Zamboanga City – “HERE comes Santa Claus! /Right down Santa Claus Lane! /He’s got a bag that is filled with toys/ For the boys and girls again. /Hear those sleigh bells jingle jangle, /What a beautiful sight.”
These lines from the song “Here Comes Santa Claus” were heard almost everywhere last Christmas, especially in households with children. Kids expected very much for that bag (sometimes wrapped in decorated glossy papers) of toys from Santa (though appearing as ninongs and ninangs most of the times).
And this is the spirit of Christmas, they said – children, which means love, and gifts that symbolize generosity. But it seemed that Santa failed to visit the streets, or else the poor street children would have been receiving their fair share.
Some other concerned groups, though, acted as Santa and gave a day of treat to these less privileged young ones. Some extended food, others showered with coins, some gave toys, too, while still many can’t help but merely extend their sympathy.
Children crouched in downtown streets and city’s intersections were increasingly visible during the holiday season (maybe expecting for Santa to come). Some with their ragtag instruments (usually made of milk cans and improvised props) took advantage of the caroling tradition to lure the Santa-hearted passersby to part with their coins.
“There’s a little increase in how much we make during Christmas,” Jenny, an eight year young girl who had been in street since she was only six, told PeaceWorks when asked about her income from begging.
Jenny said she normally stays in the streets from 8 a.m. to about 7 p.m. on regular days and up to 9 p.m. when Sundays. Jenny still stays with her family in one of the remotest villages in the city with her four siblings, with whom she shares her take for the day.
“No new things happened on Christmas,” said Junior, another long-timer in the street, just few blocks from where Jenny positions herself.
“If not because of the blinking lights and Christmas tree at Plaza Pershing (referring to the giant Christmas tree annually planted by the city government), we don’t even know that it is already Christmas,” he said.
Jenny and Junior are just two of the seemingly growing number of street kids in the city. The Women and Children’s Desk of the City Police estimated the number of people in streets to some 500, with children consisting the majority.
The government’s Council for the Welfare of Children (CWC) listed some 44,435 street children in the country, the seemingly attention-drawer when you are into children rights advocacy.
“However, this only constituted street children that are highly visible,” CWC explained.
Those numbers and the sad plight of these young children prompted the local non-governmental organization Katilingban Para Sa Kalambuan, Inc. (KKI) to run a local halfway house for young people in distress. The Akay Kalinga Center now houses some 25 former street kids, who are also assisted by the center through KKI and some foreign aid to eventually get an education.
“All of them are now studying. In fact, we have one scheduled to finish high school this school year,” confirmed Akay center head Loida Sapalo.
Established in early 1999, the center, she added, also caters to some 15 drop-ins.
Sapalo said the kids were also treated to a day of fun and prizes last Christmas Day at its newly-inaugurated cxenter along Sevilla Street, this city.
“It was a party for all including our drop-ins. The center with KKI also gave gifts and tokens to the children,” she said.
Meanwhile, KKI President Fr. Angel Calvo gave a separate Christmas treat for the children last December 29 at Jeers Family Resort in Boalan, this city.
In a chat with PeaceWorks, some of the kids happily shared their experiences celebrating Christmas with their fellow young angels in the center.
“It’s new this year because we have already a Christmas tree,” shared 14-year older Juladzfar, who had been in the center since 2000. “I also like the new shirts I received during the party,” added Resty, while flashing a smile. Resty, who used to live with his grandmother in Basilan, said he found another and true atmosphere of a family in the center.
Resty and Jul said they spent the rest of the holidays watching television shows and movies with other children.
Besides housing these young ones, Sapalo said the center also offered non-formal education to other street children. “We conducted the classes every Thursdays and Saturdays in the streets and plazas downtown,” she said.
The center also conducted coordination, meetings and counseling with the parents and families of the housed children. “At the right time, these children have to go back to their family,” she said.