A man who grew up in the slums of Manila is helping street children and giving them an education, writes Mabel Sieh
When Efren G. Penaflorida was young, he was bullied by other children because he was poor. School life was no fun at all. 'I was picked on all the time just because I didn't have nice clothes,' says Penaflorida, who grew up in a shanty in Cavite City of Manila, Philippines. 'One time, some kids threw rocks at me.'
Because of his bad experience, Penaflorida lost interest in school and started to hang around the dumpsites with other children. Now 29 years old and a school teacher, Penaflorida says the area is a place for poor children to get together. Some of them pick through the rubbish and others smell rubber or fuel to forget their hunger.
Soon enough, like many other children, he was approached by gangsters to join them. It was very tempting for him to say yes. 'I was angry and wanted to get back at those who bullied me,' he says.
Fortunately, his anger turned into something positive as he met Bonn Manalaysay, founder of a youth organisation named Club 8586. 'Bonn, my mentor, has taught me positive values. He told me I could fight the bullies by helping others like me.'
Penaflorida founded the Dynamic Teen Company (DTC) with other young people 1997. Together with a team of teenage volunteers, DTC reaches out to poor children at the dumpsites and cemeteries and provide them with food, basic medical care and education. 'The saddest thing is to see children dying from sickness because they can't afford to see a doctor,' says Penaflorida. He once helped a four-year-old who suffered burns and slept in the grave. 'Luckily, he survived and is now one of our volunteers.'
Being able to go back to school and finish university has made Penaflorida keen to bring education to the street children of Cavite. With limited resources, Emmanuel Bagual, one of the volunteers, suggested using a 'kariton', or pushcart, to transport school and medical supplies to children in the slums. 'We put our energy into pushing the carts rather than fighting,' says the 17-year-old.
Bagual's idea later became the 'Pushcart Classroom', a mobile classroom with a blackboard, school supplies and mats for children to sit on. Every week, DTC staff push the 'classroom' to different locations.
Up till now, DTC has helped more than 1,700 children aged four to 15, and has pulled children out of gangs and back to school. Penaflorida was named CNN Hero of 2009.
'If no one helped me when I was a teenager, I would have ended up on the street or become a gangster. I wouldn't be the person I am now,' he says. 'We all have a hidden hero inside us waiting to be unleashed, no matter how old or young we are. A simple act of kindness will make a big difference [in someone's life].'
Penaflorida was invited to Hong Kong last week to speak to 600 students from 15 countries at the Global Issues Network Conference at Chinese International School.
Dynamic Teen Company is raising funds to build a three-storey learning centre for impoverished children in Cavite City. E-mail Fcalendar@club8586.org to find out how you can help.