In the Philippines, teenage Mary is off the streets and studying for her exams
Last year I visited Manila, capital of the Philippines, with photographer Sharron Lovell to document a day in the life of three children, for the launch of the new UNICEF UK website. One of them was thirteen-year-old Mary (not her real name) who lived with her family on the street outside Starbucks, where her mother ran a cigarette stall. Back then, Mary spent her days working on the stall or looking after her younger sisters, and her nights hanging out on the streets with other street children, many of whom ‘did rugby’ (sniffed solvents).
I was in Manila again recently and spent an afternoon with street educator Butch Nerja from local charity Childhope Asia Philippines. After saying goodbye to Sally - see part one of this blog - we went to find Mary. Although her family was still on the streets, Mary was living temporarily with Butch and his wife in order to concentrate on her studies. “Mary is such a smart girl but it’s hard for her to study when she’s on the streets,” Butch told me. “Her brothers will be going to a shelter soon but Mary won’t leave her mother. I had to think of another solution. We live only two blocks away so I said ‘you can come and stay with us’.”
Butch and I first looked for Mary at Binondo church, where Childhope runs alternative learning sessions (ALS) and a choir for street children. Mary wasn’t there but her older brother Bayani was. He was studying hard, writing in a notebook on a wooden table in a humid upstairs room. Outside the church, we ran into Mary’s younger sister, Jasmine, who was running unsupervised across the busy square with other street children. In the evenings, children throw firecrackers here, with little regard for their own safety. Jasmine had a T-shirt tied around her head. “She got lice recently and was scratching her head,” Butch explained. “Because her fingers were dirty it got infected, and she had to go to hospital.”
“I think Mary must have gone home,” Butch said and we made our way to his house in the heart of Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown. We passed through busy side streets, where street vendors were selling fruit from wooden trailers, many of them piled high with purple dragon fruit. Elsewhere, wooden-fronted shops sold Chinese charms and herbal medicines, repaired mah-jong sets or sold ‘death money’ to burn for the spirits of dead ancestors.
Room with a view
Butch’s house was alongside the canal. It was an informal structure made from wooden boards and corrugated iron. Butch and his family lived upstairs, while his wife’s parents lived downstairs. “Welcome to my home,” Butch said, pointing to a narrow flight of wooden steps. Upstairs, the house had been partitioned into four rooms – one for Butch and his wife, another for their children, a small kitchen/lounge and a storage room overlooking the canal.
The lounge was decorated with a mixture of religious iconography and musical memorabilia. There was a small shrine to Jesus on top of the fridge, next to several laughing Buddhas. On the shelf opposite was a framed picture of Bob Marley and Butch’s own dreadlocks, hung over one of his many awards for social work. Also in the lounge were Butch’s wife and the two former street children he was currently looking after – Mary and Cecile. Mary was clearly a teenager now. She had much longer hair that she frequently brushed, and was obviously taking care of her appearance.
While Cecile ran out with 100 peso to buy some soft drinks, I asked Mary what she had been up to in the year since I last saw her. “I still go to Childhope’s street education sessions and to RockEd choir practice at Binondo church,” she replied in Tagalog. “I help Butch with the classes and I’m studying for my ALS certificate.”
Butch nodded in agreement. “If Mary passes our exam this year she can go to school in Grade 6,” he said. “I’m currently looking for a sponsor for her. She’s 14 years old now so it’s her last chance. She has the willingness and interest to learn. One hundred per cent I believe she can do it.”
Both girls do chores around the house, in exchange for which they get a place to stay and three meals a day. Mary washes the dishes and cleans the house. Cecile’s task, meanwhile, is to cook dinner. The two girls were obviously very close, although being teenagers they denied it. “Cecile is OK but she’s a bit lazy with the washing up,” Mary joked.
Value of education
Butch and his wife also employ Mary’s mother, August, to do their washing. “The local barangay council told her that she couldn’t run the cigarette stall anymore,” Butch said. “Now she works as a laundry woman.” August is happy that Mary is staying with Butch’s family. “She thinks about the welfare of her children and believes in the value of education,” Butch continued. “She wants them off the streets and back in school.”
For now, Mary is adjusting to her new structured lifestyle. She is learning to go to bed at 11pm, rather than 3am. “I had difficulty sleeping at first but now I’m getting used to it,” she said. Mary is also able to watch TV for the first time. I was encouraged to hear that she often watches documentaries and news programmes, as well as movies and cartoons. “Mary recently watched a documentary about the anniversary of the September 11th attacks,” Butch said. “She had a lot of questions afterwards, so I had to be a lecturer and explain the history.”
The girls are allowed out in the evenings but they have to ask permission first. “My wife is very strict,” Butch said with a smile. “She says ‘you can go out for two hours but be back on time’. So far, they always have.”
Not being on the streets has also helped Mary to give up solvents. “I was very patient with her and would explain the side effects,” Butch said. “She knows this but it’s still hard for her to give up. I would tell her ‘I understand, I’ve been there also’. This is why it’s important for her to be with normal kids and have better role models.”
I gave Mary an album of the best photos from our visit last year and she looked through it with evident pleasure, showing the pictures to Cecile. “Can we go and find my mum so she can see this too?” she asked Butch. He agreed and I started to pack up my camera and notepad. “I can see the change in Mary,” Butch commented as we left. “She used to be a pensive child but now she laughs and smiles more.”
The thing that struck me most about my visit to Butch’s house was that, despite being small and crowded, it had an obviously warm family atmosphere. I’ve known rich families that lack this and it makes all the difference. Here, the children were happy and well looked after. Mary and Cecile laughed and played with Butch’s daughter, and were clearly comfortable with him and his wife. In short, it felt like a home.
I felt honored to be invited there and humbled by the level of Butch’s generosity towards the children he works with. I like to think I do my bit for society – I work to raise awareness of and money for children’s rights, I make personal donations, including to Childhope, and run half marathons for UNICEF. But looking at Butch’s life forced me to re-evaluate my own and ask myself if I could do more. Would I, like Butch, take in vulnerable children to share my home? Honestly, I really don’t know. I’m just glad that he does.