We started our adventures this year by doing volunteer work with the Marist Fathers in Asia, specifically in Ranong, Thailand. It seemed logical to us to finish our year with them but this time we went to Davao in the Philippines.
The Fathers here are involved in a number of ministries and in true Marist form they are working with the lost, the lonely, the little and the least. They are involved with prison ministry and this is where we had our Christmas mass, not one we will forget in a hurry, the jail is a remand centre and prisoners can be here for many years. The women’s jail is smaller and contains small ‘houses’. The men’s jail is in two sections, the main part where there are over 1,000 men sleeping in small rooms with as many as 40 to a room. The other section, the annex, is where we went, it is for prisoners who are elderly (here that means over 50!), sick or are at risk of further abuse eg they are gay or transgender or foreign. It was an eye opener to be here, the interaction between the guards and the prisoners was positive and they all seemed happy to see us. In fact Fr Pat, Mike and I became the judges for the best Christmas decorations for each cell group. That night nearly all the Marist fathers were at the prison in one section or another.
The other big piece of work undertaken by the Marist Fathers is a home for street boys aged 5-15. It is called Balay Pasilungan, which means ‘house of shelter’. It was started in 1989 by the Marist Fathers and the Marist Sisters have been involved also.
Currently there are 40 boys at Balay Pasilungan, their backgrounds vary but all have been living on the streets. Some were foundlings, abandoned at birth, one abandoned by his mother in the market when he was a toddler, one was so severely beaten by his father that he had sustained head injuries and a broken leg that has never healed well, 3 brothers who were found in such a malnourished state that one even had worms in his nose, one was a glue sniffer and came to the home after two years in drug rehab facility that the Marist Sisters are involved with, he is only 12 now. When they come they take a while to adjust to this centre but the love they are shown wins them over.
Fr Long sm is the head of this home and the boys clearly love him, almost as much as he loves them. A very special man.
The centre has a number of people working with the boys, social workers, house parents, cook, laundry help – the amount of washing created by 40 boys is breathtaking. Much of the life here is communal, the boys and staff eat together, the boys all go to school, many are barely literate but an education is seen as a priority.
There is time allocated to ensuring the boys health needs are cared for, they are learning about healthy eating and taking care of themselves. Sr Sheila sm was a dentist before joining the Marists and she works to ensure good dental hygiene happens.
The boys sleep together in one room, originally they slept on the floor which is a common way of sleeping here but government regulations now require the boys to have a bed. When the boys first arrive most are unfamiliar with a bed and will sleep on the floor under the bed. When on the street they sleep together in a huddle for safety and this practice often continues here, one child per bed is not an experience the boys are familiar with. Consequently if one boy gets sick it can spread very quickly, dengue fever is present here and is very serious, particularly in these small boys.
Like children the world over there a scraps and fights that occur but these boys come from such poor backgrounds and have had very little parenting so they are having to relearn how to deal with their anger. This is hard and emotionally draining work. They are now learning to use restorative practice in solving their disputes.
The Marist fathers help the boys re-connect with their families where this is possible. Some have been successfully re-united but this is not always the case. We went out with some boys just before Christmas to do family visits. The homes are in slums or shanty towns, one was on the edge of the dump and the family make money by scavenging and reselling what they collect. These photos show some of the better homes.
By and large these boys are resilient and they respond to the love, care and discipline they are shown. A few years ago when one of the many typhoons to hit the Philippines caused devastation near Davao, the boys wanted to share the very limited goods they owned. This Christmas the boys were involved with helping a group who distributed goods to the indigenous mountain people who come down into Davao each Christmas. Also visiting at this time was a group of girls from the Marist Sisters College in Woolich, Sydney. Amazing young women who just gave and gave. Small groups of boys also go out with Fr Long and distribute food to street kids.
The photos we have are limited, we stand out already because we are European, Mike stands head and shoulders above most people. It just feels rude to take a photograph of the slum homes or to take photos of the children begging in the streets, knocking on your car window asking for money. There are success stories from Balay Pasilungan, there was a celebration recently, 25 years since the centre opened. Some of the past boys came back and shared their stories with the current boys, while not every story ends happily many of these men have done well, they have steady employment, have married and become the father that they wished they had had themselves.
The poverty here is like nothing we have seen before. My mother heart is tugged in so many directions. Even though aspects of this visit have been challenging we are so glad we came and had our eyes opened to how some people live. The work of the Marist fathers in both Thailand and the Philippines is a real mission and it is inspiring to meet such incredible people who are committed to this work and happy in their own lives.