'Sponge boy': 13 years of selling dish cleaners pays off
MANILA, Philippines – The nickname will stick but Melvin Chua, 22, is no longer the "sponge boy" of Taguig and Makati.
Thirteen years of hawking dish sponges on the streets ended when he marched to receive his college degree from University of Makati in April. He is now an office worker – just as he dreamed of – in posh Bonifacio Global City.
Chua is an inspiring story of triumph over poverty. The young boy whom his relatives almost gave away to adoptive parents worked hard to become the family breadwinner.
He was 9 years old when he started roaming the streets, rain or shine, to earn money for his family and for his studies. (READ: InspireCourage: Stories that inspire courage and resilience)
His perseverance and cheerful disposition endeared him to his customers. They treated him like family.
Chua fondly recalled how his customers bought his sponges if only so he can stop by a few hours and join a birthday celebration.
"Talaga pong pinakanta nila ako, pinakain po nila ako, and then pag-uwi ko po sa bahay ay may dala dala na akong mga handa (I sang and I ate with them. They even packed food for my family)," Chua told Rappler.
Chua's customers made sure to buy from him to support his dreams.
"Madalas po na sinasabi sa 'kin ng mga suki ko, 'Kaunting tiyaga lang. Kaunting tiis lang. After niyan, kapag nalampasan mo yan, makaka-graduate ka rin at makakahanap ka ng trabaho. Lahat ng mga pangarap mo matutupad,'" Melvin recalled.
(My customers often told me, "Persevere and endure the hardships. You will get through it all, and when you're able to graduate and find a job, all your dreams would come true.")
Unknown to most of his customers, Chua had a difficult childhood. His parents separated and the relatives who took care of him almost gave him away.
While Chua's single mother tried to find work in Manila, she left him and his 3 siblings to the care of relatives in the province. Chua said the brief time with his relatives only evokes bad memories.
At one point, they decided to give him and his siblings up for adoption. But his mother disapproved of it, and took them back to Manila. (READ: WATCH: Nanay Ely, the 82-year-old crocheter of Tayuman)
"One day before po kami kuhanin nung mag-a-adopt sa amin, tinakas po kami ni mama mula sa province papunta ulit dito sa Manila (One day before we were supposed to be sent out for adoption, our mother came to sneak us out and brought us here in Manila)," Melvin shared.
In Manila, Chua became family breadwinner.
"Walang walang ho kami. Sa mga kaibigan po kami ni mama nakikitulog, nakikitira until one time po naisipan na po namin na magtinda po (We came to Manila with nothing. We had to live with my mother's friends until we decided to sell some goods)," Chua said.
They first ventured into selling coloring books, second-hand clothes, and rags. He observed later, though, that no one else was selling dish sponges in their area. He found his niche.
Selling and schooling
Melvin did not abandon his studies despite the toll of being the breadwinner. He adjusted to the school schedule. He sold his dish sponges in the afternoon if his classes were in the morning and vice versa.
It got hectic when he became a college student. He spent time in school during weekdays and could only work on weekends.
"Sa weekend, whole day po ako nagtitinda kasi po kailangan mabawi ko na 'yung allowance ko, 'yung pambili ko ulit ng paninda (I'd work the whole day on weekends to earn my allowance and have extra money to buy more dish sponges sell)," Chua said.
It was a difficult juggling act. "Sobrang mahirap po talaga maging breadwinner ng isang family po. Lalo na kami po na 6 po kaming magkakapatid. Kailangan maaga akong makauwi. Hahabulin ko pa ring magtinda para yung mga kapatid ko may pambaon para makapasok sila," Chua said.
(It's really hard to be the breadwinner of a family of 6. I had to go home immediately after school so I could sell and earn for my siblings' school allowance, too.)
He worked with a clear goal in mind: So that someday, he wouldn't need to sell sponges anymore.
Chua said he took up Bachelor of Science in Office Management in college because he wants to experience a working environment different from the streets he grew up with. (READ: Boy Tsinelas: Crafting action figures out of flip-flops)
"Noong nakita ko po 'yung office management, sabi ko, gusto sa office naman ako magtatrabaho. Gusto ko sa opisina naman ako magwo-work," he said. (When I saw the course office management. I told myself, "I want to work in an office.")
'Thank you, suki'
Just before Melvin graduated in April, his post thanking his patrons went viral on Facebook
It got more than 40,000 reactions and over 12,000 shares. Many netizens were inspired by his story.
Melvin said selling dish sponges influenced him positively in so many ways. "Selling at a very early age, I was able to understand the harships in life... Selling sponges will always serve as a reminder for me to be humble, to be grateful in life, and be thankful to God," Melvin ended.
He now works as an operation specialist in a multinational company in Bonifacio Global City in Taguig.
In 2017, Quezon City 5th District Representative Alfred Vargas filled House Bill 1825 to institutionalize night classes all over the country to address rising dropout rates among college students who are forced to find employment to support their family.
If passed into law, working students like Melvin can perform their responsibilities without the need to leave their studies. – Rappler.com