By Sherryl Anne G. Quito
Diding is a familiar face in the Basilica of the Black Nazarene in the noisy, throbbing heart of old Manila, Quiapo. Three times a day, this volunteer cook for the church’s feeding center prepares porridge (lugaw) for 200 to 400 hungry and homeless families who patiently line up outside the gates off Plaza Miranda. For many, Diding’s lugaw will be their first—and last—meal of the day.
A retired teacher, Diding is well-loved by both young and old in the area for her genuine kindness. Her humanitarian efforts give a glimmer of hope to the needy, knowing that there is someone who is willing to make life easier for them. Diding says she will never get tired of cooking lugaw. It’s a wonderful feeling when you know you’re doing something right, she says. Without Diding and the other volunteers in the feeding center, the poor won’t have anything to fill their empty stomach. With Diding around, the poor are assured to have a “Noche Buena” (Christmas eve) feast of at least lugaw.
For five-year-old Christian Alvarez, Diding’s lugaw is already manna from heaven. Whenever he takes a spoonful of Diding’s lugaw, he thinks of his favorite food—tinola and fried chicken—saving him from his gnawing hunger. This Christmas, this frisky peroxide blond street kid will be enjoying Diding’s lugaw in a different light—spaghetti and hamonado langgoniza (pork sausage with ham).
For Christian and the other street children around the Quiapo area, Christmas is just an ordinary day. Some say Christmas is for children—but not for these street kids. The gap between the rich and poor children is heavily noticed during the holiday season. A 2005 National Statistics Office (NSO) survey commissioned by the International Labour Organization-International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (ILO-IPEC), estimated that 3 out of 20 children in the Philippines or some 3.7 million, mostly 5-17 years old, are working children.
While children of well-off families enjoy suffering from Noche Buena overindulgence, street children suffer from hunger or food shortage. For Filipinos, Christmas is a season for family reunions and gatherings. Parents have their children in tow and are confronted with a heavy plate of pasta, ham, morcon, fruit salad. Street children are forced to beg for alms while singing Christmas carols or scavenge for food just to bring home something for the family to share on Christmas Eve. Some are young criminals—with a gang boss.
Instead of family reunions, these children are reunited with their comrades in juvenile prison. SPO1 Alfred Tenorio of the Manila Police District said their records show that the number of children put in jail increases as the holiday season approaches. The most common offense committed by these children are bag-snatching and pick pocketing, especially in the Divisoria, Binondo and Quiapo districts areas flooded with shoppers.
SPO1 Tenorio reveals that most children they take in for questioning say they really don’t want to commit crimes. Most of them are forced by their parents, bullied by older kids or instructed by syndicate bosses.
Government has responded to this problem by ratifying ILO Convention 138 and strengthening its monitoring of businesses that employ children. There have been rescues of children employed as laborers. Government and police efforts to bring down syndicate use of kids have to increase.
Despite the bright lights surrounding malls and middle- and upper-class homes, street children are blinded to the joy of Christmas brought to mankind by the birth of Christ the savior and redeemer. For these poverty-stricken children have never experiences how it feels to celebrate Christmas the way better-off families do.
Mark Anthony Gañedo, 9, one of Christian’s playmates, sleeps on a milk carton as do his parents and four siblings. He said he has never experienced opening presents under a Christmas tree or sitting down around a table to enjoy a decent Christmas dinner. The best Noche Buena he ever had, he said, was a leftover Jollibee Chickenjoy he found in the garbage, which he had to share with his siblings.
Mark Anthony says he always makes more money during the Christmas weeks, begging and peddling cigarettes and candies. However, he said he wants to experience what it is like to have some money not by begging but to get it as a gift from a ninong or ninang who really cares for him. Instead, he struggles to have enough money to buy simple meals for his parents and siblings. If he is lucky he will take home a plastic toy handed out by a Catholic or Protestant charity worker.
The street children in the Philippines have long been a concern of the government. Many government efforts fall short for lack of money.
These are supplemented by the charitable works of mainly church organizations, foremost of which are Roman Catholic initiatives by Caritas, those of the dioceses, like Archbishop of Manila Gaudencio Rosales’s Pondo ng Pinoy and Hapag-asa, and individual parishes and religious orders, like the Salesians of Don Bosco whose Pugad Home for Street Children programs.
Private foundations and international clubs like Rotary, Kiwanis and the Jaycees have also funded and participated in charitable works for street children.