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Some places cling to me long after I’ve left them. I smell hints of them. I see pieces of them while elsewhere. I feel a certain pull back to them. Such is the way I feel about one particular sponsorship community: Paradise Village in the city of Malabon (part of metro Manila).
Writing about this place, however, is another matter. I have known it for years now, since I became part of Children International – Philippines. Yet I have found that no amount of words can describe the way I feel about it. The first time I tried, all I ended up sharing was a single photo and a paragraph. But, in the following years of revisiting Malabon, I knew this patch of land remained unfinished business, of sorts, for me.
Here are just some of the ways Paradise Village finds its way back to me.
On my first visit to Paradise Village, I had no idea what world awaited me that bright Saturday morning. I had joined some of our staff for a meeting with parents there and was new in the job, thrilled to scour as many communities as possible and learn more about the lives of kids and their families.
I didn’t know we were journeying to a place that would continue to haunt me to this day.
I still remember stopping in my tracks upon seeing the words “Paradise Village” etched into a tall, rusty iron arch with metallic decorative wisps.
But this sign was the only thing “paradise-like” about the community. Behind it, rows of shanties lined the sides of a narrow path, and we had to cross a stagnant river to get in. While the body of water was barely flowing, my mixed emotions came rushing.
Peace, comfort and luxury are strangers to this place. But this is the “paradise” that kids here grow up knowing.
The majority of this maze of tiny, and usually damp, alleys can be navigated only by foot. (My feet have never managed to get totally acquainted with this intricate labyrinth.)
Being in Paradise Village has always been a tug-of-war of emotions for me. The thrill and excitement of finding interesting stories and capturing images to share are always coupled with a certain level of anxiety, vulnerability and helplessness — for myself and for the kids here.
Mer Regen, a sponsored 17-year-old, told me about a time once when fighting happened so often that people became too afraid to leave their homes. The gunshots terrified her.
“Ghosts do not scare me,” she said. “Real people do, because they can do you harm or even kill you.”
Maybelle, a CI program grad, lost a sibling — who was using the internet at a small computer shop — to a stray bullet.
Ederlina, a CI volunteer who lives here, is my all-access pass to Paradise Village. A mother of five with a sickly husband, she makes sure I’ve got company whenever I visit. Most of the time, it’s just her.
Once, I mentioned that a friend wanted to join me to see the place, but she was quick to discourage it. “I’m sorry, but it could be dangerous for him and for us,” she told me. “Some people here tend to get suspicious seeing strangers, especially males.”
Despite the dangers, with Ederlina, I feel secure. She understands the rules of this community. She is an expert with alternate routes and shortcuts. Her steps are sure; her pace is quick. People know and respect her.
But, she is honest.
“I do get scared here. I never know what will happen next,” she explains. “I fear for my family. I fear for the sponsored children. What if they get mistaken for enemies?”
When she does her rounds, she always has to watch her back and be prepared to run.
She’s learned such tactics from necessity. She has seen it all — gang wars, police chases, maulings, shootings. On one field visit, just minutes after we parted, she sent me a text message saying she just passed by a lifeless body on the ground.
“If only I had the power to stop all these killings,” she sighs. “I definitely would.”
But 15 years into her volunteer service, Ederlina remains firm in her commitment to helping us fulfill our mission of helping kids. Her husband has repeatedly asked her to quit; others have, too. And she has considered it. But, apparently, no amount of danger can stop her.
When I think about Paradise Village, I think about Ederlina and her strength.
“It’s true that fear hangs around here, but nothing can beat the joy I gain from helping and seeing children grow better,” she explains. “I want to be there for them even in my little ways. I want CI’s field staff to feel supported. Besides, the trainings and experiences I have gained from CI mean so much to me personally. I just think of the children, including my own, and CI’s staff, and that’s enough to make me put on a brave face and have courage in my heart.”
I consider myself lucky — not only because I have been spared from the danger she frequently faces but because I have known a woman so brave and mission-driven as Ederlina.
If anything, this place is only a paradise of dreams — dreams of the young who long for a bright future and of the old who wish for a life other than what they have always known. For many, these dreams are mere fantasies. But not for sponsored children who are learning to have hope through CI.
Even in the face of danger and abject poverty, life goes on.
There’s Mer Regen, who is doing her best to stay in school so she can get a decent job someday.
There’s Maybelle (24), who is now employed at a respected engineering firm and supporting her family.
There’s little Anton (10) who, despite the struggles of his family that scavenges for a living, takes pride in his being able to attend school and access medical care when he gets sick.
These and many other signs of progress are why Arnie Lacson, our community center coordinator, finds meaning in what she does.
“Paradise Village may be one of our most depressed and dangerous areas, but children here are getting the help and tools they need through CI as they grow,” Arnie says. “Despite their distance from the community center, they do their best to come here for our services. One of the best ways we are helping them is giving them access to health education, checkups and medicines, considering the health risks in their environment.”
These services and benefits are critical for young kids who sometimes get too sick from hunger or disease that they miss classes or drop out. CI provides help that makes their lives more bearable, such as feeding malnourished children in food-poor families and educating them on proper nutrition.
Youth leaders have taken charge — teaching kids in the community about child rights, promoting waste management and organizing massive cleanups.
Child poverty and danger here are real, but so is hope, especially when I see our field staff, volunteers, families and empowered teens working hand in hand. With CI, the nearly crippled Paradise Village has found a crutch, a crucial life support, to emerge strong against the odds.
It is easy to say that no one should live in Paradise Village. No kids should be here. But the reality is that they are here, trying to take root and to build a future out of what they have.
If I had my way, I would rewrite the fate of this community and turn it into what we all envision paradise to be. But this is no fiction or fantasy. In fact, I feel like I can never write enough about it. And I will never be able to write it out of me.
But we have the key to rewriting 300 children’s stories here to give them better endings: sponsorship. The effects of sponsorship are making silent waves here that, in the long term, will be more powerful than any danger.
Paradise Village is a huge reminder of an opportunity to help. We must keep breathing life into it, or it will turn into a hopeless wasteland.
We cannot leave children behind. Paradise Village, like many poor places in the world, is all of us.