A Safe Place to Grow

At Children’s Garden in Manila, young lives reach for the light

Story and photos by Whitney Bauck

Today’s young people have sometimes been referred to as “Generation Me,” and their use of social media to fill the world with endless updates about everything from their breakfast fare to the ever-popular “selfie” seems to justify the label. However, even amongst a demographic often chastised for their self-centeredness, pockets of young people are doing God’s will in innovative, sacrificial, and redemptive ways.

In 2004, in the crowded capital of the Philippines, one such group was forming. A young Filipino pastor named “Buddy” Gallo, along with a handful of 20-somethings from his church, had begun hanging out every Thursday evening in an area called Antipolo, getting to know the teenage street boys who would show up on the curb after the police had vacated the area. The informal ministry was entirely funded out of the volunteers’ own pockets. Regardless, the young volunteers loved what they were doing so much that the project quickly snowballed. One of the original volunteers, Sharon Gersava, recalls, “We did it once a week, then twice a week, and then we were just kinda like, ’Okay, who’s going there today? Who’s going there tomorrow?’” For about two years, the young people continued to spend their evenings playing with the boys, feeding them, getting to know their stories, and building friendships with them.

Though the volunteers didn’t yet know it, the seed for the ministry that would become Children’s Garden had been planted. It was becoming clear that “we needed to do something more,” says Gersava. As they prayed about their next step, the volunteers concluded that they needed to shelter their new friends. But as young people either still in college or having just entered the workforce, coming up with the money necessary for such an endeavor appeared impossible.

However, as the volunteers continued to pray faithfully, an answer popped up seemingly from nowhere when Pastor Gallo bumped into a woman who was willing to let the group use a property in Antipolo, free of charge. Before they knew it, the team was meeting with the board members of a waning organization called Children’s Garden, which had served as an orphanage, feeding program, and preschool at different stages since its founding in 1955. After countless legal discussions, the new group decided to carry on the legacy of Children’s Garden by adopting the name for their own endeavor. As a new board of directors was assembled and all the necessary permits renewed, “CG part II, the new beginning,” as Gersava calls it, came into being in 2007.

In its current manifestation, Children’s Garden provides residential care for former street boys aged 10-18. The program provides the Alternative Learning System (ALS), the Filipino equivalent of a GED, to help older boys who dropped out of school at an early age to earn their high school diplomas; younger boys are enrolled in regular public school. The boys can also enroll in TESDA, a technical/vocational education program instituted by the government, where they can learn practical skills like carpentry or welding to help render them employable in the future. CG’s five full-time staff members also disciple the boys through informal mentoring, Bible studies, and worship. CG feeds into another program called After Care, which caters to young men who have passed through Children’s Garden but are not yet living independently.

CG’s ministries don’t stop with the boys: The staff also runs numerous outreaches to the community throughout the week, including service to neighborhood squatters, Bible studies with prostituted women and in the nearby women’s prison, and of course the Thursday evenings with the street kids of Antipolo that date back to the early days of the ministry. The boys accompany the staff to many of these street outreaches, where they are “very good at serving, because they’re ministering to people who come from their same background,” according to Gersava.

Now CG’s administrative head, Gersava declares that “Whenever I talk about Children’s Garden I always say, ’It’s all God’s thing, from day one.’” The staff’s conviction that God “orchestrated everything” certainly doesn’t stem from a lack of setbacks, however. Despite the early volunteers’ full-time commitment to the ministry, they essentially worked for free.

“These were passionate people who knew this was their calling,” explains Gersava. “You don’t really earn money [working] here. They don’t care. They just have the heart to help these people.”

For the first year or two that volunteers lived fulltime at CG, their only tangible compensation came in the form of free room and board and enough money to cover toiletries. Even now, staff salaries are almost always late, and the administration is often uncertain about how it will provide for their needs.

But Gersava’s attitude towards the perpetually tight budget remains doggedly optimistic. She describes one situation when CG had no food for the next meal and no money to buy any as “one of the highlights of working here.”

“We gathered and were like, ’God, we don’t have food anymore.’ We had 20 boys and 10 staff. We were praying, ’Just provide for us. You called us to do this, and you will sustain us, we know that.’ The moment right after that prayer, the phone rings. The man on the other end was asking where CG was—but we were very careful about giving out information, for safety reasons. We didn’t give the man CG’s location. But a few minutes later, a car parked at the garage, and he got out with bags of groceries, rice, and toiletries that would last us for several weeks. We still don’t really know who he was.”

Gersava notes that this is just one of the many incredible acts of provision that have helped sustain CG since the beginning. This strong sense of God’s presence, as well as the undeniable impact of the ministry, is what keeps the staff going.

“To see lives transformed really warms our hearts,” says Gersava. “These were delinquent boys, most of them. They were pickpocketing, using rugby [glue to get high] and other drugs; they even sold their bodies back in the street just to survive—all these messy, ugly things… But to see them now, living their lives with meaning by the grace of God—there’s really hope, you know? They can dream. They’re not perfect, they still have struggles, but to see God change them is awesome.”

Although constant funding issues would be a deterrent to many, Gersava refuses to stop dreaming about the future of CG. “I think God has told me not to worry anymore,” she says, claiming that she’s seen enough unexpected provision that she’s “excited for how God will show himself, because he always does.”

The staff’s current hope is to be able to open a safe house for the women in prostitution that CG has begun to reach out to. She relates the story of 17- and 21-year-old sisters who never finished elementary school and are now in prostitution, a reality for many girls and young women due to lack of alternatives.

“They say to me, ’I know this is really wrong. But I don’t have an option, I have to do this. I have a kid who has to go to school.” Others end up selling themselves out of emotional desperation, as demonstrated by the tragic story of a 12-year-old who used to attend CG’s Bible study. Gersava recalls, “She just longed for the love, you know? And she’s like, ’These guys need me. I don’t have to try for their attention; they want me.’”

“What we’re praying for now is to have a drop-in center,” Gersava continues. “And then people can come there, and we can talk to them, mentor them, counsel them, disciple them, tell them about Jesus. A place where they can be safe, a place where they can learn.” She notes that such a safe house might serve as an intermediary step towards the ultimate founding of a girls’ home, similar to what is in place for boys now.

Regardless of what possible expansions the ministry might make in the future, Gersava and the other staff members keep moving forward in the belief that “we must be blinded in our own physical eyes to see how God’s going to work.” The staff continue to be grateful for the ways they see God using them, and the testimonies of changed lives continue to propel them forward.

Gersava sums up the Children’s Garden mindset simply, asking, “If you can do something now, why not do it?”

Learn more at ChildrensGarden.ph.

A missionary kid who grew up in the Philippines, Whitney Bauck is a photographer and art student at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill.

KIM (profiled kid)My name is Francis Kim. I grew up without parents. My brother and I were taken care of by an uncle, but I was really hurt by what had happened with my parents. My attitude soured, and I screwed up my studies.

At 13, they transferred me to my other tita [aunt], and my life got worse. I started smoking, drinking, doing marijuana, drugs. And if I didn’t have money, I had sex with men. I was very rebellious, and I was asking myself, “Why is my life like this?”

Then I had a friend who was talking about skills training, and I asked if I could join him, because I wanted to earn money. So we attended this camp, and I’m very thankful—if it hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have this relationship with Jesus! During the camp, one of the staff asked if I wanted to continue studying. So I filled out a form, and I was thinking, Why not try CG?

I was brought to Children’s Garden in January 2010, and I had this fire in my heart to know God more. If I hadn’t known him I wouldn’t have experienced all these things; he brings me to places I don’t know, to situations where I can only trust and rely upon him. Now I have this hope, and I know that God has given me great talent to use.

I am now involved in the ministry. I am in charge of maintaining this building—I started with a mop, sweeping the floor, arranging the chairs. Now I’m in charge of the audio system, and I’m part of the worship team. I really thank God, because if he hadn’t taken me from the dark part of my life, I wouldn’t be like this. I know how to have a good relationship with other people; God has changed me. The most important thing is that the fear of the Lord is in me.

MICHAEL (profiled kid)My name is Michael, and I’m 21 years old. When I was 5, I lived on the streets of Manila. I picked pockets just to survive. As I grew up, I began using drugs, and I learned to rob.

At age 12, my friend and I were so high on solvent that we beat a guy and left him for dead. After that, we robbed a jeepney [a public transportation vehicle], but the operation didn’t work and I got caught.

They couldn’t put me in jail, because I was a minor, so they put me in rehab. I stayed there for three and a half years while attending court hearings, and I kept asking why God allowed these things to happen, if there’s really a God that cares.

I was truly angry. I wanted to be a soldier someday—not to help people but to have revenge on the relatives who hurt my family; all five of my sisters were sexually abused by my relatives. So when I received my dismissal, I thought that maybe it was the right time to take my revenge.

But they sent me to Children’s Garden. The people here told me how to know God. I didn’t really care, but I paid attention to what they said. Then they said how to forgive people who sin against you.

Forgiveness was very hard for me—how could I forgive people who were supposed to care for us but instead did something bad? But after a few years, God worked in my heart. He used the staff here, and I decided to forgive, because God had forgiven me.

I was lucky I made it here. I was blessed. I was a grade 2 student when I came, around 15 or 16 years old. What’s amazing is that I can thank God for everything in my life, even if it was awful—it’s all God’s plan, and he has a purpose for me, like he said in Jeremiah 29:11. He gave me opportunities that not all people have. Right now I have a good job at CG. I’m on junior staff, helping the other staff relate to the boys, because I’ve experienced what the boys are facing.

Before I wanted to be a soldier, but God changed that to dreams of becoming a missionary someday. And I’m looking forward. I don’t know where God will put me, but I just keep on asking and praying. If he wants me somewhere, I will go.

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