A ten year old boy from Payatas has been awarded as one of five children selected in the first Super Pinoy Kids awards, last Saturday at Makati City Hall. The inaugural event awarding inspiring children, the competition was organised by Museo Pambata and the Rotary Club, eventually awarding five children after an initial look at almost 100 kids. The award looks at kids who fulfil the Rotary’s four way test, in action that is truthful, fair, building friendship, and beneficial to all.
John Dale is one of the children we work with at the Fairplay for All Foundation in Payatas. So when we heard of the awards we nominated him. As you read through his story you’ll see why.
John Dale was one of the five selected children, and also the winner of the special award from a corporate sponsor. John Dale, along with the other winners, received a cash prize, as well as of in-kind gifts from corporate sponsors and gift certificates for days out. All five winners will have a comic made of what they’ve done, which will be published and kept at Museo Pambata to inspire the children who read it.
The reason he was selected was that, aside from a phenomenal human story, John Dale is such a kind human being. The official reason in the program was that he saw a man’s wallet fall out of his pocket and he took the wallet back to the owner.
It is a small example which is championed in the four way test. But John Dale’s life is so much more inspiring and humbling than that.
John Dale is the eldest of three boys, who became the man of the house at 7 years old. His father was killed a year before that over a gambling fight (stabbed in his sleep, and it was the boys who found him the next day). His mother died a year later, from a heart attack. She was 19 when she died. Astute readers will have noticed that from John Dale’s age she was roughly 13 when she gave birth to him, 12 when she became pregnant. That she died of a heart attack is symptomatic of the problems in Payatas and other slums generally, where soft drinks and junk food are cheaper than fresh fruits and vegetables. That means when you’re living on P100 a day for the entire family, you can only afford this “food” as short-term hunger overrides long-term nutrition. This is why soda companies advertise so heavily in poor communities, because the poor are such a big market for their “drinks”. It’s also why I get so annoyed about “feeding programs” who go somewhere for a day and give out McDonald’s, Jollibee, or KFC. They go there, hand out this junk, get the pictures of happy, smiley people, and then go. Aside from the fact that tomorrow the kids are hungry again and it has changed nothing in the long-run, they don’t stay behind for the obesity, heart problems, or diabetes that inevitably follow from this kind of malnourishment. It’s not just completely unsustainable, it does so much more harm than good. These nutrition issues in slum communities are also a quarter of the children we’ve added to the education sponsorship this year have lost a parent to a heart attack – typically when the parents were around 40 years old.
So a girl who was pregnant at 12 gives birth to three boys consecutively, and dies at 19 years old, a year after her husband died. John Dale becomes the man of the household as the three brothers work for their childhood. And by household, we’re talking about a small makeshift shack, made from materials scavenged from the dumpsite and the trucks, about 4 metres squared where John Dale, his two brothers, his grandparents, and sometimes other family members sleep.
The act of jumping up and down the trucks is where the term “jumper boy” comes from. This has become so normal it’s second nature to the three boys who are very small for their age because of the malnourishment while being nothing but muscle and bones from the work. They live with their grandparents, 64 and 67 years old (they’ve been that age for a while really as many people in Payatas don’t know how old they really are). The youngest boy still doesn’t fully understand yet how anyone else can think it’s not normal to scavenge for trash or that they’re not aware that it happens, the elder two are just understanding how different their lifestyles really are. To them being a jumper boy is normal. So while the boys don’t fully realise how people have grown up without working for their dinner, many people don’t realise that jumper boys actually exist. At the Super Pinoy Kids awards, the MC explained what being a jumper boy actually was as those from the rotary did not know. On the extreme end this was so unusual to one very wealthy elderly man there, that he joked John Dale should jump to give everyone a sample. While to him it was a joke, a probably well meaning pun based on how unusual and new it was to him and others there, it showed that he was so far removed from what life was like for millions of people, for those in poverty, that he was unaware of how insensitive it was to say. Fortunately it was in English and so was unlikely John Dale understood (as like most children in poor communities they cannot understand English, which makes it even more baffling why public schools would teach in English for example). But thisis actually very common, and as the Philippine economy continues to grow so quickly, in the method it is, it continues to make the rich richer and the poor are left behind. As the inequality grows, more people are hidden in slums and forgotten about, only remembered when articles start bashing squatters without realising how the problem was created in the first place and how their poverty was created to serve us.
But John Dale’s story doesn’t stop here. After being orphaned at such a young age and becoming the man of the house, he works to look after his two younger brothers. Being a jumper boy is dangerous work. A friend of John Dale’s had to stop because he kept falling off the truck, 20 feet high. Other children have broken bones falling off the trucks or from getting hit by them. One time that John Dale himself fell off, his leg got caught in the wheel-guard of the truck and dragged him along the road several hundred yards before he managed to detach himself. On another occasion his youngest brother found some metal and brought it home. To sell metal at the junk shop you need to flatten it out so he hit it with the hammer as usual to flatten it out. Being 7 years old, John Dale’s brother didn’t realise the metal was a strip of bullets. One went off and hit John Dale in the leg, fortunately only in the leg, and the shrapnel has just come out recently (this happened perhaps half a year ago). During the selection process for Super Pinoy Kids John Dale was still walking round with a bullet in his leg (we took him to the doctors as soon as it had happened and they said we had to wait for it to come out naturally rather than do invasive surgery on it). It was only just before the awards that it came out by itself.
John Dale and his three brothers are now part of our education sponsorship program at the Fairplay for All Foundation (FFA). This means he has been able to go back to school regularly, working towards an education and a better livelihood in the future. He still occasionally works, when dealing with child labour it’s unreasonable to expect it to stop immediately, you have to transition children from work to the classroom, or something safer, as it is their entire world at that point and all they’ve known. And John Dale is a realistic kid. Very candidly he told me that when the time comes, meaning when his Grandparents are no longer around to help look after them, he will drop out of school to work full-time so his brothers can continue schooling. His dedication to his family, and his work ethic, is beyond compare. And the boy is 10 years old. It humbles you.
Naturally we have other plans for when that time does indeed come. John Dale and his brothers will possibly be adopted by another family in the area or will move to a children’s home close by that we know well. We will, of course, make sure the long-term solutions to poverty that John Dale and his family require are in place. But it is his attitude in always thinking of his family, always making sure they’re OK, that is so admirable.
John Dale doesn’t just deserve an award, he deserves the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty permanently. He deserves a good life. But the problem is that John Dale isn’t the only example like this. If you took John Dale and his family away and provided everything for them, then sure they could have a better life. But there would be hundreds of thousands of people just like them left behind in Payatas and some other child would replace John Dale. Tens of millions of people in the Philippines live in poverty, 44% of people in urban areas live in slums. For the majority of people, even throughout the world, what they do in their normal lives of poverty are so unheard of to those wealthy and lucky enough to treat it as unusual. For so many, normal happens to be a child jumping on to the back of a truck and scavenging for trash to sell so they can eat that day. You can say the same of any working child, of which there are an estimated 5.5 million in the Philippines.
John Dale is such a brilliant kid, actually the only one who made me cry because of how committed, hard-working, and honest he is and with how much he’s gone through. His first concern is always his family, and he will work as hard as he can for them. Charity would not be to take the family out of Payatas, though, and to make sure they had a better life outside. Sure his family would, but if you took John Dale out of Payatas so many children would be left behind in the same situation in Payatas, as well as other slums. Charity is to deal with the social injustice, the root causes of poverty, the inequality, by building long-term projects that deal with issues of nutrition, education, sports, arts, music, and livelihoods in a holistic and communal way. Charity here is to build a community, to improve the infrastructure, and to change the fundamental reasons why so many people have to live in poverty. Investing in such people is not only the moral thing to do but it will indeed benefit us all. It is the truth to say that so many people unnecessarily live in poverty while a small percentage live in luxury because of the inequality.
To fight for social justice, to fight for a society where what happens in your life is not determined by where you’re born or to whom, would be fair. It would build friendship and community to holistically build projects and change these socio-economic factors. And it would benefit the vast majority of people, though it may not quite benefit all… as the garbage industry is worth P4.2 billion a year in Metro Manila and so the ones unfairly making hundreds of millions of pesos from this may lose a bit. The reason Payatas is so poor, the reason that we do not pay so much for our residential garbage fees, and the reason corporations such as fast food restaurants pay as little as P17 a day for garbage disposal and maintenance (ADB, 2004), is because children like John Dale are the ones cleaning up after us. It would cut into their profits, but surely fighting for social justice would pass the four way test more than anything else.
John Dale deserves an award and he deserves an opportunity to provide for his family in a safer way, of something he dreams of for the future. And so do all the other kids living in poverty and working to support their families. The best way to honour John Dale, to honour any child who pops up in the media consciousness with an award or an amazing story, the best way to honour such amazing and beautiful human beings who prove that those living in poverty are not the problem but the solution to the issues we’ve created as a society, is to make sure no-one else has to go through what they did.
For more information on how you can be a part of that, you can email the Fairplay for All Foundation at firstname.lastname@example.org
To see a documentary about being a jumper boy (in Tagalog), go here for Brigada’s feature on FFA: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G2d0YjmQsCU