MANILA, Philippines–KAREN NEVER KNEW THE meaning of home until she set foot in the Open Day Center (ODC) run by the Virlanie Foundation.
Having known only life in the streets and under the bridges of Manila, the strong willed 5-year-old girl was unprepared for this welcome environment in the heart of Quiapo and unwilling to leave the sanctuary it suddenly offered her.
But the center is open only from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., after which the center’s staff of six retires from the task of providing street children like Karen a place to eat, bathe, and perhaps escape momentarily, the scary world outside.
Thus when the clock struck five, Karen would not budge from her seat.
She shook her head twice and squared her shoulders, determined not to leave what had served as her home for eight hours that day. “Can I stay?” she asked, leaving the social worker on duty not a little heartbroken.
Finally, her big brother grabbed Karen’s arm and together, as the sun set, they strolled toward whatever nook or cranny of Quezon Bridge was available to spend the night. We can always come back tomorrow, he told her.
A project of Virlanie Foundation and funded by Amade, the ODC is a unique facility where young persons living in the streets may take refuge during the day but must leave at night.
The rationale behind it, said Virlanie’s deputy executive director, Arlyne Fernandez, is to provide street children with a comforting environment away from vice and crime, and to prepare them for the time when they find a home and have a family of their own.
“The truth is we hope we don’t have centers like this because that would mean no more street children. But as things stand, it seems impossible,” she added.
In an interview at the Virlanie head office in Makati City, Fernandez made clear that the institution does not condone children allowed to roam the streets. “But the children are out there anyway. This is our first step to let them experience a home atmosphere,” she said.
“They need to be in a safe place. The street is not a good place for children, and they have to experience home life so they’ll get used to it when we find a home for them,” Fernandez stressed.
The center, housed in a two-story building on Arlegui Street not too far away from Malacañang, does not provide free food, but instead encourages the families of the children to cook their own food in the kitchen.
The staff is composed of three social workers, a teacher, a nurse and a “house parent,” who oversees the children’s activities. Fernandez said an authority figure is important for kids in the center.
Volunteers are welcome, said May Laurent, who works as a team leader in the facility. “We’re looking for those who can train the kids in carpentry, sports, arts and crafts, etc.”
In the facility, there is a television set, an activity area for tutorials and workshops, and a toilet and bath where the young visitors may wash themselves.
“At first no soap was provided, so we asked them to bring their own. But no one did and many of them had skin diseases or wounds, so we decided to make soap available,” said Lauren.
The rest of the time is devoted to tutorials on various topics from the 3Rs to personal hygiene, and learning sessions on arts and crafts, or for older teens, adolescent sexuality and reproductive health.
Laurent said hygiene is usually the first thing their young wards learn in the center.
With a pained laugh, she recalled one little boy, who, not knowing how to use the toilet, did his thing right on the floor of the activity area. “He and his sibling live under the bridge where they do their toilet activities anywhere. These little things, we have to teach them,” she said.
Apart from the ODC, Virlanie actually operates 12 residential homes providing food, shelter and education for more than 1,000 disadvantaged children in the cities of Makati and Manila and in Batangas and Cavite provinces.
Since the inauguration of the facility in June, Fernandez said an average of 70 to 100 street children have begun to frequent the place every day, though not all of them at the same time.
Often coming in groups of five to eight, more boys than girls visit, Laurent said. They come from Manila’s depressed communities in Divisoria, Avenida, Carriedo, Basan, Paco, Carriedo, P. Casal and Plaza Miranda.
Laurent said working in Virlanie for four years did not prepare her for the images of extreme poverty and squalor that the center’s visitors face every day of their lives.
She remembered three siblings: Anna, 10; Michael, 6; and Gabriel, 3; whose parents are both in jail for petty offenses.
“I visited them once in their shanty under the bridge. The roof was so low you could hardly stand inside the shanty. There were overhanging electric wires, so any wrong move was dangerous,” she said.
Laurent continued: “I felt so scared, but of course I did not show them I was. Yet they were so happy to see me. It seemed as though living there had become so natural for them.”
After seeing their situation, Virlanie took in the siblings and arranged for their accommodation to the temporary homes.
Anna was sent to the Drop-In Center, Michael to the Marco Polo Home, while Gabriel was taken in by an aunt, The three are now doing fine, Laurent added.
“I remember the first time they visited the center. They are good, well-behaved kids. But they were obviously very hungry. They were always hungry,” she noted.
Which is why, despite the policy of not giving the street children food so they do not become dependent on the center, Laurent made an exception for the three. “I served them the food we had left over. In secret, of course.”
“As a social worker, I’m supposed to have an air of detachment dealing with these children. But every now and then, you can’t help but feel for them,” she confessed.
(The children’s names were changed to protect their identities.)