Sun, Dec 13, 2009
The New Paper
Ex-street kid turns CNN hero

By Erlinda Tan

THE Philippine government provides free elementary education for its people.

But not everybody goes to school because attending classes requires full support from the family as well.

The education may be free, but parents still need to pay for school items such as uniforms, stationery and food allowance.

This is where many families find they can't send their children to school - they cannot afford it as they are too poor to pay for the additional costs.

This is how street children came to be.

Mr Efren Penaflorida, 28, knows this scenario well.

He is one of those Filipino boys who lived in a shanty near the garbage dump in Manila and knows very well the lives of these street children.

Though he grew up among them, he managed to go to school and went on to become a teacher.

But having been one of them, he never forgot the children he grew up with or the fate that awaited them if they had no education.

He told himself that he didn't want them to succumb to poverty.

So, in 1997, he built an organisation called Dynamic Teen Company. Its goal is to teach out-of-school children in the slums using a mobile classroom, or a push-cart school.

Every Saturday, Mr Penaflorida and some of his volunteers would visit the slums in Cavite (north of Metro Manila) and teach the children how to read and write.

They would position themselves in unconventional locations such as the cemetery, municipal trash dumps and vacant lots.

Other than teaching the alphabet, Mr Penaflorida also teaches them proper hygiene by demonstrating the correct way of taking a bath and brushing their teeth.

He wants to save them from gangs at an early age.

He told CNN: "Gang members are groomed in the slums as early as 9 years old. They are all victims of poverty."

Today, the Dynamic Teen Company is 12 years old and it has 10,000 volunteers.

It caters to 1,500 children who come from different gangs. Some of them are victims of drug addiction and some are school dropouts.

They get funding from making and selling crafts and collecting items to recycle.

For his effort, Mr Penaflorida was declared the CNN Hero of the Year on 22 Nov in Los Angeles, US.

He was chosen from nine finalists shortlisted from a nomination field of 9,000 for the award.

$140,000 cash prize

The US broadcasting giant gave him US$100,000 ($140,000) as part of his win, which comes after seven weeks of online voting at CNN.com. More than 2.75 million votes were cast.

Mr Penaflorida received his award at Kodak Theatre, the same venue for the Oscars.

In his speech, he said: "Our planet is filled with heroes, young and old, rich and poor, men, women of different colours, shapes and sizes.

"We are a great tapestry. Each person has a hidden hero within. You just have to look inside you and search in your heart, and be the hero to the next one in need."

Mr Penaflorida pledged the US$100,000 he won to help more children of the slums.

He has chosen to remain non-partisan and not enter politics, according to the Manila Bulletin, but will devote his time to his mobile school.

Erlinda Tan is a New Paper reader who worked in Singapore as a quantity surveyor. She recently relocated to Canada.

This article was first published in The New Paper.

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