Poverty in paradise

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Seen from a distance, the tropical island of Batan, Philippines, might look like Hollywood’s version of paradise.

But this idyllic image conceals an unpleasant reality. Many who call these island communities home toil just to survive on a daily basis in abject poverty. Connie Barranda, a graduate from Children International’s sponsorship program, can testify to the hardships and trials of growing up in this “poverty in paradise.”

Connie’s childhood was mired in the difficulties of rural poverty. Her father and older brothers spent their mornings at sea, and she and her mother spent afternoons walking through the island’s neighborhoods trying to sell each day’s catch.

Connie estimates that their combined efforts netted the family the equivalent of US$30 a week, amounting to roughly 60 cents a day per person.

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Homes like this in Bicol, Philippines — made from salvaged material — are far too common in the areas CI serves.

The most despairing times came when bad weather rolled in. Typhoons could last for days, and even weak storms made fishing perilous or impossible. Without fish to sell, the family was forced to borrow money from relatives or neighbors just to eat.

The family’s tiny home, made from wood and palm leaves, leaked like a sieve when it rained. Damage from termites and age caused the entire structure to lean to one side. “Each time there was a typhoon,” Connie remembers, “my brothers and my father would literally hold down our house.”

Despite the challenges of hunger and other insecure living conditions, Connie drew hope and strength from her immediate family — as well as from her CI family.

As a young teen, Connie had the grit and determination to reach her goals — she just needed the opportunity.

Connie took full advantage of the skill-building and educational activities at her local CI community center, remaining steadfast on her goal of doing her best in school and graduating, regardless of the obstacles she faced due to poverty.

When Connie graduated at 17, she faced very few job prospects on the island. Her options, she said, were mostly limited to opening a small store where she could peddle drinks and snacks, becoming a farm hand or earning a meager living as a mat weaver. Desperate and determined to break free from poverty, she took a bold step — one that many relatives and neighbors considered foolish and naïve. With minimal money and practically no plan — but with skills and confidence from CI’s youth programs — Connie relocated from Batan Island to the mainland in hopes of pursuing college.

“I knew that I was aiming for the moon,” confesses Connie.

A month after Connie arrived on the mainland, she was barely surviving. Desperately searching for ways to support herself, Connie spoke with a CI volunteer who suggested that she contact the community center in Tabaco and apply for a college scholarship.

Connie used the last of her money to purchase bus fare to the center. She was so broke she couldn’t spare a single peso for food and was famished by the time she arrived.

“My hands were shaking while I was filling out the application form,”she recalls. “The staff thought I was nervous and told me to relax, but I was shaking because I was hungry.”

Realizing Connie’s need, a CI staffer dashed off to fix her a bowl of nourishing oatmeal. Grateful, Connie completed the application to become a HOPE (Helping Overcome Poverty through Education) scholar. After learning she’d made the first cut, the next step was an interview with a scholarship panel.

Connie’s almost-constant smile reveals the quiet but confident spirit that helped her to succeed.

“I think, most of all, the panel saw my sheer determination. That’s the quality that kept me going,” Connie says, “that kept me pursuing better prospects in life.” When she received news that she’d been awarded a HOPE scholarship, she was overwhelmed.

The scholarship covered expenses such as tuition fees, lodging, food and transportation for two years, so Connie was soon freed from worrying about survival and could focus on learning. “It was as if my life became suddenly wonderful,” she says.

She decided to apply to the National Police Commission. Her own experience with impoverishment — and with the opportunities afforded her through CI — helped reinforce an altruistic drive that Connie says has been with her forever. “I always dreamed of helping others,” she explains. “I wanted to be an instrument of justice. It is my dream to have a world that is fair and peaceful.” 

So, for nearly a year, Connie endured intense physical training sleeping in her uniform and going hungry — an experience Connie knew all too well. 

I felt as if I shed tears of blood each day at the training field,” adds Connie. “We were taught to have the strength and stamina of beasts.”

Poverty was my motivation,” Connie adds. “All I could think was that [my family and I] could have a better life if I could complete the training.”

In the span of just a few years, she’s already proven to be an effective and dynamic leader. She’s now a community relations advocate on the police force in charge of cases related to crimes against women and children.

Most kids who grow up like Connie abandon their dreams early. After all, hoping to become a professional when you are struggling just to survive can seem crushingly unrealistic. But teens who are provided with a path, a supportive team and programs focused on helping them succeed are able to keep their dreams alive. For Connie, CI’s programs empowered her to become a successful advocate for women and children.

“I find it a great honor to be able to serve and protect the women in our community,” Connie says. She aspires to continue climbing the ranks of her law enforcement career. And she says she’d also like to start a family of her own, knowing now that her children won’t suffer the same cycle of poverty that defined her childhood.

You can help a child or youth like Connie achieve her dreams.

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