11-year-old Jeena. Her parents are separated and her mother is in jail on illegal drug charges.
Jeena begs and earns about P50 daily, which she uses to buy food for herself and her 6-year-old sister. The two live in a shanty in the city, and Jeena does what her parents should be doing for them — cooking, washing their clothes and looking after her sister.
Rolando Cusi, an employee of Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. and a volunteer, said the program’s operative word was “love.”
“Almost all of these street children have dysfunctional families and they lack the love, care and attention that they need most,” Cusi, the project officer and volunteer coordinator, said.
Hugging makes difference
“You hug them even if they are smelly and they hug you back. At first, I couldn’t breathe because of their stench. But I realized that they lack love and hugging them will make a big difference in their lives. Some of them will even try to get your attention by bullying others,” Cusi said.
He said street children feel and act like outcasts but they bask on love and attention from whoever will give it to them.
“We want to show the street children that they are part of society,” Tan said.
Once, she got angry when she heard of a report that a security guard of the city plaza drove the children away because the plaza, according to the guard, was only for “decent people.”
“He earned a lecture from me about children’s rights,” Tan said. Since then, the children were allowed to roam freely in the park.
Another aspect of the Aguik Ya program is literacy.
The 130 street children under the group’s care are classified into “readers” and “nonreaders,” and teaching modules have been prepared to suit their needs. The volunteers bring with them teaching materials, like books, pencils, paper and whatever is needed during the group’s “literacy hour.”
Then there’s the personal hygiene part of the project where children are taught to keep themselves clean.
“We have a ‘dimpo’ (wash) day,” Cusi said. Here the children are given kits containing soap, towel, toothpaste, toothbrush and some used clothing.
The group has also tapped the help of the Pangasinan Medical Society to circumcise the boys and de-worm the children.
“We also extend medical help depending on a problem that arises,” Tan said.
For instance, some days back, Randy Mislang, 21, a street educator, saw a big wound on the left arm of a girl and she had her treated in a hospital. Another girl, he said, was hit by a rock in her head by a playmate and the wound needed stitching up.
“When we took the girl to her house, her mother, instead of comforting her, hit her in the head,” Mislang said.
Still, the children do not speak ill of their mothers, Tan said.
They may say bad things about their fathers but never about their mothers, she said.
Some children have had brushes with the law, a few of them tagged as “recidivists,” like 13-year-old Boboy.
The group had intervened thrice to convince the police and village guards not to arrest Boboy.
His first violation was when he was caught begging in a restaurant.
“We reasoned with the police that he did nothing wrong so he was allowed to go. Second, he was accused of being a pickpocket and was taken to a police station in another town. We told the police that he should be in the custody of the Department of Social Welfare and Development. Since there was no case filed, he was again freed but not after being beaten by the police,” Cusi said.
The third time was nothing short of a television drama episode, he said.
Boboy’s brother was accused of stealing a pair of pants from a neighbor and a tanod (village guard) picked him up so his mother could bring his brother to the barangay center to return the pants.
“It was my birthday and I was celebrating it with some street children at the LEAF center. Some children arrived and informed us that Boboy was at the barangay center held by the tanod. I and (Cusi) decided to go to help him,” Tan said.
When the other children learned of the incident, they decided to follow Tan and Cusi to the barangay center.
“It was like a hearing of a case, with us defending Boboy’s right as a child, that he must not be hit,” Cusi said.
“There was rejoicing among the children when Boboy was set free. The tanod apologized to Boboy and to the other children,” Tan said.
Cusi, a father of three, said he later learned that the tanod suspected him to be a leader of a syndicate victimizing children. He just laughed it off.
The core volunteers are members of a Gospel sharing group based at the office of the LEAF.
When they learned about the project, they readily joined.
The volunteers have to sign a form that indicate how long they would be volunteering. Those below 17 years old need their parents’ signatures on the form.
The volunteers undergo orientation seminars and leadership training given by the LEAF before they start working in the streets.
“Not all volunteers are accepted. We check their backgrounds to find out if they are fit to deal with children,” said Cusi.
He said the young volunteers were regularly “debriefed” through sharing of their experiences.
Tan, Cusi and the street educators underwent an extensive skills training on street-based education and mobilization for street educators conducted by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)-National Council for Social Development.
Each Aguik Ya volunteer allots at least two hours a week for the children, usually late in the afternoon or at night at the city plaza.
“That’s the time you will find them in the streets, begging for school money or to buy rice for the family or gambling,” Cusi said.
“Some of them are beaten up by their parents when they go home without money,” he said.
The Aguik Ya plans to help send some of the children to school so they need not beg anymore.
But another aspect of the problem is how to make the children’s parents realize their responsibilities, Cusi said.
“We will try to ‘connect’ with the parents and work with them,” he said.