Didit Hari Purnomo: Getting children off the street

Didit Hari Purnomo: Getting children off the street

Indra Harsaputra, The Jakarta Post, Surabaya

While most people try to chase happiness in the form of a pay rise or a better job, Didit Hari Purnomo left his job as a TVRI cameraman a few years back just to help disadvantaged women and children in the East Java capital of Surabaya.

"The government pays no attention to street children or impoverished women," the 55-year-old man said last month.

In 2001, Didit set up the Sanggar Alang-Alang training center on Jl. Gunungsari 24, Surabaya, where women and children can come if they feel unsafe or are homeless.

Didit said street children were often portrayed as downtrodden but many of them had made the decision to leave home themselves and shunned control.

"They think they are beyond the law and will twist and break the law … this is why so many street children in Surabaya are behind bars."

He said the government had no program that was specifically aimed at getting children off the streets and back into school.

Didit was born in Lumajang, East Java, on Sept. 14, 1952, into a middle-class family. His father, the late Subandi Singosaputra, or Mbah (Grandfather) Singo, had more than 40 hectares of farmland in Yosowilangun subdistrict, Lumajang.

Mbah Singo was known for his generosity. Every month he donated money for the education of the poor children who lived in the subdistrict and its surrounds.

"Before he died, he said that if you wanted to be happy, you should do a lot of charity work. Don’t wait until you are rich, until the endpoint of your life. Help the poor as much as you can," Didit said.

Before the establishment of Sanggar Alang-Alang, Didit spent most of his time at the Joyoboyo bus terminal. He would approach the street children roaming around the terminal and ask them to come to an open classroom, situated near the public toilets.

"In the meetings, I would encourage them to share their problems and we’d discuss solutions," said Didit, adding that in the first few weeks only five children attended the class, which was held Tuesdays from 10-11 p.m.

The number of children increased slowly from eight to 10 to more than 20.

"Many bus passengers joined the meetings out of curiosity. They thought I was a pharmaceuticals salesman," he said.

Didit said many of the gangs operating in the area, who had used the children to beg or steal for them, felt threatened by the establishment of the group and tried to scare him off. Even the terminal management accused Didit of disturbing public order.

"They wouldn’t leave me alone. I had these big tough guys threatening to kill me. They vandalized my car, which was parked in the terminal," he said.

Didit refused to give up. He later moved his activities to a vacant lot in Gang Kelinci in Surabaya, a residential area where sex work thrives.

But the sex workers did not feel comfortable with his presence and asked him to go. And, once again, he began receiving death threats from the neighborhood thugs.

"They also threatened my family. Every day they called my wife, telling her I should stop my activities. I was on the point of calling it quits.

"But my wife encouraged me to continue teaching the street children even though we had few resources and no external funding" said Didit, who is married to Endang Budharetnowati.

Didit also drew courage from the children who wanted the program to continue.

He later decided to move his activities to an abandoned property on the banks of the Kalimas River in Surabaya. Didit also taught the children how to play musical instruments.

Once again, he came up against resistance. The local administration said Didit’s activities gave homeless people a reason for moving to the area.

But there was growing media interest in Didit’s Education for Street Children program. A few short television segments, an article in a well-read newspaper and word of mouth worked wonders. The street children were invited to perform in a charity night show held by some expatriates in Surabaya and the Surabaya International School.

"I used the proceeds from the show to rent a place for street children. At the same time, people starting making donations," he said.

Today, hundreds of the children who have been assisted by Sanggar Alang-Alang no longer work on the streets but in companies, or run their own businesses. Another 100 students are still in the group’s care.

"That’s what makes me proud and happy, because I managed to get some of them off the street. Better lives for these poor children are no longer a dream but a reality," he said.

He is also happy because his daughter, Ramadhani Wuri Pramesti, is active in running Sanggar Alang-Alang’s programs, including teaching English, sewing and other vocational skills to domestic workers in housing complexes.


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