Philippine Daily Inquirer 13

‘A Pope who can make a child’s dream come true’

MANILA, Philippines–When Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle visited Pope Francis’ office at the Vatican last September, he bought with him a suitcase carrying a very special gift—the hope of 1,000 Filipino children who had been living on the streets of Manila.

Empowered by pen, paper and their imagination, the children, ages 3 to 22, now under the care of a nongovernment organization, Tulay ng Kabataan (TNK), had each written a special letter asking Pope Francis to come visit them during his trip to the Philippines.

Each drawing and message had different forms but were united in spirit and in dream.

Jose, 11, says, “My drawing is that of a little boy praying because praying is important to us and what we do every day. It is God who we are talking to and through this we hope our wishes will come true.”

“Such a simple and touching message, showing how a wounded child, does not give up and puts his hope in the hands of God,” says Fr. Matthieu Dauchez, a French executive director of TNK.

Alexandra Chapeleau, communications and partnership manager at TNK, says the Pope’s visit to the children will help them know they are not alone. “They will feel the mercy of God through Pope Francis, and will understand that despite their terrible stories, the world is not ignoring them.”

How campaign started

The campaign, called Even Us, started when a French volunteer at ANAK TNK, the French sponsor of TNK Manila, wrote the Pope and asked him to visit the children. TNK, which helps children transition from a life on the streets to a safe home, then decided the children should ask him themselves.

What began as a two-monthlong letter writing campaign at the shelters, was then complemented by a video promoting the children’s dream.

The powerful video, which shows realities of their life on the streets and the joy in their smiles as they translated their hope into words, has already received almost 10,000 views. Though the Pope has yet to confirm a visit to the children, he has acknowledged receipt of the letters.

Neil Mercado, a teacher in charge of the Pope-related children’s activities, says, “The children remain very excited. They ask every day if he is coming.”

Dauchez explains, “We know Pope Francis is coming to Manila and we are aware of his great love for the poorest among the poor. So we thought that letters coming from wounded, neglected and abused children, who still believe in this hope that he proclaims on the rooftops of the world … could be a great message and gift for our children.”

Thousands of children live on the streets without any links to their families—surviving by begging, stealing and prostituting themselves. Chapeleau says many become drug addicts, and fall victim to physical and sexual abuse.

TNK, founded by a Jesuit priest in 1998, now has 115 Filipino employees and 40 community workers, ranging from social workers, psychologists and caregivers to street educators and house parents.

Street educators

The street educators roam Metro Manila 24 hours a day to try and convince the most “hard-core street children”—those who have cut links with their families and are alone on the streets—to have a better future by living at one of the 24 TNK shelters.

“It’s a vicious circle. They prefer life on the streets because they are free and can do what they want. And gang life is like a drug for them,” says street educator Felix Aquino. “They don’t know how to think of a future or of building their own life. It’s also hard for them to adjust to the stability of an educational structure.”

Giving back self-dignity

Chapeleau says TNK’s goal is to give back self-dignity and confidence to the children so they can have a complete autonomous life. “Every child,” she says “should be able to fulfill his desire to study, get training, be reconciled with family and quench his thirst for being loved.”

TNK has helped thousands of these children and teenagers escape the horrors of their childhood but it is a task without end.

“They are the poorest of the poor because materially, they have nothing, because they are young and alone, and because their hearts have stopped beating due to terrible abuses and bad experiences on the streets,” Chapeleau says.

She adds: “The children need love and attention. They are often battered by those who were supposed to love and educate them—their parents. The biggest challenge is their instability. We face children who are suffering deeply and we can’t always tend to their hearts’ wounds.”

Thalia, 18, has been cared for by TNK since she was rescued from the streets when she was 8 years old. When she heard that they were inviting the Pope, she could not contain her excitement. Her message was simple “I hope you can visit us—the orphans, the ones who don’t have parents.”

“I will ask Pope Francis to teach me the good things of God to be a good person because he is the Pope! I will also ask him to help all TNK children go to heaven. I hope we can all be holy like him,” Thalia says.

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