Street kids’ lives rewritten in recycled paper

BLANK SHEETS: A worker makes new sheets of paper from a pulp mixture of waste-paper, water hyacinth and onion peels. JP/Agnes Winarti


Street kids’ lives rewritten in recycled paper

Agnes Winarti, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

There is a power of healing in recycled paper. A great one, according to some street children.

For them, recycling paper is a way to recover their dignity as human beings.

"We recycle waste paper with banana fronds, cogon grass, water hyacinth, onion peels and other organic stuff that is mostly thrown away," said Hendra, 20, who lived on the streets of Jakarta for six years before joining the workshop.

"My life is just like the paper recycling process. I was saved from the streets. I learned to become a person with more dignity by participating in this gallery," Hendra told The Jakarta Post at his shelter, the K’Qta gallery, in Kampung Bendungan Melayu, North Jakarta.

The gallery is a workshop for street children to make handicrafts and organic recycled paper, which are sold in both the domestic market and abroad, including Japan, Singapore, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands.

"I noticed that people used to disregard me when I was on the streets, but now things have changed. When people see my creations, they show appreciation," said Hendra, who has sold his work in the gallery for the past four years.

The young craftsmen are free to express their creativity in making handicrafts that range from shopping bags, photo frames, pencil cases, gift boxes and souvenir glasses, as well as reflexology massage tools.

They are also free to experiment in creating paper with different textures, using sheep wool, straw and even human hair from nearby beauty salons.

The gallery is home to 13 former street children rescued by social worker Dindin Komarudin, the workshop manager since 2002.

"They actually earn less here than the did in the streets, yet they stay here," said Dindin, 36, adding that a child can make Rp 30,000 to Rp 50,000 a day in the streets, while he can only get Rp 15,000 to Rp 17,500 as a beginner in the workshop.

"Money can be plentiful out there, but in this workshop they get the feeling of security, respect and appreciation for their work," said Dindin.

In the streets, they can only run from one police raid to the next, and they face exploitation and violence from street thugs, Dindin said.

Hendra, who can earn Rp 500,000 a month from the paper recycling, said he was never treated like a laborer.

"Although Kak Dindin is the founder of the gallery, he treats us equally. We produce and he promotes our products. It’s just a kind of distribution of duties. We are partners."

Hendra acknowledged that at first he ran away several times from the workshop because he felt he was being exploited. "But then Kak Dindin opened my eyes. `If you want to fulfill your dream of having a family of your own, you cannot continue living in the streets.’"

"I need to make an effort to change myself," said the second child of seven siblings, who used to be a street singer.

Arya, 26, another former street child, who has been living at the gallery for five years, said, "I’m protected here. I have a roof over my head. And we have already bonded like a family."

Arya came from a broken home, running away after his father left his mother when he was 10 years old.

"From the first moment I came here, I never thought twice of going back to the streets," said Arya, who recently received his high school certificate by attending the government’s Kejar Paket C program, and plans to study civil engineering at the university level.

Arya expressed his hope of finding a donor to fund his future studies. For the past two years he has been saving some of his income to pay for his future education.

"I send Rp 400,000 every month to my mother who is raising my four step-siblings in Sukabumi, and I have been saving all of the rest. But I don’t know whether it will be enough."

Arya earns Rp 800,000 a month making recycled paper. Dindin trusts him as the field coordinator of the recycled paper workshop.

Dindin said the business is not just providing income for the children but also giving them an opportunity to have leadership roles, like a coordinator or a trainer.

Due to his experience and his enthusiasm in sharing knowledge with others, Arya has also become a trainer in several recycling paper training sessions.

"They can improve self-confidence when they teach others. Some of these youngsters have trained people from all sorts of backgrounds — university students, civil servants, even doctors," said Dindin.

When asked whether Arya would still come back to the workshop if he had a chance for another job, Arya said without hesitation, "I will never leave this job even if I find another one."

"This job has saved me from the streets. I will never forget that."

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