By: Nina Malanay
I have always been disturbed whenever I see children striving to thrive on the streets. Perhaps it’s the mom in me, or my years of working with children that makes it hard for my heart to comprehend why these children, who should be playing and enjoying a happy, carefree, nurtured childhood, are forced to face the harsh realities of life. Seeing kids as young as, or even younger than, my kids playing patintero with cars on busy roads turns my heart into knots. Or maybe it’s the pang of guilt of seeing my own kids, well-fed, well-cared for and living a relatively comfortable life, and then seeing these children having to fend for themselves at such a young age.
In a developing country like the Philippines, many children struggle daily to fend off abuse, hunger and exploitation on the streets. They serve as visible and painful reminders of society’s failure and inadequacy to care for and protect its most vulnerable members.
While on the streets, these children are exposed to dangerous conditions. Each day, they face the recurring problem of hunger, cold, lack of sanitation, lack of education, abuse and exploitation. The streets not only serve as their home, but also as their means of survival. Most street children depend on scavenging for trash, selling, begging, or doing odd jobs to survive. Some are driven to do criminal acts and get in conflict with the law and with authorities, often in their desperate attempt to improve their situations and survive the harsh conditions of the streets.
We have all encountered them. The kid who looks like he is barely out of toddlerhood with eyes looking at you through your car window, holding out a grimy hand; the tween-age girl selling sampaguita late into the night, begging you to buy the last few pieces so she can go home; the boys holding dirty rags trying to “clean” the windshield of your car hoping to get a few coins.
Knowing that these children have already been scarred by their homelessness and lack of parental protection and support makes saying “no” a guilt-ridden moral dilemma. I get anxious thinking about whether to give them money or to avoid them and just look the other way, knowing fully well that doing so will only perpetuate a system that keeps these kids out of school and on the streets. Not to mention the sad reality that most of these children are exploited by syndicates or manipulative adults for their ability evoke compassion and generate income. Further, the Anti-Mendicancy Law of 1978 prohibits anyone from begging and giving alms, thus making the act of giving money to street children a crime.
Indeed it’s hard to look the other way when you know fully well that there is something you can do to help these kids survive. In fact, if you truly open your eyes and your heart to the plight of these street children, it may even be harder not to give at all.
Here are some things you can do to respond to these needy children with compassion and make sure that your efforts are actually helpful and loving:
1. Give a moment
The simplest yet most precious thing you can give to a street kid is your time. Instead of brushing them off with a wave of a hand or a tap on your car window, take time to ask their names and ages, the whereabouts of their parents and the reason why they are on the streets. Doing so will make them feel that they are not invisible, that they matter, that they are worthy of a few moments of your time. You may even learn a thing or two from them.
2. Instead of money, give food.
It is often not a good idea to give money to very young children. More often than not, the money they get from begging goes to their parents, and while some families are really in dire need of financial assistance, there are cases when the money is used to buy drugs or alcohol. Giving money to children is like paying their families to keep them on the streets. Instead, give them food, water or snacks. Or better yet…
3. Eat Together
If you have the time and a bit of extra cash, enjoy a warm meal together. The connection you make with a street kid over a meal will definitely go beyond filling his tummy with food.
Volunteer your time or donate to legit organizations that do outreach activities to help street children. Coordinating with agencies and organizations such as Hands On Manila or the DSWD will help ensure that your support benefits the ones who need it most and that your donation is being used in the proper way.
In today’s cynical world where we see hardship, pain and suffering everyday that we have come to accept it as part of reality, it is getting easier to turn a blind eye to the plight of children who have made the streets their home. But it is important that we do not harden our hearts to them. After all, street children are our children too. They are society’s children – our children — that we have failed to protect and nurture. It is only compassionate to open our hearts and extend our love and kindness to them.
Nina Malanay is a mother to two rambunctious, affectionate boys, aged 7 and 4. Her husband-slash-best friend died in a tragic bombing incident in 2013. As she tries to navigate through life with her boys as a solo parent, she hopes to rediscover herself beyond the many hats she wears – mother, teacher, writer, baking enthusiast, student of life – and move boldly into her future.