MANILA, Philippines – Brimming with positivity and hope for the younger generation, one might not exactly associate Efren Peñaflorida, hailed Hero of the Year by CNN in 2009 and an advocate of educating less fortunate kids through his pushcart classrooms, with a turbulent childhood.
Efren grew up in the slums, near a dumpsite, believing that his life was just as normal as any other kid’s. But when he began to meet people from different social classes, he became aware of his difference from others.
“The feeling of being unwanted tore my heart out, and I grew to feel so sorry for myself,” Efren says.
He recalls being looked down upon and discriminated merely because of his appearance. His bullies attacked him not only verbally but at times physically, too, as they hit and shoved him.
Efren became fearful and almost quit school. At a young age, he was already feeling “different, powerless, and socially isolated.” He became bent on seeking revenge, even considered joining a gang himself just so he could get back at his bullies.
But Efren kept all these feelings to himself, allowing them to consume him until his heart grew cold to the point of giving up.
“I was lost, troubled, and crying my heart out but no one is there to listen, to hear my pain. No one seemed to care. I got so lost that I couldn’t even find my way back to peace and happiness – until God answered my prayers,” he says.
The woman behind his success
Luckily, Efren had a strong support system at home in the person of Lucila, his mother, who has relentlessly encouraged him.
As a child, Efren saw his mother “as a symbol of selflessness, hard work, and love.”
“She doesn’t mind the pain and hard labor to make sure that we have food on the table. She may have very limited resources to send me and my other siblings to school but she has her own way of making both ends meet,” he said.
Efren had even witnessed his mother cry when she couldn’t provide their basic needs, but he also saw her strength and determination to never give up in the face of difficulties.
“She brought light to the family. She’s an exemplary woman, a real mother,” he added.
Veering away from the path of destruction
Efren found deeper purpose in life after meeting Harnin Manalaysay, who also went by the nickname “KB!”
KB! – yes, the exclamation point is indeed part of the moniker – has long been a mentor and father figure to so many youths, with Efren becoming one of them when he was 13. It was KB! who introduced Efren to various volunteering opportunities.
Efren speaks of his mentor as someone who “pick[ed] up the broken pieces of my life, which eventually healed my broken spirit.”
“He taught me that the quality of life is more dependent on our perspective than our circumstances, that the value of being is more dependent on our character than on our achievements, and that the worth of our existence is more dependent on how we live life than on how long we survive,” he says.
But perhaps the most life-changing lesson his mentor ever taught him was to never act on his desire for revenge.
“KB! encouraged me to think of a positive way to get back at those who bullied and put me down, not by violence but by competition,” Efren says.
Countering the bad with goodness
Bullying certainly had an impact to Efren’s life, but it was positive. With KB!’s help, 16-year-old Efren and his friends formed the Dynamic Teen Company (DTC), which continues to serve as an alternative avenue for learning that caters to students in campuses, in communities, and in the slums, as well as “a way to stop bullies and school gangsters from victimizing and terrorizing more students like me,” Efren said.
“Our main purpose… [is] to care, show love and acceptance by making a small yet significant difference in school, in our family, toward our friends and the people around us, and to use our time, skills, talents, strength, and energy in more productive activities,” he adds.
Through DTC, Efren, his friends, and other volunteers were able to save many children from this path by helping them become “asset[s] to build a better community.”
“We believe that education and faith can stop the cycle of bullying and violence,” Efren says, “We put an emphasis on love for learning to help every child to have a better and decent life. This has become our group’s mission.”
And aside from providing them with education, Efren and his friends make sure that the kids are well-nourished as well.
“Food yung naging attraction ng programa namin. Walang tatalo sa pagkain. Tinapay at juice. Dun namin nagagamit yung Tang. Hanggang ngayon, Tang pa rin yung ginagamit namin,” Efren says. (Food became our program’s main attraction. Nothing beats food. Bread and juice. That’s where Tang became useful. Until now, we use Tang.)
Today, Efren continues to carry on with his advocacies as DTC expands its educational program to the secondary level, providing education to high school dropouts and those who are at risk of dropping out.
DTC also recently opened a Kariton Senior High School program, which provides learning under the General Academic Strand. Furthermore, DTC is also looking into having an established secondary and tertiary program for underprivileged children and youth, and providing them equal access to quality education.
Paying it forward
At home, Efren’s volunteer work didn’t sit too well with his mother. He had always helped his mother do household chores and with their small business of making fish crackers and repacking fried noodles – with Efren out there, volunteering, he wasn’t able to help as much at home he used to.
But despite her initial disapproval, Efren’s mother was supportive and had his back.
“She lets me go do my volunteer activity and takes care of the house I leave behind. She feeds me every time I go back home after every advocacy activity. She also cooks merienda for my co-volunteers after an exhausting day.
“I felt her love because of the way she valued what my heart values,” Efren says.
Lucila has always dreamed of better things for Efren: for him to have a productive life, be a good citizen, and a responsible person. She also taught him that poverty isn’t a hindrance in making his dreams and goals come true, and showed him that being poor doesn’t stop him from thinking of ways to help others and make a difference in the society.
“She taught me to live with humility. She helped me realize that in the end, your personal legacy will not be remembered for your countless achievements, medals, trophies, awards, title or the things you acquired.
“Most likely, it will be the positive and personal impact you created in every person you meet and you work with,” he says.
Values formation starts at home, and the values that Lucila imparted to Efren helped shape him to be the person he is now. In addition to arming the kids he teaches with academic know-how, he’s also now sharing these valuable lessons with them. – Rappler.com
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