Harnin Manalaysay is a father figure for hundreds of Filipino street children

For 30 years he has mentored youths, many of whom were out of school and on the streets – neglected, abused, or abandoned. He helps them go on to higher education and good jobs.

Simone Orendain
Harnin Manalaysay (c.) founded Club 8586, an outreach organization that helps street children in Cavite City, Philippines.

Harnin “KB” Manalaysay was in a mad scramble the Friday before Father’s Day weekend. Some scholarship sponsors who had committed to funding about half a dozen college student volunteers at his youth outreach organization hadn’t come through. The school year had just started, and he and senior members of Club 8586 would have to do some serious pavement pounding to gather donations to cover the shortfall.  

This meant he would have to reschedule an interview – again. The week before, he had had to attend the funeral of a close friend who “was like a brother.”

“He left me an inheritance,” says Mr. Manalaysay.

What he meant is that he now looks after his friend Ron’s five children. The oldest is an accounting student on a scholarship, one of those counting on the now-lacking funds.

“They all stay with me,” he said in a recent Monitor interview. But he’s used to children living with him – he has the space at his brightly colored compound where more than a dozen children and young adults live in separate buildings, go to school, and work on education and social service projects they’ve mostly designed themselves that help other young people in need.

For the past 30 years Manalaysay has been a father figure and mentor to hundreds of youths in Cavite City, just south of Manila. In a country where a quarter to a third of the population lives below the poverty line, half the young people he has helped were out of school and on the streets – neglected, abused, or abandoned. The other half were in school but on the verge of slipping into gang life or living criminal lives, he says.

While a few have fallen by the wayside, a majority of the young people have gone on to become professionals in fields such as finance, education, marketing, and psychology, Manalaysay says.  

Some have become rock stars of the philanthropic world. Kesz Váldez, his 16-year-old adopted son, won the 2012 International Children’s Peace Prize – the children’s equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize – for starting, at the age of 7, a foundation to help street children live with dignity and understand their rights. The 2009 CNN Hero of the Year, Efren Peñaflorida, who almost got involved with gangs, created a pushcart classroom that brings schooling, meals, and lessons in personal hygiene to street children. A third young protégé was also a finalist for the Children’s Peace Prize.

Walking through the upper floor of the bright red school building, Manalaysay stops to chat with young people sitting in circles on the floor, neon-colored sticky notes in hand. It’s a Sunday, and the volunteers are focused on the “street educator” program, a mainstay of this nonprofit organization. The program is run by young people who teach out-of-school street kids.

Manalaysay explains that the formula that has worked so well for the past three decades doesn’t involve formal social work or counseling. “We are gathering them. This is a support group,” he says.

He wants to create a caring, supportive environment. “And they have fun; we have laughs. I tell jokes, and they laugh a lot.... Young people who were victims themselves helping the needy, that’s a big factor also.”

Playing video footage of news stories about the awardees and other projects also captivates some of the new arrivals and compels them to stay, Manalaysay says.  

He pulls out his iPad and starts playing videos. His eyes light up as he points out the accomplishments of each young person.

“That’s Jeriemay. She’s one of the sweetest kids I’ve ever met,” he says pointing to a picture of a small girl with a shy smile.

That was from three years ago before Jeriemay Cuevas transformed into a confident 5-1/2 foot tall 16-year-old who last year started an art therapy program for impoverished children like herself who had been bullied or had low self-esteem.

“KB has really had a huge role in my life,” Jeriemay says later. “Like how my life changed from being totally hopeless to being so full of hope and generosity.... I’ve been so inspired by what he did. Like since he was 16 or 17, he’s been helping young people in need.”

Fondly known as “Kuya Bonn,” “KB,” “Tatz,” or “Lolo Bonn,” Manalaysay is an imposing figure who sees something of himself in the youths he started helping in 1985.  

The eldest of three children from a poor family, he had just been through a rough few months dabbling in drugs and prostitution in Olongapo City, about four hours’ drive north of Manila and once the site of a US naval base. At 17 he went to Olongapo with hopes of joining the US Navy after he ran away from his father, who beat his mother and the children. But he said he fell short of the requirements.

So Manalaysay headed back to Cavite City, where by the end of the year he was seriously contemplating suicide. Then he heard about a “pageant” that his sister had entered and decided to check out what he assumed would be a showcase of beauties complete with a swimsuit competition.  

Instead he found himself in a nondenominational Christian church watching a Christmas pageant, with his sister playing the role of Mary. And he heard a message of hope that night. That was when he made a New Year’s resolution. “I wanted it to be that people who would cross paths with me would somehow benefit from me or be blessed or inspired,” he recalls.

Soon after that, Manalaysay came across some kids in ragged clothes outside his new church making a lot of noise as they gambled with the loose change they had just begged for. He felt bold enough to scold them for making a ruckus.  

He asked if they were in school. They said no, so he started giving them basic lessons in reading and ABCs. The number of students grew, and he decided to tap some high school teachers, who recommended student volunteers. But he found that even those kids came from unstable families and needed help, too, including lessons in self-esteem and self-respect.

Club 8586 was born. The teaching led to tutoring gigs in college that helped him earn a little extra for expenses at home. After graduating he became an engineering professor. But he quit in 1999, giving up a generous salary to dedicate himself fully to helping young people. His engagement to a longtime girlfriend also ended that year.

Manalaysay would pray for help to find ways to earn money. He entered and would win quiz shows and slogan contests. The winnings covered tuition for several students, including Efren, the CNN hero. Today he keeps Club 8586 afloat thanks to paid speaking engagements and support from former club members.

Kesz, the peace prize winner, took a lesson from his adoptive father and also entered contests, winning a house and then $5,500. But he says the greatest lesson Manalaysay imparted was “When you see a need, do something.”

Kesz’s mother had left him at Manalaysay’s doorstep, calling him “bad luck” after he attempted to leave home several times because his father forced him to pick trash at the dump site where they lived. Kesz was badly burned when he was tossed onto a pile of burning tires at the site.

“Every time, [Manalaysay’s lesson] is in my head and in my heart,” says Kesz, a former pickpocket. “It is my favorite quote that Tatz told me. So whenever I see a need, I must do something to help.”

Manalaysay credits his mother with this philosophy. His earliest memories were of her selling home-cooked snacks that she would then give away to the poor once she earned enough to pay for the family’s needs. That lesson in selflessness and love has stuck with him, and he has tried to pass it along to all of the kids whose lives he has touched.

“Because somebody listened and somebody cared and somebody believed in them and made these things possible,” he says.

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause.

Below are links to groups that help children worldwide:

Achungo Community Center cares for orphans in Kenya and has grown to help 270 grade-school students. Take action: Donate toward scholarships for destitute children.

The GVN Foundation supports the educational work of local community organizations worldwide. Take action: Volunteer to work with children in Ethiopia.

Corazon Roxas Foundation assists groups that provide education, housing, and other care to children in developing countries. Take action: Give five bags of children’s books to children in remote Philippine villages.

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