First of all, please forgive the grainy nature of this photo. This picture was taken almost 5 years ago, in April or May of 2016. They were 13 and 15 years old at the time. They are Rommel and Jhon Rey.
I woke up on a Sunday morning to find our front door swinging open. In my pre-caffeinated state, I was at first puzzled. But quickly I scanned the room and realized my laptop was missing and Ana’s purse had been emptied – many of the less valuable contents fallen to the floor. This began an almost all day effort to track down the laptop. One of the guards at a nearby gate described a young boy he saw around 2am coming from the direction of our house with a large green shopping bag (which he also stole from us to carry the laptop. Clever…).
We looked for some of the street kids who at that point Ana had only recently started sitting with. The two in this picture had an idea of who took it based on the description, and where he would have gone to sell it. In the absence of immediate action from local law enforcement, these two went to the place where street kids sell things they… find. Soon after, they returned, reporting the boy was still there, high on the drugs he bought with the money he got from the laptop (about $50). With that information, the police went into action, brought in the boy and recovered my laptop.
As a way of showing our gratitude, we took these two to the mall to get dinner and watch a movie. I remember their wide-eyed wonder as they took the escalator up passed the indoor lighted fountain. For their meal, they chose simple chicken and rice, since it was familiar to what they were used to (but arguably better quality). I can’t remember the movie we saw, but I remember them complaining about how cold it was with the air conditioning.
And so it goes.
Today, the boy on the right, Jhon Rey, is 20 years old. He’s one of the junior staff at the center, splitting his time between his vocational schooling for animation and various work duties we give the older boys. Through that nominal income, he learns to budget his money for representative expenses we require he pay, simulating real life bills. He also saves at least 20% of what he earns (20% is our required amount). The rest is his disposable income. With his savings, he was able to offer significant financial help to his family during the past year as they struggled with the pandemic, lack of work, and a new baby. He’s even recently expressed some interest in becoming a Nehemiah house parent one day. Consider we were warned not to help him all those years ago because it would do no good. Consider he used to head up a small gang of kids and stole to survive and provide for his younger brother. Consider he used to be quite the fighter, and other kids feared him. His destination is still before him.
Tragically, the boy on the left no longer has a destination. Almost a month ago we learned that he was involved in robbing someone of means in the area. The news we received was that the other four boys involved were already dead, hunted down. This boy was missing and on the run. In the middle of March, a photo was forwarded to some of the staff by older kids on the street we know. It was Rommel’s body, laying on the side of the road. By all indications, he was tortured. He was 18.
I won’t say he was a good kid; he really wasn’t. But he wasn’t a bad kid either. At a memorial service, we held for him at the center for the boys there, one after another shared how Rommel helped them find food, or shelter, or companionship. If he grew up in a more structured, secure environment, he would have been the class clown. Getting in trouble but in no way malicious.
If he grew up in a more structured, secure environment, society would more easily view him as a person with inherent worth. Growing up on the streets made him disposable; one of the countless blights on the city. When society looks at people trying to help children on the streets and says to you, “Don’t waste your time, money, or efforts on them. They won’t change,” society is also saying the problem can’t be fixed, only done away with. And it is tragic.
Rommel helped me get my laptop back when it was stolen. On an occasion where we learned he had stolen, we told him (and the others involved) that they had to return the items and apologize. I went with them, but they did it. They said the words. When we learned he had gotten into a fight, and some other boys were being punished for it, we told him (and the other guilty boy) he
had to tell the police the truth so the innocent boys would be released. He did so (and was not punished as the innocent ones had been, for reasons that are not fit for this writing). We never had to threaten or beat him to get him to do the right thing. We talked to him like a person, and he responded to the value we saw in him.
I think often about the hidden costs of the pandemic. We weren’t able to continue our street outreach for a year now. For a year, the moral compass we helped provide was missing from his life. And the pandemic made it even harder for those surviving on the streets, made them more desperate. And justified for many in society their judgment that they won’t change.
New Boys in the House
Why wasn’t Rommel living in the center with the other boys? There are a few reasons. The place we rent for the center can only house so many boys, and unless we get more space, that’s more or less a hard cap we can’t exceed. The boys we took in when we first rented the residence were those who had shown the most consistency and readiness for that transition. Needless to say, bringing someone into a house has countless benefits, but also some risks. And in the beginning, when we still had much to learn and were only a very small team, we had to mitigate risks. Finally, some boys just aren’t interested in moving into a residential center, not ready to give up what they perceive to be freedom. Rommel wasn’t ready.
The other constraint is cost. Cost per boy in the residence is about $550 per month. Since Rommel’s death, we’ve had a few boys on the streets ask about moving into the shelter. Losing a friend like that is a reality check. They can also look at Jhon Rey and the other boys in the house and see they are taken care of with food, shelter, medical care, etc. They are in school, have access and time to use the internet, and more. There are some boys we knew before the pandemic that are clearly walking a path that leads to very sad endings. Others are reassessing.
In April a new social worker will start with us, and we’ll be able to start processing and intaking new boys. By May, we expect and hope to have space to take in two more boys. But we also hope to raise our consistent monthly support by $1,000-1,100 by then as well, to help absorb the cost of taking them in.
If you’re interested in helping contribute to changing the future for a boy on the streets in Manila, you can use the Donate button below and select Chris and Ana Cozzone for the money to be put toward the Nehemiah Center.
In the past several years that we have been serving children in the margins, we have known children kidnapped, forced to beg, the target of death threats, wrongly arrested, brutality, victims of adult predators, and now tortured and murdered. At the same time, we have also seen people around the world who treat them with dignity, value them, and invest in their lives and futures. Thank you to all those who partner with us in investing in their lives to give them an opportunity for a better tomorrow.