Kariton, klasrum, klinik and kantin

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on December 30, 2009

In 1997, a free tutoring center for street kids set up by community volunteers in Cavite City in the Philippines burned to the ground. While the destruction of the center was a tragic setback for the volunteers, they persevered in their mission to give young children whose families were mired in debilitating poverty a shot at challenging their fate by teaching them how to read and write, form basic hygienic habits, and understand and feel compassion.

The volunteers’ mentor-a young engineer named Hardin Manalaysay referred to as KB or Kuya Bonn-encouraged two of the volunteer leaders to think of innovative ways to continue their work despite the loss and the obstacles it presented. One of the leaders-Efren G. Peñaflorida, Jr.-was a young teacher who had broken free from the dire grasp of impoverishment and the tyranny of juvenile gangs with the support of Mr. Manalaysay. The other-Emanuel Bagual-had a similar story. Barely a teenager, Mr. Bagual grew up rising at 3:00 am to wash jeepneys and scavenge for food and junk he sold to pay for school supplies and other basic necessities. Like Mr. Peñaflorida, Mr. Bagual had been inspired by Mr. Manalaysay.

As a scavenger, Mr. Bagual had used a kariton-a wooden pushcart-to transport the junk he scavenged to local junk shops. The two volunteers reasoned that although they could no longer bring street children to their ruined learning center, the simple kariton would enable them to take the center to the children. Mr. Peñaflorida, 22-years-old, had been tutoring children since he was 14, following Mr. Manalaysay’s example. Mr. Bagual was already a human rights activist, having learned from Mr. Manalaysay that even children are entitled to basic rights.

All three were eager to continue the work that had transformed themselves and so many of the children they worked with. Most of Mr. Manalaysay’s early charges-his work with children began in 1985-had grown up and completed their college education. Although now with their own young families to care for, the recipients of Mr. Manalaysay’s devotion were giving back, providing an income stream to support the work of The Dynamic Teen Company, set up by Mr. Peñaflorida for the dual purpose of providing high school students an alternative to gang membership and harnessing their energy for educating younger children.

Despite that support, it would take time to rebuild the learning center, and hundreds of children were counting on the three men for a chance to build productive lives. The first kariton prototype carried books, school materials, a table and stools, first-aid kits, “and event snacks for the kids,” according to Mr. Manalaysay. A later “model” was more elaborate. Called K4 for kariton, klasrum (school), klinik (clinic), and kantin (canteen), the pushcart is equipped with a play center, hygiene materials for bathing, clothes, slippers, and food bins.

“Efren and his Dynamic Teens teach literacy, values, and promote the rights of children. They bathe, clean wounds, and cut nails and hair,” Mr. Manalaysay has written online. “They travel almost five kilometers by foot around town every weekend and children flock to greet them. His K4 educators and volunteers are former juvenile delinquents themselves. He trains them and helps send them to traditional schools.”

Not everyone greeted Messrs. Peñaflorida and Bagual as warmly, however. Despite the good work they were doing, the young men often found themselves the subject of ridicule by people on the street. Their tormentors-mostly unengaged in any productive activity themselves-laughed when they saw the simple karitons being maneuvered along the streets of slum areas, and called out to the two men asking why they were “wasting their time.”

Even for determined souls, the insults were discouraging, and Messrs. Peñaflorida and Bagual often found themselves hanging their heads as they pushed their karitons along the dirty streets. Dismayed over their discouragement, Mr. Manalaysay reminded the two volunteer leaders that they had the power to change perceptions on the street. “We need a voice,” they suggested, that would validate the importance and the impact of the work they were doing.

Mr. Manalaysay wrote a story about The Dynamic Teen Company on Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Network as the first step in gaining that voice. Next, he wrote CNN’s Heroes of the Year about the group’s work, and got a response: the network wanted to know more about Mr. Peñaflorida. “They investigated. They called so many people, even the mayor, the school, and other organizations. When they were convinced there is such a thing as a pushcart education, they came and filmed him,” Mr. Manalaysay told me recently.

“Our planet is filled with heroes, young and old, rich and poor, man, woman of different colors, shapes and sizes. We are one great tapestry.” Mr. Peñaflorida said upon being named CNN Hero of the Year November 22. He had found his voice; or rather, it had found him.

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