Our next venture took us to the beautiful island of Mindoro to visit the boys of the Stairway foundation, a group dedicated to the educational and personal development of kids whose rights to childhood have been stolen from them by those who would take advantage of their youth and innocence. Needless to say, it was a powerful experience for all in which we were made aware of the serious situation of physical and sexual abuse that affects surprising numbers of street children in Manila annually. We all entered this experience relatively unsure of the purpose for our visit but have since left with valuable context by which we are now able to frame the rest of our trip and the service project we are developing for the street children we are now working with now, in Manila, through Child Hope.
In our first day there, we remained pretty blind to the mission of organization and instead spent our time getting to know the kids who live at Stairway and participate in their programming. Essentially, all we knew was that we were headed for a camp located in a more removed area where 15 boys, originally from Manila, lived and received a yearlong education and rehabilitation program. The camp was called Stairway. We knew little about the context of these boys’ needs for rehab and we knew even less about Stairway’s other projects besides this one that seemed almost like a getaway resort for boys who had tough lives on the streets of Manila in their past. The setting of Stairway is paradise for an outsider who knows little of the internal storm of the individuals who live in this picturesque landscape.
Anyways, we got to spend our first day enjoying this paradise. We met the boys and split up into small groups and then further into buddies with whom we would spend the rest of the week. They then took us to play with them on the beach for a few hours as the afternoon drew to a close and the sunset in the sky. I really cannot describe the immense beauty of this beach and do it any justice. The sand is so pure and the water a perfect turquoise color shadowed only by the mountain that sets the background of the seascape and behind which the sun would set every day casting the sky into a beautiful shade of pink. The boys get to go almost every day after their classes and have learned here how to swim and kayak, do gymnastics and play games such as Frisbee, soccer, and volleyball. They were so welcoming in showing us their talents. We had a ton of fun on the beach and later, after dinner, were welcomed further with a musical performance involving rhythmic drumming with cups (which of course they taught us to include us in their activity).
It was not until the second day of our stay in Mindoro that we learned of Stairway’s full programming efforts and their mission. Stairway foundation is more than just this rehabilitation camp for street children. Their programming extends beyond the direct education of these kids (although this does make up the strongest and most crucial component of their programming and mission). They also help fund projects in schools of local communities that might encourage kids living there to continue in their education despite debilitating situations. For example, one elementary school is located in a small town atop a mountain. There is no passage for motor vehicles so kids must make the hour long trek up the mountain (and then back down) every day. Stairway encourages them by funding a free lunch program. In another example, Stairway funds the transportation of children from a tiny island next to Mindoro back to the mainland so that they might be able to attend high school. Furthermore, the camp at Stairway is not just a rehabilitation program for random homeless children. It is a program dedicated to those specifically who have experienced physical and/ or sexual abuse as children on the street perhaps from relatives or perhaps from outsiders who have thus taken advantage of their vulnerability and robbed them of a fundamental human right. It is dedicated to teaching the boys that they are dignified human beings who are victims of poor situations but are able to change the outcomes of their lives and don’t need drugs or prostitution to sustain themselves. It gives them a chance to be kids again and actually attend classes that are designed to catch them up to their grade in school so when they leave the program, they can be channelled into other systems that would continue to give them regular education and hope for their futures. The camp can only support 15 boys at a time, but it does make an effort to raise awareness to the cause through animations and plays revealing the harsh realities of different types of physical and sexual abuse and what can be done to overcome such situations. Sometimes, these kids just need someone to take notice of them and listen. It is a truly complex issue with no easy solution though, and Stairway recognizes this but attempts its own measures of sorting it out anyways.
They find their 15 boys in other “rehabilitation centers” in Manila. These “rehab centers” are more like jails for juveniles that have been pulled off the streets and often times, abuse still occurs in these centers. The program began in 1994 after founders Lars and Monica Jorgenson took what was meant to be a tourist trip to the Philippines and noticed a huge education disparity for street children there. Not yet aware of the prevalence of abuse for young boys in Manila, they attempted a program for both boys and girls in that first year but faced many struggles including a few pregnancies. They knew then they had to pick one gender to focus on and it just so happened around the same time they were made aware by a fellow colleague of the issue of sexual abuse for young boys on the streets of Manila. Apparently, 90% of young boys in the Philippines may experience abuse in their life. Many programs existed to tend to young women who were physically and sexually abused (also quite rampant in the streets), but not as many programs existed to confront the equally concerning issue for those young boys. And so Stairway set off with a more concrete, developed mission in mind.
The fruits of their efforts are already evident in the group of boys we got to know that week. They have such high spirits despite their pasts and such giving and hospitable personalities uncommon in boys their age. They also spoke English at an incredible calibre for having only lived at Stairway for a few months. On the day of the tour we also were given a showcase of some of the animations and plays that Stairway has developed to promote awareness of the issue of child abuse and invite those affected to shatter the silence. The whole day was quite moving. It is hard now to see the street children roaming the city of Manila and not think of their unmet potential and the many ways that they too may have experienced suffering in their states of vulnerability. We discussed a bit how we sometimes feel guilty now after having met these boys and witnessed their enthusiasm for life despite such tragedies they have incurred, but something Kuya Lars mentioned at the beginning of our trip was that the point of the youth for change program was not to cause guilt but reflection and awareness. I think I can speak accurately on behalf of the group that our awareness of this issue certainly has increased tenfold and with that heightened awareness has come a greater global perspective and increased compassion for frequently overlooked individuals. The bonds we formed with the boys at Stairway were short-lived but something we will never forget. Something that will motivate us in our immediate project and in the future once we return to Harvard.