A Tender Response To People Living On The Edge
I know that within a few years, these kids will be forced to consider life on the streets, where every bad thing awaits them.
It’s the middle of storm season in the Philippines. We’ve dodged two monsoons during our 10-day trip, although heavy rains pound us in between.
I’m amazed at the matter-of-fact manner in which Filipinos endure monsoons. Downed trees. Backed up traffic. No power. No school.
Life disrupted. If the same storm hit the U.S., we’d be paralyzed.
Filipinos respond with a collective shrug. Utility crews wield chain saws, Pedi cab drivers drop their plastic covers, bikers throw on ponchos, and kids run barefoot without noticing they are soaked. Life goes on with barely a blip.
Today our four-man Extreme Response team has an appointment to visit IT Tender, one of our partner organizations here in the Asia Region. IT Tender is part of International Teams Philippines and is comprised of seven staff members. They embrace the Herculean task of caring for the street kids and those living in poverty in Mutinlupa City, near Manila.
From an outsider’s point of view, it seems like a hopeless endeavor. There are simply too many dirty, uneducated, glue-sniffing beggars to help. The poverty is too vast. The task is too large.
Why bother to rescue a few, when there are so many?
The IT Tender staff doesn’t see it that way at all. Several of the staff have lived in poverty. Some still do. They have lived the lives of desperate kids and know how to alter their outcomes. They understand how to help change their lives. One staff member even lived in the squatter community located directly behind the IT Tender offices.
We meet IT Tender Director John Coffey, who prefers to be called Team Leader. He’s a guy who is equally comfortable running a slide presentation or visiting a squatter family in their home. John has worked with street kids for five years and is engaged to another IT Tender staff member.
Originally from the Toronto area, John has a degree in elementary education. Mutinlupa City is now his home. He tells our ER team about numerous IT Tender outreach programs the small crew runs. How do they do it? Many are juggling two jobs for IT Tender.
Their primary focus is on early child education. The premise is that if preschool kids can receive basic education and encouraged to see school as their future, there is hope for a better life.
While those tiny tots are learning the basics, their moms are taught the enormous value of education, as well as hygiene and nutrition. Even today, children here die from treatable diseases, including something as basic as diarrhea.
The Tender team does much more. They also run a drop-in center for people to take showers, eat meals, receive counseling, and take some classes.
At night, the staff goes into poor communities looking for street kids to invite to Nightlife – a program that provides safe alternatives. Many kids sleep on the streets and abuse drugs, glue or alcohol. Sadly, without IT Tender’s intervention, they face an ugly future.
Some of their best work is with people living in extreme poverty. IT Tender staff members visit squatter communities and befriend the families. Their heartfelt, judgment-free compassion engenders trust among the squatters – who typically trust no one. Why would they? Most people look down on them.
The Tower People of NAPACOR Village
We depart the Tender offices for a walk around back and are greeted by an enormous electric power tower. Below the wires sits a conglomeration of scavenged wood, metal, tires and plastic all perched on the tower’s cement base. Squatters have ingeniously tied into the tower’s strong metal architecture to create a somewhat stable housing complex.
In the U.S., living near an electric power tower has a stigma. It’s terrible for real estate value. Some consider the towers a health risk, maybe something that could fry their brains.
The people living below the tower don’t have the luxury of worrying about stigmas. They are squatting there because they need basic shelter. This is how they survive.
Welcome to NAPACOR Village, where 60 families shoehorn into the hand-built maze of cubicle-sized homes. While the building appears somewhat stable, it also looks like one good Monsoon or inadvertent fire could destroy it in an instant.
We step around chickens, feces, and cloudy puddles to draw nearer. An open sewage drain is a few feet away. Kids are everywhere and greet us with big smiles. They may live in squalor, but their faces show hope. Most are too young to realize the hard road they soon will face.
We see wet clothing hanging throughout the complex. There are no washers and dryers here. Clothes are washed by hand and then air-dried. Because of the steady rains, clothing is stuck in the wash cycle for days.
As we approach the complex, a smoky aroma fills the air. Most cooking is done outdoors with wood or charcoal, but some people risk cooking with fire indoors.
We are invited inside a home to meet a mom, Anna Lisa, and see how her family lives. The people of NAPACOR know John and the Tender team and welcome us.
One of Anna Lisa’s children is part of IT Tender’s Sponsor-A-Child program to attend elementary school. $20/month provides a uniform, materials, lunch and transportation. It’s a huge benefit that only 20 kids receive. IT Tender has a waiting list of 50 more kids.
We climb a ladder and ease into her home. I’m immediately struck by the cramped quarters, the thick humidity, and I begin sweating. Moisture hangs in the air. This home has no electricity or plumbing. It looks to be about 8 feet wide by 10 feet deep. All their possessions are within view because this is their entire living space.
That’s nine bodies stuffed like sardines into a sweltering box. I’m both amazed and horrified at what this family has to do to survive. Anna Lisa tells us that she’s lived at NAPACOR Village for 20 years….20 years!
No one should have to live like this.
During the course of the next hour, we visit two more families. One family has somehow managed to get electricity and enjoys a few conveniences. A daughter is also getting a scholarship from IT Tender. This is a big deal that will change her future.
While public school is free in the Philippines, families must pay for uniforms, supplies and lunch. Many poor kids drop out of school because their parents cannot afford even these things. The cycle of poverty is brutal.
As we move through the narrow corridors, my heart aches for the kids running free throughout the complex. They are cheerful and excited by our visit. They ask me to take their pictures and smile when I show them the digital images. Yet I know that within a few years, these kids will be forced to consider life on the streets, where every bad thing awaits them.
We conclude our tour by following two kids up three ladders to another one-room box. This “penthouse” contains the family’s few possessions. The children hug and mug for the camera, and I tear up as we head down.
As we depart, we learn that NAPACOR Village, home to a couple hundred people, may get torn down. A developer is said to want them out. Like most squatters, people here live with the constant fear their homes will be destroyed and they’ll be homeless.
“Many adults in the community thank us each time we visit,” Coffey said. “They do this because our free preschool has helped their children learn how to read and write, or because of our Sponsor-A-Child program allows their children to attend school instead of begging in the streets, or because of our Night Life program provides their children with a safe place to take a shower, eat a healthy meal, and learn responsibility and good character.
“Without an education, many of these children would end up involved in gangs, substance abuse, or prostitution,” he added. “Through our programs, we empowered children to grow into educated and responsible leaders in the community, some of whom are now full-time workers or volunteers at IT Tender.”
Extreme Response exists to give hope to the hopeless. That’s why we work with partners like IT Tender, an organization battling in the trenches for families who face severe, sometimes life-threatening hardship.
Or, you also can help IT Tender meet needs directly. Among other things, they need monthly sponsors so kids can go to school. Click here to learn more about IT Tender.