It was a weekend unlike any other. A couple of my friends and I rode in a car with our doors locked, seat-belts fastened, eyes on a lookout, as we followed the green pick-up car in front of us. It led us to a narrow grimy pathway with cramped houses awkwardly standing on both sides of the road. Between our car and the houses was a little space where children run and play in. They shared it with mothers doing their laundry, toddlers bathing and passersby simply walking. As I was pondering on where we were bound to land (or to park), I saw some of the kids started knocking at the window of the other car. The window was slowly rolled down and a man in plain green shirt leaned his head out the window and gave the kids a series of high-fives like a big brother who just got back home from work to meet a bunch of playful and excited siblings.
Then, I saw him open the door and step out of the car. He was parked right beside a landfill, a dumpsite with waste that could reach at least two floors of a building. This is it. This is where you got yourself into, get out, I pepped myself up. And as soon as I opened my door, a strong indefinable stench hit me. Imagine a mix of rotten bananas, spilled soda, raw meat and vegetables, and styrofoam with dinner remains. I tried to cover the wrinkle on my nose with a smile as I said “hi” to the man in green.
He is Marcel Plado, the head of the livelihood training department of Philippine Christian Foundation, the person I emailed a couple of weeks ago. Philippine Christian Foundation is an organization initiated to “permanently improve the quality of life for the poorest Filipino communities, through education, nutrition, health, medical and family enhancement programs, regardless of religion, race or political boundaries.”
“This is where Philippine Christian Foundation in Tondo is located” He proudly introduced the place to us. It is at the heart of the urban poor community, the land of the poorest of the poor, the avoided dot in the city where wastes are thrown in and forgotten. Right beside the mounted garbage was a small cemented hole that led to a school. The smell was still in the air when we walked pass their library and some classrooms. In each of the classroom, there were about 15 to 20 students (a good teacher-student ratio I suppose) seated in three’s on long tables with noses glued on their books.
“We have 600 full scholars. They are supported by individuals who have committed to help a child.” Marcel explained, “We select the children from the poorest, of the poorest of the poor. We check their backgrounds. We go to their homes. And once we realize that their families do not really have the means, we bring the child in. These are the kids that rarely get to eat three meals per day. So we also provide them free meals.”
“Is it okay for us to go in?” My friend asked pointing to the classroom in front of her.
“Sure!” Marcel responded.
“Good morning visitors, we are pleased to meet you.” The children respectfully stood up from their seats and faced us.
The teacher was writing the words “sound energy” and “kinetic energy” on the board, when we walked in. On the chipped painted walls were artworks made by the students, a poster of the go-glow-grow foods, a cartoon drawn on cartolina showing a student on a mountain and God on the other mountain with a cross in between. Situated at the back was a bookshelf with names of each student written on top of the dividers. Each had a complete set of books.
Our next stop was the library. In it were few old, rusty books, a conference table surrounded by dusty and torn office chairs and boxes of products they were selling. There were beaded necklaces made from old magazines, pouches and pencil cases made from junk food packaging, handbags made from soda cans and tetrapacks. They got their raw materials from the dumpsite we passed through earlier.
“They are made by the mothers in this community. We provide them the raw materials (cleaned in the restoration area) and we pay them for their services. The fee would depend on the length of the production process. We gauge it on the daily wage so that they too would be able to provide for their families. For example, for this handbag,” he grabbed a bag made of soda pull ring tabs from the box, “we give them Php500 per bag because this takes them approximately a day or a day and a half to finish.”
Then he told us "It is not that easy to work with mothers because you cannot just simply push them to work. They have to tend to their children for hours within the day. Some have a lot of worries, like one has a child who had dengue, and these affect the quality and quantity of output as well." He also shared with us that there was a time when he trained at least twenty mothers to sew a type of bag, but only three remained for the job. Thus, he concluded, income alone is not good enough a motivation to keep you in this type of business.
What kept Marcel there was a deep passion that stemmed from a strong life mission. It was a God-given burden, a very difficult one in fact that he decided to follow. Along the way, God has equipped him with strength and patience to teach the mothers, the ideas and willpower to provide them livelihood opportunities. Would you believe that there were only two of them (he & an assistant named Ian) who mobilized the women in the community? As the saying goes, “God’s grace won’t leave you where God’s Will will take you.”
He led us to the production area next. Inside were piles of different products, about six industrial sewing machines mounted on old wooden tables, sacks of raw materials distributed here and there. According to Marcel, the area is open to all the women, anytime of the day. They may go home for hours to tend to their children and then come back. “Their families need them.” He said. Marcel didn’t treat them as mere workers who have to work, work, work, but as people who have needs and as mothers who have families to care for. And because he understands them, the women enjoy coming to work more, it has become their “stress-reliever.” It was interesting that the small condensed jumbled workplace exuded a joyful and loving atmosphere. The women were tenderly calling each other “mama” or “nanay,” sharing stories, laughing, while they were stitching Zesto tetrapacks together and placing coke tansan in plastic shoulder bags. It made me want to learn how to stitch and sit behind one of those sewing machines as well.
“At the present, you may see the products in Kultura and Eco-store. We also export them weekly to countries like UK and Saudi Arabia.” Marcel shared as we walked back to our car. Amazing!
I got to smell the odd mishmash of odors once again when we left the school premises, now with a greater sense of appreciation. Buried in the trash is an opportunity to meet the financial, physical and spiritual needs of the unfortunate people enduring the stench. I hope and pray that there will be more Marcels in town who are not afraid to walk through treacherous roads such as the one in Tondo and find an avoided, stinking dot.
To you who may still be soul searching, undergoing a quarterlife crisis, or enjoying a break time, why don't you visit (and maybe volunteer in) PCF or other foundations. You may also go out of your way and get to know our less fortunate brothers and sisters in Christ. Know their needs. As Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."
If you don't have the burden, pray for the love that you may radiate to them. Be God’s hand and reach out.
To you who may be too busy to even visit a site, support foundations such as Philippine Christian Foundation, Gawad Kalinga, He Cares Foundation or any other organization caring for the street children, elderly, ethnic minorities by purchasing their products, “adopting” a child or providing financial support.
To you who are online, please pass this link and inspire others. And maybe pray about it too, you might just be the one God has called to serve the underprivileged brothers in your hometown.
There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land. ~ Deuteronomy 15:11