Reaching for a Future in Manila

IT was a special and hectic time for Yolly Cabias: Bahay Tuluyan, a day-care center and haven for street children from the slums, bars, and brothels of Manila, was graduating its first class. Yolly and head teacher Delia Tamayo had spent hours preparing for a production by 37 rambunctious six-year-olds. Songs and poems were rehearsed. Graduation banners and badges were prepared. Pictures were taken of each child in a miniature white robe and mortar board.

By the big day, the graduates, wearing their Sunday best, faces shining with rouge and lipstick, squirmed with excitement. Before beaming mothers and clicking cameras, each child was summoned forward to receive a certificate and special ribbon that said it all: "Graduate."

Sixteen-year-old Yolly, like her small charges, is a child of the Manila streets. Her family is part of the growing army of squatters who populate the streets and back alleys of the Philippine capital and scratch out a subsistence in the shadow of extravagant wealth.

Malate district, Yolly's backyard, is a microcosm of Manila. Once an elite suburb, Malate and its sister Ermita district are the capital's tourist belt, mixing luxury hotels, fine restaurants, and a wealthy clientele with bawdy bars, neon-lit nightclubs, and the poor who serve them.

"The situation in Malate is one of extremes," says Marichu de las Alas, who works at Bahay Tuluyan, which means "a place to go." "There are children and a lot of people living in push carts."

Yolly, shortened from Yolanda in the Philippine custom of nicknaming, lives in the Malate shadows. Her house is a crevice at the back of a makeshift tenement, where 10 family members squeeze into a space not much bigger than a walk-in closet.

Erlynda, Yolly's mother, and two brothers provide the family's main support by selling cigarettes and snacks outside a five-star hotel. An older sister has left to work as a domestic in Saudi Arabia. A brother who was a drug addict and became involved in trafficking has been missing for five years.

Yolly first came to Bahay Tuluyan, operated under the auspices of the Malate Catholic Church, two years ago to play volleyball. The center soon became a respite from her troubles and the crowded conditions at home.

`I AVOID going home because my father is an alcoholic, because when he's drunk, he beats us and my mother fights with him," says Yolly, one of nine children. "That's why most of the time, I'm crying. Sometimes he drinks 24 hours a day."

"I like to come here," she continues as she sits in the center office and makes ribbons for the graduation. "This office is bigger than our room at home."

She has thrown herself into the hubbub of the shelter with its dozens of homeless children. She arrives at 10 a.m. or as early as she can after doing the family laundry. She stays until 8 p.m. or longer if possible.

Yolly has learned to type, and helps in the office. She's gaining a growing understanding of English. Last year, she became one of the center's 14 'junior educators,' a program aimed at training and cultivating older street youths as teachers for the young. Yolly, who likes to sing and act, began teaching day care with Delia Tamayo, a 22-year-old staff member who first came to the center as an abandoned child.

"Yolly showed a lot of potential," says Nic Arriola, a former seminarian who works on the center's staff.

"She's energetic, creative, and open to change."

Yolly's eyes cloud with the talk of family troubles, but they brighten at the mention of teaching. Day care is fun, she says, but it's a lot of hard work and frustration. "Many of the children are hard-headed," she says, breaking into a smile. "Even if you are mad, they still don't mind you."

But the rawness and brutality of street life seem never far away. Earlier this year, six-year-old Precious de la Victoria, one of Yolly's students, died in a freak accident as she slept on a push cart on the street. The child was honored at the day-care graduation.

"I felt lonely and sad," Yolly recalls about the tragedy. "Precious was kind and silent. She was not hard-headed like the other children."

The demands of teaching, studying, and working at home seem to have taken a toll on Yolly. Last September, without the knowledge of the center staff, she dropped out of Manila High School with two years left to graduation.

"I had a hard time with the scheduling, with my work at home, the schedule of classes, and the center," says Yolly, who will return to school this fall at the urging of the center's social workers.

Yolly's monthly earnings of 1,000 pesos (about US$40) are also crucial to her family's volatile income. One day recently, the girl's mother was at home because the police were fleecing vendors outside the hotel.

"There's no income today," Yolly shrugged. "The policeman is demanding 'grease money' so it is better to stop selling."

IN the Cabias's hutch-sized house, reached by squeezing through a foot-and-a-half-wide passageway and climbing rickety steps, Yolly's mother hurriedly straightens up for some unannounced visitors. In one corner, a charcoal fire smolders. In another, the statue of a Catholic saint stands in a small niche.

Yolly says the current house, for which the family pays the 500-peso ($20) monthly electricity bill for the entire building, is an improvement over previous quarters. The Cabiases used to live in the basement, which had no windows and a plastic covering for the door.

Yolly's elder sister, Malou, went to Saudi Arabia to work as a house maid months ago. "So far there are no centavos from my sister because of the war," says Yolly.

She and her mother are friends, she says, drawn together by the family turmoil. Still, as with many teenagers, there are clashes. At first, Mrs. Cabias opposed Yolly's work at the center, complaining she had enough to do at home. But the 16-year-old insisted, and the mother came around. Mother and daughter are also at odds over dating.

Yolly admits with embarrassment that she sometimes sneaks out to meet boyfriends. (Her current No. 1, Yolly giggles, is Edwin, a 17-year-old who has a good job as a factory worker but no car.)

Yolly says she hopes to follow in her mother's footsteps and become a traditional midwife. Witness to so many births at her mother's side, the girl says happily, "It's so exciting when you see a baby being born."

As for marriage and having her own family, Yolly says she's not sure. For the moment, she has enough on her mind.

"There are family and financial problems," says Yolly. "I enjoy being 16. But there are also lots of problems in being 16."

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