Educating Manila’s rubbish dump children

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The Smokey Mountain rubbish dump has provided a home to Jamie Amante since she was born 13 years ago.

Each morning she wakes to the horrendous stench from the site: “I feel awful waking up to the smell- rotting food, smoke, polluted air, charcoal, all mixed together.” When she steps outside her family’s shanty house, her feet sink into black mud, and flies swarm around the methane gas that bubbles from below.

But now, thanks to the vision and determination of Jane Walker, Jamie’s life is being transformed. She was among hundreds of children who gathered last week for the opening of the Philippine Community Fund (PCF’)’s Openwork foundation school, on the former rubbish dump in Tondo, Manila. Built out of 74 connected recycled shipping container vans, this four-story building is not just a place to learn. It is, says Walker, a place to help children escape the dire poverty that has trapped generations of their families.

With 29 classrooms, it is large enough to educate 1,000 children from the age of four who live in nearby rubbish dumps and squatter areas.

Rico Senaoan, 11, spent most of his childhood digging and sorting rubbish. As the eldest of five children, he felt a sense of responsibility: “I worked so that my family would not starve. The hardest part was waking up in the morning and my arms and legs would hurt from carrying heavy bags of what we would find.”

Walker’s drive to rid the rubbish dump community of child labour began during a trip to the Philippines while on sabbatical from her work in the newspaper industry. A taxi happened to drive her by the open Smokey Mountain rubbish dump, and the sight of three-year-old barefoot children picking through rubbish compelled her to take immediate action.

“They were stuck in poverty – they saw no way out. The best thing I could do was to offer these communities a future which would empower them to change the way they lived,” she said.

After founding the Philippine Community Fund (PCF), a charity in the UK and the Philippines, Walker raised enough money by 2003 to open her first school. Although it was a tremendous first step and educated an average of 500 children per year, the growing squalor in the surrounding rubbish dump necessitated the search for a new, more permanent structure.

Jane said: “We had no windows, got flooded 52 times a year, there were huge rats everywhere, scorpions, snakes in the playground, stagnant pools of water with dengue mosquitoes.”

The new building is designed to maximise light and air flow, and has plenty of open space. “I feel like we live in a five-star hotel now. It’s a wonderful feeling that we are providing a safe, clean and conducive environment to teach the children.”

The school provides adult literacy, remedial classes, parenting skills, and family planning among its courses to help those considered the “poorest of the poor”..

Seventy per cent of funding comes from the UK, through grant-making trusts, foundations, and child sponsorship programmes.

For many of the children, going to school gives them a chance to do something new – to simply be children.

Before becoming a student at PCF a few years ago, 13-year-old Giselle Reyes worked for nine hours each night: “I worked until 3am and was always tired. When I was working, I wanted to feel what other children were doing, playing in the streets and with friends while I was there collecting garbage.” Now with plenty of time to play and to dream, she said she plans to become a teacher.

For Jamie Amante, the school provides fresh air and something to look forward to. Proudly wearing her clean, blue uniform, she explained why education was important: “They teach good attitude, to be responsible, respect others. And school helps me and kids reach our dreams.”

Featured Photo: Nana Buxani
December 10, 2010
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