By Serena Gelb
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Last updated 17:51:00 02/05/2008
MANILA, Philippines—Last week, I visited the Stairway Foundation. Founded by Monica Ray and Lars Jorgensen in 1990, it is a facility that helps former street children from ages 10-17 to attain a brighter future.
Many of the children that come to Stairway have had difficult lives living on the streets. Some have been involved in alcohol and drugs, while others have been abused or come from dysfunctional families or juvenile prisons.
The streetchildren have the opportunity to join a one-year program to gain practical living skills at the Foundation. In the first few months, their basic needs—food, soap and clothing—are provided for free. Then as they mature into the program, the kids are expected to start earning for themselves so that they can provide for their basic necessities.
Through this, they learn to provide for themselves with honesty and self-respect. No more begging, stealing or gambling. For their livelihood, they are also taught various crafts such as creating dream catchers and intricately woven friendship bracelets. They learn tie-dye techniques and even henna-tattoo skills.
Every week, the kids are put into groups and have dish-washing, cleaning and bathroom duties assigned to them. During my short stay I got to help clean the dishes and set tables.
There are two classrooms for the children, divided into higher and lower learning levels. The classrooms are colorfully decorated, and each kid has his own desk.
There is also a “high tech” room filled with computers where the children are taught computer skills. To help deal with the violence and trauma most of these street kids have experienced, Stairway offers regular workshops and seminars that deal with all forms of abuse and children’s rights.
Hope and love
Monica and Lars Jorensen both live on the grounds, and have two kids. Lars is Danish and when Stairway was being built, he went to his old high school to raise money.
The high-schoolers painted themselves silver and gold and did pantomimes, baked hundreds of cookies and raised funds to give Stairway a headstart. The Foundation is an independent, nonprofit and nongovernment entity.
The Stairway philosophy says that everyone needs love and hope. Without it, many street kids desperately turn to drugs to escape from reality. On day two, we were shown a photo gallery of children.
We saw kids walking barefoot on garbage dumps and young girls with glue bags over their noses hanging around in cemeteries. We saw pictures of a boy with scabies in a pool of dirty water.
In 2004, Stairway produced the animated film “Daughter, a Story of Incest.” It was widely distributed throughout Manila and translated into Khmer and Bahasa (for showing in Cambodia and Indonesia).
In June 2005, “A Good Boy,” Stairway’s second animated film, was made. This one was about pedophilia.
Both films stress that it is not the child’s fault when he or she is abused, and it encourages kids to go to a trusted adult if anything inappropriate is happening to them.
These films are extremely useful, because many children feel guilty or feel as if it’s their fault when they are being abused.
I watched the play “The Cracked Mirror,” a gripping portrayal of life on the streets and child sexual abuse. I was shocked to learn that the talented cast had also gone through these experiences.
But now, they have the courage to speak up about it and teach others. Monica Ray also wrote and compiled a book of short stories titled “Black Angels, Street Children Realities,” which vividly depicts life on the streets for these children.
Stairway provides a year-long training program. Then the kids must find a new home and transition into the larger world. They are faced with possibly the most difficult decision in their life. They can either move on to another organization or go back to their families. However, wherever they go they need to continue their education, so a social worker helps guide them through this process.
It takes a three to four-hour bus ride from Manila, a two-hour ferry ride then a 30-minute jeepney ride to get to Stairway, which is located in Mindoro. When we arrived, my friends and I were greeted by the kids with an energetic performance called the “Rainbow Story.”
All of them were dressed in sparkly clothes in different colors of the rainbow, which they had dyed and painted themselves. They sang and danced enthusiastically, making us feel at home immediately.
Afterwards, we went to the beach and played icebreaker games such as tug-of-war. In a few hours, I had made some fast friends.
During the short three days that I spent at Stairway, I got to know and befriend many of the kids.
Chino always had a smile plastered across his face. Angelo, the cutest and most innocent-looking kid, was always obsessed with the number 21. Raysand was caring and so much fun. One day on the beach we were all joking around and we buried him in the sand. Jonathan was with me in team red. He, Kevin and I had a perpetual “bad fish/good fish” joke, which helped us bond with each other.
Everyone was good at sports, and we played beach volleyball with them every day. A bunch of boys started calling themselves the “macho men” group, and every member was named “Raul” for them to sound manlier. It was hilarious. Whether it was hiking up a gorgeous waterfall or being taught how to braid friendship bracelets by the kids or how to make candles, I had an amazing time.
It amazes me how, through all their troubles, these kids always keep a smile on their face. The Stairway foundation children are strong and resilient despite the tremendous early challenges they had experienced. I really admire them.
On our last day with them, we signed each other’s shirts and celebrated the new friendships we’d made with slightly tearful good byes. In the end, we were all just kids, there weren’t any social or economical barriers or prejudices that got in the way of our friendship.
This was one weekend that I’d treasure and remember for the rest of my life.
Visit http://www.stairwayfoundation.org/Eng/ Black_Angels/blackangels_frame.htm