You see them all over the country but they stand out mostly in the city of Manila. Barefoot street children with dirty faces,and ratty shirts. They are a ubiquitous lot, weaving in and out of cars during traffic, begging for money. You find them in the sidewalks sniffing glue for their daily drug fix or in jeepneys wiping passengers’ shoes in exchange for a peso. Some have become petty thieves so as to survive the city jungle. At night, they sleep at street corners, wet markets or under city bridges with just a cardboard for a bed.
The government tries its best to cope with the street children problem through the Department of Social Welfare’s rescue centers. There are also institutions funded by foreign non -government organizations (NGOs), or run by private individuals and religious orders which provide them with education, food and shelter. However, the efforts are akin to stopping a rampaging river with a dam made out of sticks. There are just too many children roaming the streets.
They are fascinating oddities for foreigners who hail from first world countries. I remember bringing two Swedish colleagues, first timers in Asia, to several supermarkets for a product tour. On the way to downtown Manila, they kept on taking photos of the street children and barraged me with questions. They could not get over the fact that the children literally sleep on the streets.
Most Filipinos acknowledge the situation as the offshoot of a developing country with a bloated population. I suppose many citizens would like to help alleviate the problem. But the truth of the matter is many are just too busy earning a living to really care or to find the time to volunteer. When I was still single. I volunteered at a center for street children run by the Salesian sisters. I went there during weekends to read stories to them or give them some coloring books and art materials. I also invited a dentist friend of mine to provide free dental services. Unfortunately, my budding career in public relations took much of my time. I stopped my visits at the center and never came back.
I have not given the plight of the street children much thought for so many years. Sure, I toss a few coins to them when they knock on our car window. But I got busy with my career and in raising a family.I have become inured to their existence for they have melded into the city’s landscape. But my seven-year old son Joshua inadvertently changed my jaded state of mind.
After his seventh birthday party, we brought home a lot of leftover food. It was a Sunday so we had to rush to go to Mass. I packed the boxes of spaghetti and french fries in a bag on the way to church. I wanted to give it to a friend who sells mangoes regularly in the vicinity. But she went home early that day.
My son pointed to a group of street children in front of the church selling strings of sampaguita ( small, white flowers). My son decided to give the food to them. They were initially hesitant to accept it but I explained to them it was from my son’s party. They gave cries of joy when they saw what was in the bag. They thanked me, greeted my son a happy birthday and ran off to a nearby tree to eat their unexpected McDonald’s treats.
I was taken a aback on how happy they were. My son was pleased. ” Mommy, we helped some poor people.” I realized that it was the first time that he actually met the street children in our area. He asked so many questions about them until bedtime. Joshua could not forget the experience that he shared it with his Christian Life Education (CLE) teacher the following day.
I had forgotten how simple gifts and gestures are much appreciated by these street children. I witnessed that often when I was at the center. They were dark, smelled of the sun with most of them missing some teeth. They were poor, abused with their innocence lost on the streets yet they giggled with delight with my gifts of crayola and paper. They were after all, deep down inside, just normal children.