Catholic News Service
MANILA, Philippines — Father Matthieu Dauchez knows the children he works with are not the only poor people in the Philippines, but that has not stopped him from lobbying loudly and praying constantly that Pope Francis will stop by.
“We’re a drop in the ocean, but I hope he’ll see this drop,” Father Dauchez said Jan. 13. “Our drop is very well located.”
The advantage of the Blessed Charles de Foucauld Home for Girls is that it is across the street from the Manila cathedral where Pope Francis will meet with priests and religious Jan. 16. In addition to the 38 girls and young women who live there, another 150-170 young people from the Tulay Ng Kabataan centers for street children around Manila will be waiting for there for the pope.
Speaking in English, Jelly, a 17-year-old resident at the center near the cathedral, said she wrote Pope Francis a letter asking him to stop by because “I want to confess my sins and I want to hug him.”
“He is a representative of God,” she said in Filipino, before returning to English to say: “He’s a very humble person. He’s very kind and playful.”
Jelly, who was rescued from the streets less than seven years ago, is now in the 6th grade at a local elementary school. She’s playful, too, and rallies some of the younger girls for their favorite game: They send flip-flops slicing through the air trying to knock over the sardine can that held the protein portion of their day’s lunch. They also had rice.
Jelly picks up a man’s massive blue flip-flop and sends it sailing, nailing the can; she insists it is not cheating if one finds a bigger shoe to launch.
Since 1998, the TNK foundation has been ministering to street children and the children of the urban poor in metropolitan Manila, including those who work as scavengers on Manila’s massive waste dumpsite.
While UNICEF estimates there are as many as 500,000 “street children” in the Philippines, that figure is based on long hours spent on the streets; many of them either live with their families on the streets or are sent out to work and return home to their families at night.
The 14 Tulay Ng Kabataan residential centers are for “hard-core” street children, those who have been abandoned by their families or were forced to flee because of physical and sexual abuse; 6,000 to 10,000 of those children live in metropolitan Manila, said Father Dauchez, who came to the Philippines from France as a seminarian and was ordained in 2004 for the Archdiocese of Manila.
Foundation employees and volunteers, including social workers and psychologists, are out on the streets every day and every night, building relationships with the children and letting them know that there is a safe place where they can find a home.
Alexandra Chapeleau, the foundation’s communications manager, says getting the children to the residential centers is a long process. The children form tight-knit and tightly controlled groups on the street; the group becomes their safety net and the source of whatever sustenance they can find, often through stealing and prostitution.
When the children first leave the streets, they are welcomed into “drop-in centers,” where social workers and psychologists evaluate each individual and try to discover if they have any ties or the possibility of a re-establishing a tie with their families. When they have settled into more of what would be considered a normal life, they move to a residential center and begin attending public schools.
Among those rescued from the streets are children who are mentally challenged or have serious learning disabilities; Tulay Ng Kabataan operates three residences just for them.
In the centers, the children experience the luxury of loving care, an end to exploitation and help with their homework. But the facilities are basic: The girls sleep on plastic loungers usually found by a swimming pool. They each have their own closet and their weekly schedule of chores is taped to it. Each day of the week of the pope’s visit, Jelly has a different task: dishwashing; preparing the table for meals on two different days; helping to cook and clean the kitchen; laundry duty twice; and one entry that says “3Gs.” She explained that that is tidying up the garden and garage and taking out the garbage.
Her 15-year-old friends, Liway and Elisa, are in high school and arrive home later than Jelly does. But they are fully onboard with the dream of welcoming the pope to their home.
“Pope Francis is one who will bring hope and make our dreams possible,” Liway said.
Elisa added: “I hope he will be able to visit us at the center for girls because he is very important. He helps others.”
The foundation cares for the young people until they are ready to live autonomously, Chapeleau said. Some stay until they are in their early 20s if they are enrolled in a university or job-training program.
As one of the girls led nine others in saying a prayer of thanksgiving after lunch, Father Dauchez put obvious effort into being philosophical about Pope Francis’ packed schedule and the fact that TNK is not officially on it.
“What is important,” he said, “is not whether he visits here, but that Pope Francis is coming to the Philippines to visit the poorest of the poor.”
“But what do you think our chances are?” he asked.