Scavenger to degree holder: The story of Jeb Bayawon

Angelo Lorenzo
Scavenger to degree holder: The story of Jeb Bayawon
Jeb Bayawon used to live in a landfill in Cagayan de Oro City until he got help to return to school 10 years ago. This year, he marches with fellow graduates of the Mindanao State University – Naawan, bringing him closer to his dream of becoming an educator.

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY, Philippines – Jeb Baclayon Bayawon thought that he would collect scraps and empty plastic bottles all his life.

That all changed after he seized the chance to pursue an education through the aid of a foreign-funded foundation. Ten years after he got the opportunity, he donned his toga and cap and marched with fellow graduates of the Mindanao State University – Naawan in June.

The 23-year-old Bayawon shared in an interview that the path towards earning his degree – Bachelor of Secondary Education Major in English – was paved with obstacles.

Life in a dumpsite

“I grew up in the landfill where my siblings and I scavenged for recyclable scraps and empty plastic bottles to help our parents for their livelihood,” Bayawon recalled.

The 17-hectare dumpsite that stretched over an upland area of the city used to have mounds of garbage before it was rehabilitated in 2017.

Bayawon said his parents encouraged him and his siblings to work for a living at an early age. “We sold the scraps and bottles to the junk shops,” he said.

Bayawon and his siblings would scavenge for leftovers in the trash and cooked them again at home. Anything edible they could find would be enough – from fast food scraps to wrapped candies, he said.

DUMPSTER DAYS. Jeb’s childhood photo taken by one of the volunteers of the Island Kids Philippines Foundation. Photo courtesy of the Island Kids Philippines Foundation

Despite their situation, Bayawon’s father pounded in their heads that education should remain a priority.

“My father always advised me to go to school,” he shared. “But when I was in elementary, some of my classmates teased me about living in the dumps and having no proper hygiene. Whenever I opened my baon (packed food) during recess, they grimaced because they knew that it came from the trash.”

The bullying incidents discouraged Bayawon from going to school, and when his father suffered from tuberculosis, he found a reason to drop out of school.

“I was 12 when my father died because of that,” he said. “And not long after, my mother breathed her last after a hypertension attack.”

Bayawon was left with is siblings, but even the latter had to leave their home in search of better opportunities.

Turning point


In 2007, while going through garbage in the landfill with other kids, Bayawon was interviewed by Thomas Kellenberger, a former law enforcer from Switzerland. He established the Island Kids Philippines Foundation after witnessing the extreme poverty of Filipino children when he toured the country, 

IKP is a private-aid organization mainly operating in Cagayan de Oro. For over a decade, it has advocated for the impoverished children’s right to education and has provided abused and stigmatized minors permanent care and shelter.

Bayawon went on to become one of IKP’s earliest beneficiaries after he received the opportunity to return to school. (READ: ‘Sponge boy’: 13 years of selling dish cleaners pays off)

“I continued my studies because I wanted to learn,” Bayawon said. “I didn’t want people to look down on me.”

The foundation provided him with the necessary requirements for school – tuition, supplies, an allowance, and lodging. He left the dumpsite.

The foundation has a 5,000-square meter property in Barangay Canitoan which has an elementary school and two one-story shelters for over a hundred minors, mostly  orphans. These include children from impoverished communities and victims of human trafficking. Volunteers, mostly educators, aid the foundation whose main funding comes from donors in Switzerland and Germany.

It was in school where Bayawon developed the proficiency for conversational and oral communication in the English language, and soon discovered his skill for public speaking.

After completing his elementary education in one of the local schools in the city, he took the alternative learning system (ALS) so he could catch up with tertiary education at his age. (READ: A Kagay-anon’s leadership journey to empower the youth)

“When I passed the ALS Assessment and Equivalency Test, I found out that I could advance to college,” he said. “IKP has encouraged me to pursue it, so I took the entrance exam at Mindanao State University-Naawan.”

Upon passing the entrance exam, he chose Bachelor of Secondary Education Major in English because of his interest in the language and his dream of becoming an educator.

It was not a smooth ride as Bayawon had to overcome the inevitable challenges that comes with pursuing a college education.

“Some classes had been tough,” he said. “I had to manage my schedule and adjust to pressure. There were moments when I couldn’t relate to the conversations with my classmates because they’d talk about their lives with their families which were completely different from mine; and their high school experience, dwhich I didn’t have.”

“But whenever these drawbacks challenged me, I had to remind myself why I started in the first place. All I had to do was to bring myself to school and study,” he added.

He became a dean’s lister in his first semester in college. His crowning achievement, of course, is graduating from a 4-year program.

Bayawon reunited with his siblings during his graduation. He plans to give back to the community that aided him and to advocate for education.

“I am looking forward to the Licensure Exam for Teachers (LET) this September,” he said. “Beyond that, I am planning to stay with the IKP Foundation where I can volunteer as an ALS teacher.”

Bayawon has taken a giant leap from scavenging the landfill to brandishing his diploma along with this year’s graduates. He plans to use his degree and experience in teaching to help many like him find their path towards a similar promising future. –

Angelo Lorenzo is one of Rappler’s Lead Movers in CDO. A Development Journalism graduate from Xavier University – Ateneo de Cagayan, he now works in the city’s local government unit.

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