On Christmas Day last year, 79-year-old Flora Estrella was bedridden, having suffered a stroke. She could no longer care for her grandchildren, whom she raised by scavenging for items that would enable her to raise her family. Her husband had died back in 2006, and she was left to push her kariton (cart) along the streets alone.
A native of Roxas City, she came to Manila in 1958. While others were in search of a golden opportunity in the Philippine capital, she moved to the Metro for a different reason – she followed her husband’s transfer from Roxas City Jail to Muntinlupa City for a murder conviction.
Pregnant with their second child, she worked as a stay-in domestic worker for a family in Cubao, Quezon City. She was reunited with her husband when he was released in 1969, and they were blessed with four more children, one of whom eventually died.
“Nagtinda kami ng sigarilyo at nag-alaga din ng baboy (We sold cigarettes and raised pigs),” Estrella recalled. “Lumipat kami malapit sa may Welcome Rotonda kasi madami nang mga bahay at pabrika noon. Kaya naging hanapbuhay namin ang pangangalakal. Nakapag-aral din ang mga anak namin kahit mga high school lang (We moved to Welcome Rotonda because there were many houses and factories there. That’s how we came to work as scavengers. Our children were also able to study, even though it was only up to high school).”
Clutching a walking stick, and assisted by her grandchildren and neighbors from Brgy. Doña Josefa in Quezon City, she attended the Pamaskong Kapatid party held especially for 250 street dweller families recently at the Delos Santos Medical Center. Though Estrella still had difficulty talking and moving around, she had a smile in her eyes.
“Sana po ay kahit papaano ay makatulong kami na mabigyan kayo ng kaligayahan at kaginhawaan, kahit sa pansamantalang bagay lamang (We hope that somehow we can help give you happiness and ease, even if temporarily),” DLSMC President and CEO Raul Pagdanganan said in his welcoming remarks.
This marks the third year of the MVP Group’s Pamaskong Kapatid. Sponsors include the Asian Hospital, De Los Santos Medical Center, Cardinal Medical Charities Foundation, Inc., MVP Sports Foundation, Metro Pacific Tollways Corporation, Metro Pacific Investments Corp., Metro Pacific Water, Makati Medical Foundation, Maynilad Water Services Inc., PLDT Community Relations Group, Roxas Holdings Inc., One Meralco Foundation, PLDT SMART Foundation, SL Agritech, and Mega Corinthian Security Agency.
The first run was not as successful, because the street dwellers thought it was a ploy to get them in one room and have them arrested. But after participants left with gift bags filled with Noche Buena items, attendance grew on the second year.
“Bakit sila? Kasi sa mga nagdaang taon, napapansin namin… may mga grupo at pamilya na kapag Pasko nasa mga orphanages, institutions. No offense meant, pero kasi fully booked ‘yang mga ‘yan. Kasi lahat ng tao diyan nagpupunta, sa mga shelter ng matatanda, sa bahay ampunan. Pero ang mga street dwellers at scavengers, hindi sila statistics. Sila ang least of the less fortunate. Hindi sila nakatira sa isang barangay. Hindi sila botante. So bakit hindi sila (Why them? Because in the past years we noticed that there are groups and families that go to orphanages and institutions during Christmas. No offense meant, but those places are fully booked. Because everyone goes to these places, to shelters for the elderly, to orphanages. But street dwellers and scavengers, they aren’t just statistics. They are the least of the less fortunate. They don’t live in one barangay. They aren’t voters. So why not them)?” explained Alagang Kapatid Foundation Executive Director Menchie Silvestre.
“Nagpapasalamat ako sa Panginoon kasi buhay pa ako, at dahil may mga tao pang ganun,” Estrella said. “Nagpapasalamat ako kay Manny [Pangilinan] dahil nabibigyan niya kami ng kasiyahan. Ipinalangin ko palagi na may makakatulong sa aming kalagayan (I am thankful to God because I am still alive, and because there are still people like that. I thank Manny because he made us happy. I always pray that someone will be able to help us given our situation).”
This Christmas will be a different one for her, as she can sit down and enjoy a festive meal with her family.
The street dwellers are like nomads, always on the move. But with the help of the local government, Alagang Kapatid has a list of these wandering people.
“Nakakalungkot (lang) kasi ‘yung iba ay ‘yung dati pa rin naming nakikita. Nasa laylayan pa din sila. Wala pa ring pagbabago (The sad thing is, some of them have been there from the beginning. They’re still marginalized. Nothing has changed),” Silvestre said.
What they want to achieve next year are better interventions, while continuing to provide hot meals, entertainment, and goodies.
“Kaysa nagbibigay tayo ng limos, nagbubukas ng bintana, ay ipunin natin sila (Rather than giving them alms, rolling down our windows, let’s gather them),” Silvestre said. “Bigyan natin ng dignidad, pakainin, bigyan ng konting entertainment. Napakaganda ng pagkakaisa ng bawat kumpanya. Lahat ay generous, lahat kumpleto sa kanya-kanyang regalo, kaya a very merry Christmas talaga (Let’s give them dignity, feed them, give them a little entertainment. The cooperation among companies is wonderful. Everyone is generous, everyone has a gift, making it a very merry Christmas).”
“In fact nag-usap na kami, hindi lang every Christmas lang. We can train them on hygiene, food security, maturuan natin silang mag-garden sa kariton nila para may gulay silang kakainin. We can teach them other skills. Imbis na ibinibenta lang ang mga PET bottles, baka we can train them to make it as decoration. Unti-untiin lang natin, and hope we can get them out of the streets (In fact we’re already talking about doing this beyond Christmas time. We can train them on hygiene, food security, teach them to garden in their carts so they have vegetables to eat. We can teach them other skills. Instead of just selling PET bottles, maybe we can train them to make it as decoration. Let’s just do it one at a time, and hope we can get them out of the streets),” she continued.
She added, “Ang benchmark ay kapag hindi na natin sila natagpuan next year ay tagumpay tayo. Maghahanap tayo ng sector na naiiwan pa din. Dumadalangin tayo na hindi na sila, na mag-improve ang buhay nila. At kung nandyan pa rin sila ay nandito pa din tayo, mag-aalagang kapatid para sa kanila (The benchmark will be, if we no longer find them next year, we’ll have succeeded. We’ll just look for another sector that’s been left behind. We pray that they no longer, that their lives improve. And if they’re still there, we’re still here, to take care of them, our brothers and sisters).”