Why a CDO street educator travels to teach
CAGAYAN DE ORO, Philippines – Kerneil Balaga traveled across the country last year, but not as a tourist.
With his backpack containing storybooks, flash cards, writing and coloring materials, he visited communities in Bohol and Cebu, sailed to Ormoc and Tacloban, and flew to Metro Manila before riding to Rizal, Bulacan, Baguio, and Albay.
On the streets, he taught homeless children how to read, write, and to apply the moral lessons of the stories he told.
"I taught Christian values through my storytelling," he shared. "Children must honor their elders, generosity is an act of love, loving your neighbors and loving God are the greatest commandments."
The children's eagerness to learn, despite cultural differences, was a common trait which he had first noticed and which had prompted him to teach when he began his passion on the streets of Cagayan de Oro, his hometown.
From Kino to Kuya
Known as "Kino" to his family and friends, he became "Kuya Ken" to his students after he started tutoring in Plaza Divisoria, CDO's public square in front of the Xavier University campus where he studied Special Education.
There, he witnessed barefooted children as young as 5 years old, begging for alms from strangers.
The sight made Balaga want to help the children. So, in his sophomore year in college, he began buying pencils and papers with his personal allowance and held nightly tutorials after his classes.
He taught them how to write the alphabet, until they could finally write their names.
"There was progress," he shared. "There was one kid who didn't know how to hold a pencil, much less write, so I taught him. After several sessions, he could spell his name correctly and wanted to learn more. Today, he's enrolled in the Cagayan de Oro City Central School."
After graduating in March 2014, he pursued his teaching advocacy full time, setting a weekly schedule for places in CDO. He taught children at the bus terminal in Agora, the markets of Carmen and Cogon, and the park beside the St Augustine Cathedral.
This lasted for a year before he applied as a formator under Xavier University's National Service Training Program (NSTP).
Working as a facilitator to university students taking NSTP classes gave him enough resources to buy more materials for his street tutorial sessions. He was also able to engage in volunteerism more.
"I handled 8 classes," he recalled. "As part of the service-learning program, my students and I went to different barangays in CDO where we handled tutorials, and Information Education Campaigns (IECs) on solid waste management and social entrepreneurship."
Even with the inherent demands of his job, he spared time after working hours to teach street children.
"I earned [a salary] as an NSTP formator, but the voluntary work I do as a street educator fulfilled my desire to help even without a paycheck," he added.
Teaching across the country
Balaga took the opportunity to expand his teaching advocacy beyond the region when he was assigned to attend a seminar in General Santos City.
"I decided to bring my books with me so if I could have free time, I would go to the streets and teach," he said. "I was two days early for the seminar. So while we stopped in Davao, I taught the children I met along the streets."
The trip made him realize that he could travel to teach but financial limitations held him back. So he had to wait until he could achieve this goal.
Halfway through 2015, a photo of him surfaced online and immediately went viral.
Cath Libarnes-Bagayna, an active Facebook user, snapped a photo of him one evening while he was sitting outside the Philippine National Bank branch in CDO's Divisoria after a tutorial session. Moved by his selfless act, she approached him, asked him about his work, and later shared online: "He does this for free."
She added that he was open for donations, such as school supplies, to help him in his teaching.
Not long after, his story spread on social media. Donations to help him in his advocacy came pouring in.
When his contract with XU's NSTP ended in March 2016, he decided to teach on the streets full time once again. But this time, he traveled across the country, bringing with him new teaching materials and a medical kit which he used to treat minor wounds of the kids he met.
The children learned of the values he taught by their actions. "After our sessions, they would share their snacks with their friends and among each other," he said.
An act of faith
For Balaga, this advocacy is more than just imparting knowledge – it's one that fulfills his passion inspired by his faith.
Before shifting to SPED from Electrical Engineering, he spent 2 years "looking for his purpose" which he found by reading the Bible, attending church fellowships, and listening intently as well as reflecting on the Gospel readings every time he attended Mass.
"Jesus was a teacher," he said. "Regardless of the prevailing social division during his time, Jesus taught to a variety of people."
Balaga plans to continue wherever there are children who are willing to learn despite limited opportunities, beyond the walls of a classroom.
While his parents and sisters have recently migrated abroad and his brother works as a CDO police officer, Balaga plans to stay in the Philippines and devote his life to his advocacy.
"I find it in my heart to serve others by teaching," he said.
This year, Balaga plans to travel across the Philippines again to places he hasn't visited yet. With his backpack, he sets out with the desire to teach and the fervent hope for its effects to ripple. – Rappler.com
Angelo Lorenzo is one of the lead Movers in Cagayan de Oro.