For over a year now I have been the communications coordinator for Children International-Manila, and I have seen poverty in many shapes and forms, and to different depths and extent. Our agency assists over 23,000 needy children. I get a lot of opportunities to interact with them and learn about their triumphs and challenges, and each time the experience either leaves a familiar dull pain in my heart or I rejoice with them.
As I entered Rio’s home last week I didn’t feel the usual impact. Rio Beltran is a 34-year-old volunteer area leader helping the agency operate its largest center in Quezon City (near Manila) and a father of two sponsored children, Lovely Sophia, 7, and Richelle Joy, 8. They live on a meager allowance, which Rio receives from the government as barangay tanod (village watcher) and for doing errands for their neighbors.
As he graciously welcomed us, I got disoriented and was unsure of where he was leading us. Were we in a covered entrance or in the house already? It was 10:00 a.m., yet it was very dark inside because they don’t have electricity. He opened a window, the only one they have, and slowly I was able to see the whole place.
The old house is literally bare; it’s clean, but it looks – and reeks – like a pigpen. The smell could be coming from a canal just feet away from their door that serves as their convenient multi-purpose washing area where they brush their teeth and bathe. Aside from a dilapidated cabinet where their kitchen utensils and other things precious to them are kept, and a rundown, wooden bed in their bedroom (which can be entered only by going in sideways through a very narrow opening), the family has nothing else.
This picture was stuck in my head even after we joined other sponsored children and youth at SM Mall, where they do their Easter Gift shopping. My heart aches for these two children and I couldn’t imagine how they are able to live under such pitiful condition.
When Lovely Sophia happily showed to her father a pair of black boots, it was like showing the best find in the whole world! “The Lord has been so good! I just got a new pair of shoes and I could even buy slippers to replace my old pair!” I got goose bumps upon hearing these words. For a child who watches TV from someone else’s window (that is often closed upon learning that she is there), drinks from salvaged cups of instant noodles, and is only able to taste a good meal on her birthdays because she visits her godmother who cooks for her, it was a concrete demonstration of unfaltering faith not many people could muster.
It was the first time the two children received material benefits from Children International, so I asked Rio how it was accompanying the kids to shop. There was a lull and when I looked at him, he was holding back his tears but could not hide his emotions. “I was like on air seeing that joy in their eyes which I realized I had not seen since their mother passed away almost four years ago. I’m thankful that what I couldn’t provide for my children is generously given to them by people we don’t even know!” said Rio in between sobs. He got one of each of his daughters’ slippers and showed them to me. “These slippers should have long been discarded but I repair them every now and then so my children will have something to use. I’m so happy that finally they will wear new ones!”
I froze when I realized how a pair of new shoes and slippers could make such a difference, while Mabel, an officemate who was with me to help cover the Easter Gift distribution, couldn’t hold back her tears.
There are nights that I think about Lovely Sophia and Richelle Joy. I imagine them lying on their wooden bed which squeaks whenever they move while their father wonders how to make ends meet the next day. I sigh in relief thinking that although sponsorship cannot not provide everything this family needs (they are grateful just to have a bowl of rice and salt), it could very well take away the fear of a father that his children might not have a chance to finish school.
So, if you ask me about the significance of Easter to the children we help…? It’s about raising hope for Lovely Sophia, Richelle Joy and the 23,000 other children and youth they represent. And I thank all of you for making this possible.
Arlene De Vera is the communications coordinator for Children International's agency in Manila, Philippines.