In 2008, little Eric was the first child registered at Rio Tuba Learning and Development Center in the Philippines. I was there. And I recently went back to see how he is doing.
To reach Eric’s far-flung town, I traveled by plane, took a 30-minute motorcycle-taxi ride, and then a grueling six-hour bus ride on a dusty, monotonous rough road.
I was warmly received by Pastor Gwen, who immediately said she remembered. She also said Eric has improved much. His father, Benny, however, has been very elusive.
Pastor Gwen has tried several times to reach Benny to discuss matters about sponsorship, but he’s never home. His children always say he’s out looking for food.
The next morning I saw Eric in his tutorial class at the student center and immediately noticed a big difference – he was smiling at me!
There was a toothless gap in his big grin, and I was very happy to see it.
I approached and asked if he remembered me from my last visit. He said no.
I observed Eric in class. He was the quietest and most well-behaved.
The other children were typically rowdy, but Eric went about his quiet way, listened to the teacher attentively, colored some drawings as told, and took his morning snack.
As in all student centers throughout the Philippines, Rio Tuba plans and conducts many activities for the children. The goal is to connect with each individual child so that each hears the Gospel and learns Bible stories and songs, is monitored for health, receives school tutorials, and is given a chance to just play, eat, enjoy, feel loved and feel safe.
Simply put, each child is given the chance to live a happy life so that all of them, like Eric, can begin to smile.
I learned that 6-year-old Eric comes to the center after his regular elementary school classes. He is in grade one. We grabbed a quick lunch, and it was time to meet Eric’s family again.
Pastor Gwen had briefed me on how the student center performed in its first year of partnership with Compassion. So naturally I wanted to know if all that she said was true for Eric’s family.
“The children receive one-on-one attention for counseling and tutorials. I challenge all our caseworkers to be second mothers to the children … The children are happy; we can see that in their eyes and smiles … Ninety percent of the children and their parents voluntarily come to church.”
According to the pastor, the student center has done so well that city officials took notice.
Several other agencies have come to Rio Tuba and most have failed the city’s expectations. Many were bogus, scams. Some even attempted to take children to the big city to work. City officials were very disappointed. Today they are happy at what they see going on with the Assemblies of God Church after it partnered with Compassion.
“They are now convinced that we are different and that we are for real,” Pastor Gwen says.
The Assemblies of God Church is the first and only Compassion church partner in Rio Tuba. Its closest neighbor is roughly 150 kilometers away, or six hours by rugged land travel.
I thought, “This new church partner is doing very well.” Then I met Eric’s father.
Last year he was not interested in his son being registered. I thought that after a year he would think differently, but I was wrong. He wasn’t excited at all about the sponsorship. In fact, he was sad and angry.
How could Rio Tuba seemingly have failed Benny? I had to know more.
Benny’s bamboo home has not improved a bit. In fact, it is now even more unkempt. There were dirtied clothes, unwashed plastic plates and leftover grains of rice everywhere.
I approached Benny as Pastor Gwen stayed close behind. I shook his hands and immediately the stern look on his face melted. He began to cry.
He cried like a young boy being scolded. He talked about how his eldest daughter eloped, how his two oldest sons moved out in exchange for work that pays them a few pesos a day, and how his favorite daughter, Jonalyn, left for the city to look for a job.
Jonalyn used to keep the house clean and take care of her younger brothers.
On my last interview, Benny’s wife just left him. Now, four children have done the same.
“What can I do? I have to work all day to feed my children. Only my three sons are left with me now.
“I told Eric to stop going to school and to the student center. What’s the point?
“Look at our house. It’s so messy. My boys should stay here and be responsible enough to keep it clean and tidy.”
For a whole year Benny never took Eric to the student center nor stepped inside the church. After Jonalyn left, Eric walked every day to the student center with other registered children who lived nearby.
Then I asked Benny how Eric’s sponsorship has helped them. He cried all the more and asked, “Why should they take away my son? Where are his sponsors? What are they for? Who is that Christ church?”
His reaction took me aback and I realized that this father had not yet understood many things about the program. He believed in the rumors that Compassion, like some of the other organizations that came before it, would take away children and make them work in the city.
Pastor Gwen was with me for a reason. She has been trying for a long time to talk to Benny and explain what Eric’s sponsorship really meant. This was her chance and so she made her move.
In her usual loving intonation, she carefully explained and enumerated the benefits Eric was receiving from his sponsor: the tutorials, the food, the fun time, prayers, Bible stories and so on; that Eric is now smiling.
Thank God, Benny was not hard to educate.
He stared out the window and began to nod as if to say, “Ah, so now I get it.” After a few more minutes, Benny made a confession.
“I intentionally eluded you for one whole year, but today, when I heard that you were coming with a visitor from Manila, I made sure I was here. I thought Eric’s sponsor was coming to take him away.”
The pastor smiled. I laughed and explained that I have no intentions of doing something like that to his son. Then Benny smiled, too. His first smile for the day.
After a few moments, the pastor explained that the church needed some carpentry work and that Benny should come on Sunday to see how he can help.
“Yes, pastor,” Benny said, now composed. “I will go on Sunday.”
The pastor and I visited more homes to make the most of my coming to Rio Tuba. Then at sundown we called it a day.
I made my way to my rented room on a dark, unpaved road. There were not many streetlights in Rio Tuba. One of the approaching shadows turned out to be Benny. He was the first to greet.
Benny said he was going to the church to check the carpentry work. It seemed he could not wait until Sunday. Just as he waved goodbye, he turned to me and said, “I’m going to church on Sunday.”