Hurricane Harvey has captured headlines and wreaked havoc this past week, which reminded me of my typhoon experience in Manila, Philippines at the end of July.
I flew to that tropical island nation to support the work of our three Regnum Christi schools: Everest Academy in Manila, a start-up school in Laguna just south of Manila, and Mano Amiga Academy (Helping Hands). My plans to visit Mano Amiga Academy on July 27 were disrupted by the violent winds, torrential rains, and flooding that inundated the shanty neighborhoods around the school. Three days later – once the waters had subsided – I was able to visit the bright yellow-painted school building and walk with our principal Rev Siasoyco, chaplain Fr Javier Fayos LC, and two teachers to visit several families of students.
Just days before, knee-deep water covered some of the streets and alleys we passed through as we made our way to the cinder block, tin-roofed shack of our first family. The population of this poverty-stricken area is made-up of 5,000- 7,000 informal settlers. Most live in shanties consisting of one room, which serves as the bedroom, kitchen, and living room for a family with an average of five members. Local incomes derive from occupations such as driving, selling or vending, and similar odd jobs. Monthly net income for a family is typically $150- $250 usd a month.
The husband, wife and two children welcomed us joyfully into their one-room home. Despite their poverty, they prepared us a breakfast of pansit, a traditional Philippino dish of rice noodles, and bought a 2-liter bottle of Sprite from the local market to share with us. The father works full time with a business installing wifi systems but barely makes enough to pay for electricity, food and the monthly rent for their shack. It’s a stretch for them to pay just $3 USD a month for their son’s tuition. To hear them talk in glowing terms of Mano Amiga Academy and the opportunities it opens for their son’s future would put to shame Western children who complain about homework and uniforms.
At each home we visited, the principal and teachers would try to help us understand the situation of each family and their socio-economic reality. The Mano Amiga Academy provides marginalized children with high-quality education, and parents pay according to their ability. By operating in this way, the families are not humiliated with a handout; instead, they feel the dignity of contributing to their child’s education according to their abilities and they are personally invested.
The next home we visited, one of the daughters had cerebral palsy and was confined to a specialized wheel chair. Even though the family was not Catholic, they spoke so appreciatively of the support the school had given their other daughter.
Nearby we visited the third home, where the father was the primary care-giver and his wife worked. Three rambunctious boys plied us with their English phrases, and little Daniel wanted to take a picture with Fr Daniel. The father was so appreciative of his younger sons improved behavior once they began attending Mano Amiga Academy. He was anxious to get his older son transferred from the public schools – where class size typically ranges from 50-80 students – into Mano Amiga Academy also.
The final family we visited brought us through narrow back alleys to a shanty where a little girl named Kate introduced us to her sickly mother and worried father. Despite the shabbiness of their one-room home, rent and utilities were higher in this area, and the family was struggling to keep Kate in school. They didn’t want her to sell trinkets and peanuts on the street corners, but their options were running out. Thankfully, a sponsor of the school had offered to help them and keep alive Kate’s dreams of one day being a doctor.
One fact I couldn’t get over during my visit to the school and families was how cheap it was to educate a child in the Philippines. For just $700 USD a year, a child can receive not only an education, but it also covers their miscellaneous fees, a school uniform, school supplies, and access to feeding programs and other enrichment activities. That’s two dollars a day… half a coffee at Starbucks.
I think about that every time I stop somewhere for food or something for my own comfort. What could I do with that money if I made a little sacrifice of love?
Lynn Pinugu, the executive director of Mano Amiga Academy, has grand plans for the future of the school. In her prior job, she helped to expand a network of 15+ primary schools in the areas around Manila. But she sees what Mano Amiga Academy is doing as much more than a job: it’s a mission. In the next few years, she hopes to expand Mano Amiga schools to several other locations in poor neighborhoods by augmenting her network of donors and committed Catholics who want to transform the lives of children and their families through access to quality Catholic education.
I look forward to praying for and supporting Lynn and her amazing team at Mano Amiga Academy in the years to come!