A Personal Crusade

Friends among the “urban poor”

A couple of weeks ago, I met a friend of mutual friends. He got to talking about what he was doing, and later in the evening I asked whether I could interview him. He refers to his going out with donations as “sorties” because he’s bombing with love. The photos come from his Facebook pages.

Homeless kids at James’s dinner table

James’s story

It started when I was working for a call center. On my way home I saw people sleeping on the street, even in the rain. I wondered if they’d eaten dinner. So when I came across some money—I think it was a bonus from my company—I had an extra 1,500 pesos, roughly $40. Noodles were about 7 pesos a package. I bought about 200 pesos worth and cooked them up. That night I went around the community, waking up the homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks. At first they might have thought I was a policeman trying to get them off the streets. They were surprised when I gave them some noodles. It became a habit every time I had extra money or my children give me some from their salaries. I’d go cook some noodles, then bring my children with me. It’s quite addicting. You see faces lighting up because they see there’s food in front of them and there’s still a person who seems to care about them. I think it gives them hope.

hen it expanded to bringing goods to the flood-stricken area in Bulacan, Calumpit [northwest of Metro Manila on the Calumpit River] was under water after a typhoon. I brought some relief goods which my family and I had packed up at home. I went there with my youngest child, who’s eight years old. She enjoyed it. I find it fulfilling to be able to help, however small that help might be. It’s my principle that you don’t have to be rich to be able to help people because there will always be someone poorer than you, there will always be someone needing your help. It’s just a matter of having the willingness to give and to make sacrifices. To me, it doesn’t matter if they’re people I don’t even know as long as I can alleviate their suffering. It gives me joy and fulfillment.

Cooking noodles

I talk about it on my Facebook pages, where I put some personal quotes and my personal philosophy. I really don’t want people to know I’m the one doing this, so I use another name. For the pages in English I use James Braddock, the character from the Chuck Norris Missing in Action films. He was my idol when I was younger.  On the Tagalog pages I use is Mang Urot. An urot is something annoying. On those pages I also put in some humor about family life, married life, situations at home, other things I think I have some understanding of—whatever comes to mind, if I find it amusing or think it might help somebody.

After I went to Calumpit to distribute relief goods, my friends on Facebook—people I had never met in person—were asking me why I didn’t post some pictures. I told them I wasn’t doing it for publicity, I was just happy to be able to share. But they said, “Come on, do it. Maybe others will be pursuaded to do the same.” So I did. At that point in time I had no pictures of myself or my family in my Facebook pages. They called me “Older Brother” or “Kuya.” [The use of family terms for people outside the family is common among Asian, family-based cultures.] I know they benefit from my philosophy, and sometimes I give them some counseling. They wrote, “Kuya, we’ll be sending some donations.” Some of this money came from Saudi Arabia and Cyprus, one from the U.S. There might have been some from Canada. After that first sortie into Calumpit, they sent me about 10,000 pesos [$230] in cash. A week after my first trip, I used the money to buy relief goods, and I went back to Calumpit.

Boiled tap water for drinking

After that they were asking about my next project. I said, “I’m not used to accepting money from people I really don’t know. Are you sure you trust me?”

“No problem, Kuya, we’ll be sending money.”

The next time they sent money, it totaled 20,000 [$450]or more. They said I should decide how to use the money. Feeding the homeless in my area would only cost about one or two hundred pesos a day. I wondered how I could use 20,000. So what I did was I organized my friends and my family, and we went to 168 Mall in Divisoria [a wholesale-retail mall] and bought school supplies. So for me, my contribution was making the trip to a place where the goods would be cheaper instead of just going to an SM mall. My contribution was to lower the cost so we could provide for 120 or 150 students instead of only a hundred. I brought my childhood friends along, including some from “the urban poor,” which gave them the privilege of being able to help people. So we went to 168, and we carried out twenty to thirty kilos of writing pads, notebooks and slippers [flip-lops]. Then I coordinated with the schools in downtown Manila to make the donation.

A trunkful

It was quite a good experience. For us, what’s 100 pesos [$2.36]? It’s one coffee at Starbucks. A hundred 100 pesos per kid is not much—probably it’s not the amount. Probably it’s the kids’ feeling that someone cares. I hadn’t finished posting the pictures when another fellow wrote and said he wanted to support my next project. That was about 35,000 pesos. We were able to go to a school in Quezon City and give more than we had previously. I hope it goes on like this forever. It’s not my habit to solicit money from people, and I really don’t want to do it. But I hope it continues and people can see the beauty in what I’m doing and the beauty in doing it themselves.

I’m encouraging them: “You don’t have to support me. You can do it yourself. Why not do it in your own community?”

His daughter and her nanny packing up food

They insist on helping me. “Well, I’m in Cyprus. I’m in Saudi Arabia. How can I do it? I cannot help people here because they’re wealthy.”

I look at it this way: if I refuse the help they are giving for my projects, then I would not be able to reach out to the needy in the Philippines.

I’m gaining some friends—and yes, some detractors who accuse me of making money out of this. But I just have to go on because I know what I’m doing is good, not only for them, but also for me. It renews my spirit.

About a week ago someone sent me 5,000 pesos [$116]. I still have it because I was planning on doing something for the squatters in Makati. For 400 families that’s a small amount. One woman wrote to say her employer was getting rid of old toys and clothes, and she’d be sending them to me by FedEx. I wrote back that it would be okay to send them some cheaper way, like by ship. Otherwise the cost of sending the items over would be more than they were worth. It would be better to just send the money and we could go buy food or clothes for the children.

This has become a personal crusade, and my family is into it. When my daughter [a flight attendant] has some extra money she gives it to me. My son [an engineer] doesn’t usually give me money, but the funny thing is once after payday I saw that his bag was full of packages of noodles. So I think he’s doing something on his own. It really makes me happy that what I’m doing is rubbing off on my children.

There’s another thing that I can’t forget. One day when we were going to Manila, on a corner near our house there were my friends—I call them friends now, a family that regularly sleeps outside a bank. We know each other like friends. I noticed that the father was limping and that he had a very ugly wound, like a burn. I was afraid it would get infected. So I told my son, “Go home, get some Betadine antiseptic and some gauze.”

In front of the bank

Without hesitation, my son got the stuff and came back. “Well, what should I do with this?”

“What should you do? Look at his wound.”

So he took care of the man by putting some antiseptic and gauze on the wound. How many children—or how many men—would go out of their way to do that? For some it’s disgusting to be with homeless people, and much more so if it involves treating an ugly wound. I’m proud and blessed to have a son who also reaches out to the poor.

There’s something wrong with many rich Filipino families. They don’t seem to want to mingle with poor people. They look down on poor people. [This is probably the only way they can justify to themselves the enormous gaps in living standards.] I have to tell you, when my older daughter and my son were about six or seven years old, we were rich. They had no any idea that when I was young I was mingling with squatters. I enjoyed mingling with “the less fortunate,” as they’re called. I noticed that my wife and my children seemed to have a double standard when it came to themselves and to poor people.

In front of the bank

So I said, “Pack up some things for two days.” They thought we were going on a vacation, but I brought them to my friends in a squatters’ area in Makati—which is still there—and I had them stay with the squatters’ family for three days and two nights so they would know what it was like to live in those conditions. That worked pretty well. They still love the poor, and up to now every time they go there they feel the acceptance given to them by the people in the squatters’ area. There’s no animosity. There’s no fear. My Facebook pictures are proof of that. We’re a family regardless of whether we’re poor or rich. We are a family.

I only can do so much. Doing this work doesn’t make me a better person than anyone else. But again, I took the advice of my friends that I should post the pictures because there’s a good chance that someone will follow suit or at least support what others are doing.

[I said I’d been told not to give money to children begging on the streets because they are run by syndicates, otherwise the children would be in school.]

Look at the smile on his face.

Well, I don’t give money to children on the streets. I believe most of them are handled by syndicates. But I doubt if they would be in school even if they weren’t. It’s quite a cycle. Their parents weren’t able to go to school, and then they have children who aren’t able to go to school as well. The problem is deeply rooted, like only the privileged in the Philippines can go to school. Even if you provide free education, what about the school supplies? What about food, uniforms, shoes and miscellaneous expenses? What if these children have problems with their homework and their parents are uneducated as well? It would discourage the poor kids if they were unable to keep up with their classmates. There would be more discrimination because their classmates would have school supplies or good uniforms and shoes and they’d be wearing dirty clothes or torn shoes. That’s a very big problem. It has to be addressed not only by government but by every citizen who feels he or she is more blessed than those people. It would really take a very concerted effort from citizens, not only the government.