By Michael Tan Inquirer
Last updated 01:47am (Mla time) 08/22/2007
At one time or another, many of us may have tried to help out a poor but bright child through high school. It tends to start out well, with glowing reports and grades, and then something happens. The parents (more often, the mother) come sobbing about the student falling into bad company, about drugs, about “baon” [allowance] spent in Internet cafés, about a pregnancy. Sometimes the child is still working hard at school, but is overwhelmed by problems at home or in the community.
I’ve avoided sponsoring students in high school, quite frankly. There’s just too much that can go wrong. And yes, I’ve wondered at times if you could just put them in a greenhouse environment, sheltered from the world and given special care so they can concentrate on their studies.
It turns out there is such a place: Boystown and Girlstown (yes, kept separate) in Silang, Cavite. They’re part of a global network of World Villages for Children begun by an American, Fr. Aloysius Schwartz. Starting with one facility in South Korea, Father Schwartz eventually set up more of his “villages” in the Philippines, Guatemala, Mexico and Brazil. He died in 1992, but a congregation he set up, the Sisters of Mary, continues his work. It is currently headed by a Korean, Sr. Michaela Kim.
Driving along the South Luzon Expressway, I’ve seen Boystown and Girlstown many times from afar, but it wasn’t until last week that I finally got to visit, on the invitation of Ms Marixi Prieto, the Inquirer’s chair.
The event I attended was the inauguration of a new greenhouse at Boystown, donated by Lucio Tan, who personally attended together with another “taipan” [Chinese-Filipino tycoon], Washington SyCip. The greenhouse allows students to gain some experience with agriculture, while producing vegetables for their own school.
I thought the greenhouse was such an appropriate metaphor for the two institutions. Here are students plucked out of the poorest of families to receive an education they could only dream of. The kids have to be nominated by their parish priest, and should have been doing well in elementary school. The nuns themselves visit the families to make sure the child comes from a family in need (so good are their facilities there are better off families that try to get their child in).
Ms Prieto described the Sisters of Mary facilities as “one of the best kept secrets in the country.” And indeed it is. The sisters have worked very quietly without fanfare or publicity, yet what they do would put many of our other educational institutions to shame.
Boystown and Girlstown are actually similar to the boarding schools you usually associate with the rich. Both are high schools, built on sprawling grounds with full facilities: classrooms, science labs, computers, several (yes, several) basketball courts for the boys, a huge gym/auditorium, a swimming pool. All the students live on campus throughout the year, except for two weeks when they get to go home. They have no allowance, but all their expenses are paid for: tuition, board and lodging, even uniforms and rubber shoes color-coded by year level.
What is so amazing is that 56 faculty members (including 14 nuns) are able to run the facilities for 2,300 male students. I didn’t get the number of faculty for Girlstown, but there they have 3,600 students.
The Cavite facilities take care of children from all over Luzon. In Cebu, they have another two institutions for children from the Visayas and Mindanao.
I will be honest and say that I had mixed feelings about this greenhouse approach. I was relieved to know they still knew how to write letters, given that they don’t have cell phones (more relief!) but, I kept wondering, with such a cloistered life, were they going to be prepared for the world outside?
It’s hard to be conclusive from a half-day visit, but I’m inclined to be optimistic. I got to interview some of the kids, starting with the freshmen. When I approached them and introduced myself, they huddled together, craning their necks to listen. There was a look in their eyes that was a mix of curiosity, enthusiasm and painful shyness.
The sophomores were a bit more outspoken. When I got to the seniors, the self-esteem and confidence were very clear. There was still a bit of the shyness, but they were more assertive and articulate, without the cocky, even arrogant, qualities you see in other 16- and 17-year-olds.
They’re in touch, I thought to myself as I watched their program with an impressive repertoire: a “rondalla” band that has won several competition awards, a choral group that did a jazz number (a capella!), and dance numbers (with participants from Girlstown). The two hosts spoke English flawlessly, but not at the cost of Filipino: all the children I spoke with, including non-Tagalogs, were very comfortable with Filipino.
What was so striking was that whether they were freshmen or seniors, when I’d ask what they intended to do after they were finished at Boystown, they’d answer, “Mag-trabaho” [“To work”]. I realized many did intend to work right away, but that if they were given the chance, they’d try college. Most wanted to be engineers, business people or seafarers. I knew they were making practical choices. None of the seniors I interviewed talked about becoming a doctor, or a lawyer, and one shyly asked me what course one needed to take to become a journalist.
Yes, they have their own world in there, but all the kids share their roots in the harsh realities of poverty. And coming to Boystown and Girlstown does expose the children to new horizons. I met students from Ilocos Sur, Mindoro, Quezon, Romblon, Albay, Sorsogon, Mountain Province and Palawan. I knew friendships were being built, transcending regions and languages.
When I got back to Manila, I did an Internet search and found a website set up by the alumni (www.asmsi.or.ph). There was an announcement for alumni from Northern Luzon: an invitation to climb Mt. Pulag.
There’s also a website for the World Villages (www.worldvillages.org), well-organized for fund-raising. But there are still so many needs that could use local support. Tan’s greenhouse is only one example.
Over lunch, I asked Sr. Elena Belarmino, who is the academic director, if any of their graduates had entered the University of the Philippines. She said that last year, there was one student who passed the entrance exam, but didn’t push through, worried about the living expenses. I suspect that if there were sponsors who could commit to supporting students’ college living expenses, more would apply to the University of the Philippines (UP) and other State universities, and take courses like journalism or medicine (who knows, maybe anthropology as a pre-med option).
Then it struck me: Here I was with my reservations about a greenhouse approach and forgetting UP, too, is a greenhouse. Yet, we’ve produced graduates who are not just in touch with the world, but have dared to want to change it. Greenhouses can make a difference.