November 5, 2007

Finding Hope in the City Park :)

November 05, 2007 04:50:00
by Jeannette Andrade
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines -- For six people, the Quezon Memorial Circle is more than a park smack in the middle of busy, exhaust-choked Elliptical Road in Quezon City. Thanks to the kindness of strangers, it is a place of hope and new beginnings.

A simple admission to a social worker of Child Hope Asia Philippines that they had stolen cell phones in the park changed the lives of Jeffrey and Bernard (not their real names), aged 16 and 18, respectively.

The social worker told a colleague who informed Quezon City Parks Development Foundation Inc. (QCPDFI) chair Charito Planas.

Planas was touched by the boys’ brave admission and asked to meet with them. She felt hope for them because they still had a conscience and helped them go back to school.

Now, Jeffrey is at the top of his high school sophomore class at the Culiat Annex school, while Bernard is taking a vocational course in air-conditioning repair.

“We now have plans for our lives,” Bernard says in Filipino as Jeffrey nods in assent.

In the past, the boys worked as jeepney barkers at Philcoa and Tandang Sora avenues in Quezon City.

So much distrust

Jeffrey says they used to hate the rich because “they distrust us so much. We go near them and they avoid us.”

In one incident, he overheard an overprotective mother tell her young child: “‘Get away from him. He’s a snatcher.’ We were always insulted by the rich and looked down upon.”

Jeffrey says the few coins they earned as barkers they used to buy solvent or a bowl of rice swimming in beef or chicken stock. If they were still hungry, they would steal food from tables inside fast-food restaurants momentarily left unattended by customers.

Bernard says they usually slept at the circle.

Asked where in the park they used to sleep, he answers in jest: “We have a very big mansion here,” gesturing at the vastness of the park.

Their aversion toward the “rich” was somewhat reduced when they met volunteer social workers from Assumption College.

“We used to insult them. We told them that they should avoid us like the other rich people. But they did not give up. They showed us that not all rich people are snobs,” Jeffrey says.

It was the Assumption volunteers who introduced them to Child Hope, a nongovernmental organization helping children get off the streets.

Faith Elahe, Child Hope social worker and street educator, met the boys early this year.

Touched by sincerity

Jeffrey and Bernard were so touched by the apparent sincerity of Child Hope, they expressed remorse and confessed to having stolen cellular phones from visitors to the Quezon Memorial Circle. They said they did it to help a third accomplice, who needed the money to buy medicine for a sick parent.

“They really wanted to return the cell phones but since [they had already sold the phones] and had no means of [getting them back] or returning them [to the owners], they said they wanted to change,” says Elahe, who arranged the boys’ meeting with the QCPDFI chair.

Planas asked the boys what they wanted out of life. Jeffrey said he wanted to finish high school, while Bernard said he wanted to get a job.

Planas learned from Elahe that Jeffrey came from a dysfunctional family and was forced to stop school because his parents could no longer afford his education.

She offered to send him to Culiat Annex. During the first few months, she discovered he was a smart boy.

“His grades were not that high then but I told him that if he pulled up his grades, I could get him a scholarship and put him through college,” Planas says.

At the end of the third grading period, Jeffrey went to Planas’ office with his report card. He was at the top of his class.

“I want to take up civil engineering, then maybe buy myself a mansion,” Jeffrey says. Bernard dreams of getting a job and starting a family.

Second chance

Misfortune hounded Michael Burgos, 31, and his common-law wife Jill Cruz, 18, and their 9-month-old daughter Maria Crystal before life gave them a second chance at the Quezon Memorial Circle.

Burgos used to work as a security guard but lost his job because the agency he belonged to turned out to be operating illegally.

“I could not find a job that could help my family survive. I tried construction work and ended up being a scavenger because without papers, nobody wanted to employ me,” says Burgos, adding that the fly-by-night security agency refused to surrender his credentials.

Neither could the couple return to their families who were strongly against the relationship.

“I love my wife and I cannot bear being separated from her,” says Burgos, adding that Cruz’s family was willing to take her back on condition that she left him.

So they moved from place to place, their belongings in plastic bags, reaching as far as Pasay City. At one point, they were sleeping at the Luneta where most of their possessions were stolen, prompting them to find a safe place to stay.

After Maria Crystal was born in February, they moved to the circle. They begged for alms in the day and slept in the park at night. They did this for three months until a park employee convinced them to approach Planas.

The QCPDFI chair initially offered Burgos a job with the barangay (village) but eventually told him to rent one of the rest rooms in the park as a concessionaire.

Planas also allowed the homeless family to live in the men’s rest room near the park’s food court until they could find a place of their own.

“I now have a source of income and a place to live … until we can bounce back,” Burgos says.

Mama Planas

Samantha Grace Planas Maceda was abandoned by her mother at the Quezon Memorial Circle when she was just 2 months old. This was in 2000.

Maceda now considers Planas her mother.

Planas says the child, now 7 years old, has grown up to be a well-rounded individual who is wise beyond her years.

The QCPDFI chair says that although Maceda is not interested in going back to her biological mother, the little girl is curious about the identity of her parents.

“I told her I know the name of her mother but I cannot tell her because I made a promise,” Planas says, adding that the child’s mother had called up the QCPDFI at least three times.

Maceda’s mother had asked Planas for one thing: “Please take good care of my daughter.”

This is something Planas has been doing since Maceda was left in her care.

“She can carry her own in a conversation with adults and is never shy talking with public officials, including Mayor (Feliciano) Belmonte,” Planas says.

She adds that Maceda once told her: “Mama, I will be president.”

© Copyright 2007, An INQUIRER Company

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