Last Oct. 29, I attended the ceremony where French Ambassador Gerard Chesnel presented the formal document from French President Nikolas Sarkozy to 49-year-old French Jesuit Fr. Jean-Francois Thomas, electing him as knight in the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award founded by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802.
Father Thomas, who has been living here since 1996, was recognized for founding in 1998 Tulay ng Kabataan Foundation (TNK — Bridge of Youth), which rescues the neediest children from Metro Manila’s streets and slums and seeks to transform them into productive citizens. The ascetic-looking priest holds a doctorate in philosophy from the Sorbonne University in Paris and a master’s degree in theology from Cambridge. He chose to leave his teaching at the Ateneo de Manila University to push three projects for the city’s poorest children.
An interesting footnote is Chesnel’s disclosure that Thomas’ father was also awarded the Legion of Honor with rank of knight 55 years ago when he was 32 years old, for his military service during World War II and in the French resistance. Chesnel said it’s very rare for a parent and child to both be so decorated. The elder Thomas, who was later promoted to Commander, bequeathed to his son his knight’s decoration, and the latter proudly wore it last Oct. 29 over his cassock.
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Cecile Alvarez and I invited Father Thomas to our dzRH radio program, on which he spoke about the TNK programs. One seeks to rescue street kids who fall victim to violence, drugs and prostitution and rehabilitate them in residential centers that offer a family atmosphere, while preparing those of school age to return to school through “bridge classes” and giving older ones vocational training.
A second program works with families in Metro Manila’s slums, where he seeks to feed 800 “dangerously malnourished children,” provide them medical care with the help of volunteer doctors from the EDSA Shrine Parish and access to pre-school education. It also trains mothers on better nutrition and recruits them to teach other mothers in this vital concern, and adults to become teachers in his schools. A third program works with scavenger families in the “new Smokey Mountain” in Vitas, Tondo, where 200 children are provided balanced meals and schooling in two centers.
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He notes that poverty seems to be getting worse in the areas where TNK works and that street children seem to be getting younger (as young as four years old). To service TNK’s many centers, he spends about P30 million a year and employs about 100 people. How does he raise the funds? Largely through “Divine Providence,” he said with a grin, and the help of many kind souls and volunteers.
Father Thomas needs donations in cash or in kind, such as rice, “new clothes” for kids ages 4 to 18, “unexpired” medicines and “recent computers.” He also noted that more middle and upper class Filipinos are getting involved in helping the very poor, “but much more help is needed.” He ended our interview by citing lines from French poet Charles Peguy, which translates roughly thus: “One can avoid looking at poverty, but poverty will look at you anyway.” We Pinoys should come to the assistance of this foreign priest regarding our streetchildren. He can be reached at 108 Kalayaan Ave., Quezon City. (beside Eunilane Supermarket), Tel. No. +632 9222745, or at www.tnkfoundation.org.