My alarm goes off at 5:00am so Jerry and I can leave by 6am. We are going to visit Fr. Matthieu near Tondo. Do you remember when the Pope came to the Philippines in 2015? Pope Francis did not meet with the government or religious leaders. He came to see the children at Fr. Matthieu’s orphanages. Fr. Matthieu has been a partner with RSM for several years. He will be taking us to a new feeding site that he has established in Happy Land. I produced a movie about Happy Land last year and wrote about it here. Our drive takes about an hour. Not a very long drive because it is Saturday and the traffic is a little less. Our first stop is at one of Fr. Matthieu’s half way houses. We stop in front of a large solid metal gate going across the entrance. We cannot see inside but, there is a small door to pass through. A motorcycle driver pulls up in full gear. He removes his helmet and Jerry realizes that it is Fr. Matthieu! The large fortified gate is opened and the van passes through. The boys are ages four-ten and very affectionate, grabbing our hands for blessings and giving us hugs. They ask over and over again, “Sir, what’s your name?” They especially like my hat. One boy asks, “Are you a cowboy?” I’m not really wearing a cowboy hat. I actually bought this straw hat in Puerto Rico. But it’s close enough to a cowboy hat for the Philippines. So, I straighten up, clear my throat and strike a pose and attempt my best John Wayne impression. I say, “Howdy Pardner!” The boys smile and run off to play basketball. They seem very happy. Fr. Matthiew tells us that this is a halfway house for the boys. The boys have been rescued from the street. Not foundlings, but boys begging on the streets.
They have parents that just can’t care for them because of a multitude of reasons. This place is where they will decompress from living on the street. This is where the missionaries will try to instill good habits and values, before they are placed in homes with new parents. I notice a large behavioral chart on the wall that lists each boys name. If the child has had good behavior for the week, he gets a smiley face. A straight mouth, so so behavior, a frown- well, not so much. There are not a lot of smiley faces. A group of young missionaries gathers. Katie is an American from Indiana. She and her husband moved to Manila six months ago to be missionaries for two years. Fleur is from France –her husband and three children live a short distance away. Fleur is the communications director and her husband is a food purchaser for the orphanage. Jean Marie is from Martinique, Caribbean and is like a big brother to the boys. Other “girl only” orphanages are also in the area.
We leave for Happy Land, Barangay 105. A barangay is a geographical district like a neighborhood. This area is considered the most densely populated area of Manila. The transportation is open air conditioned as we are riding in the back of a private jeepney. We get to experience all the sights, smells and sounds as well as the heat of Manila. The smell of exhaust assaults our olfactory glands when we stop at intersections. After about an hour of traveling we enter the harbor and docks area. It is the bay for ships to enter into Manila and is part of the South China Sea. Shipping containers are unloaded onto semi trucks. We drive right into the barangay. There are people everywhere. A basketball game is going on in tight quarters. Everyone gathers around as we pull up on the narrow alley. We are the oddities, the foreigners. We duck our heads down and walk through a passageway to traverse deeper into the shanty housing. Fr. Matthieu looks like a white knight as he walks through the streets.
We follow him to a small two story concrete building. They are cooking downstairs. I look in the kitchen and see two mothers holding malnourished children. I hear singing coming from upstairs, “Jesus is my best friend…” Fr. Matthieu goes upstairs to start teaching.
Ignorance is the great destroyer here. Mothers know very little about nutrition. Rice is widely available, because it’s cheap, but rice is not a very nutritious food. Most of the children suffer from a lack of protein. When you’re hungry, a person is usually not thinking of a balanced diet. Junk food from a sari sari store can be purchased for a few pesos. It’s not good for a person, but at least the pain of hunger is not so severe. Ignorance of personal hygiene is also prevalent. The teeth of the children are rotting out from the junk food and candy. Toothbrushes and toothpaste are not in use. Children are not in the habit of washing hands before eating the junk food either. Filthy hands deliver junk food to rotting teeth. If you visit the barangays you will never forget the smell. There are no toilets to flush, just gutters and streets for human waste to flow to the sea. Everything is filthy, stinky, and junky. It makes your skin crawl. Why don’t they clean it up? When you’re hungry, cleaning up just doesn’t seems to matter much.