Sulong! (NCC 2016)

For a few weeks now, I’ve been on a self-imposed house arrest, reading my books and listening to music. I left my regular job last January, and have since taken on a few freelance work. Some good opportunities had landed on my plate, but I chose to set them aside. While I did feel like I was where I was supposed to be, I felt a hint of anxiety every now and then. I’ve been mulling over my life decisions, trying to decide on what to do next, but every time I felt a kick of inspiration, it didn’t last very long. Doubt started to creep in and I let it grow. I felt lost. I wanted to do a lot of things, but I didn’t know where to start.

I talked to my friend Bianca about it, and we had a good long conversation where she reminded me of an advice she took which apparently came from me: just pick one thing and start. It’s so simple, and it snapped me back to reality. Instead of always thinking and worrying, I needed to stop living inside my head and just do something, anything.

A few days later, I received a message from Ivy of Make Believe Productions. She was inviting me to become a facilitator for this year’s National Children’s Congress. I felt the urge to say yes, but I hesitated because I didn’t feel qualified. I love kids, but I’m not sure I knew how to handle them. It felt like such an important task to be in charge of children. So I took a few days to think it over, plus I had to make sure my parents were okay with me being away for five days. Days later, I said yes. I felt my heart sink into a mix of excitement, anxiety, and eagerness— something I hadn’t felt in a while. I was able to calm myself down because whenever I felt like this in the past, things actually turned out for the best.

On November 18, I found myself in the midst of 85 exemplary students from across the archipelago. Among the thousands of child beneficiaries of DSWD‘s Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps), these kids were chosen to participate in this year’s National Children’s Congress.

The first thing we did was split the delegates into eight families. I handled the orange family, and the kids named themselves The Orange Rangers. For the first activity, getting to know you, we asked the children to introduce themselves to their NCC family with a short personal story. While some stories were funny, and some were inspiring, a few kids immediately opened up their heart to the group and shared their personal struggles. I was warned about that during our briefing as facilitators, but I still found myself unprepared.


The Orange Rangers

Later on, we tackled their expectations for the entire National Children’s Congress, and then, instead of coming up with a group cheer, we introduced to them the haka. Inspired by the Haka of the Maori, we wanted the children to dig deep and express their souls through a powerful dance. This served as an energizer throughout the whole congress.


The Orange Rangers performing their Haka

I won’t go through the rest of the activities we facilitated to protect the sanctity of the congress workshops for the kids. It was an intimate experience where the children found a safe space to get to know themselves better, exploring their strengths, weaknesses, talents, and inherent value.


2016 National Exemplary Child Reynald Baguio with Basti (Maruja Calixto)

For the culminating activity, the students had to come up with the following outputs: an illustrated storybook, a play with song and dance numbers that is based on their storybook, an original song, and a manifesto. The delegates had to regroup and sign up for a creator group: writers, artists, movers, actors, or singers.


Facilitators and their elixir: good coffee

I was assigned to facilitate the writers creator group together with Roan, and I absolutely had no clue what to expect. Our kids were time-pressed to produce a story so that the actors can start staging the play, and the artists can illustrate the book and make props. While waiting for the output from the writers, the other creator groups had workshops with their assigned facilitators to exercise and hone their chosen talent. Of course, our exemplary children managed to pull through despite the time constraint and pressure.

For the next session with the writers group, we were a bit more relaxed because the storybook, which was a big chunk of the children’s contribution, had been successfully turned over. Therefore, we had more time to sharpen the children’s writing through writing exercises.

Through these writing exercises, the kids were able to tell us more about their backgrounds and struggles. The thing about storytelling is that you must unveil your personal truths. And the thing about the truth is that it is usually painful to tell. This is something I learned later in life, so I was caught off guard by how much these kids have had to go through at such a young age. I am grateful for their openness and trust. I feel that the amount of comfort and encouragement that I was able to impart to them then was not enough to fill the gaps within their little big hearts. My only hope is that they will always be reminded that somebody believes in them, and march on towards the success that I know they can and will achieve.

Aside from the storybook, the writers also had to come up with the manifesto for the entire congress. The manifesto is their open letter addressing government officials about who they are, what their dreams are, and what they need from the government in order to achieve those dreams. As child beneficiaries of Pantawid Pamilya, this is where they can let their voices be heard, to demand for better services from the government, and suggest improvements for the 4Ps program. We assigned 4 kids from the writers group to put their heads together and write a manifesto that can represent the needs of every child in the congress. They were able to write a comprehensive manifesto thanks to the sharing sessions throughout the congress, where they were able to get to know their fellow delegates.

The culminating day arrived. It was scheduled on November 22, Araw ng Kabataan. We all woke up a little extra early to have our tummies filled before heading to the AFP Theater. The program didn’t start until we arrived and had settled down. The children were all excited to present their work. I didn’t see a hint of jitters from any of them. It was astonishing.

After a number of speeches, and performances from surprise guests, it was time to announce the National Exemplary Child 2016. The honor was awarded to Reynald Baguio from Region IX. One of my Orange Rangers, Kian Jay Cosep from Caraga Region, was awarded 2nd runner up.

Finally, the time for their presentation came. The kids took over the stage while the facilitators watched from the sides, nervously smiling like stage moms and dads. I believe we all shed a tear or two at different points in the presentation. For me, it happened as they sang the chorus of their original song entitled Pwede Ba?, which was written with the help of Mr. Pipo Lina.

I wasn’t able to get acquainted with all 85 kids over the 5 days that we were together, but during that time, we were one. I felt their energy, I listened to their stories, I beheld their artistry, I perceived their greatness, and I embraced their dreams.

At curtain call, we joined the children onstage. I stood there with pride, not for myself, but for the kids. And as we made our way backstage, I found myself holding one of our writers in my arms, already crying. A few seconds later, everybody was called back onstage for another round of photos. It was impossible to hold back tears as the children started to let theirs fall. Cameras snapped away at our happy crying faces. Hugs were shared, and gratitude was imparted. It was overwhelming, knowing that these kids love me and look up to me. If only they knew how much bigger and greater I think of them. They reminded me of what it feels like to have something worth fighting for. Their fingerprints are marked on my heart.

A million selfies and embraces later, we bid our goodbye. I can never fully verbalize how much the National Children’s Congress means to me. You have had to be there to understand. With all the things that’s wrong with our country today, I found something that seemed elusive, I found something right and good. Rizal was on point when he said, “Ang kabataan ang pag-asa ng bayan.” Therefore, as their teachers and guardians, it is our job to nourish them, educate them, and most of all, love them. These kids need to know their worth apart from the many roles they take on in their daily lives. They need to be cherished as they are, no buts, no ifs.

The 4Ps program is just a stepping stone into building a better future for our country. I’ve seen how it has helped families through the stories of the kids that I encountered. My hope is that more, if not all, children are granted access to free quality education. For privileged kids, finishing school is just another obligation, an expected goal. For the child beneficiaries of the 4Ps, finishing school is a dream. Education is their ticket out of poverty, their hope for a better tomorrow.

I felt myself knocked off of a pedestal I never should have been on. Those kids are much stronger than I am. I am inspired by their humble existence and great passion. I feel I haven’t done enough for them. Thanks to technology, I am able to keep in touch with many of the delegates. However, it will never be the same as being in the same room as them, stimulating their creativity, digging into their minds, and watching them explore their abilities.

To be honest, I still have no clear-cut vision of my personal goals, but if these kids can commit themselves to their dreams, and continue to persevere towards the success that awaits them, then so can I. Moreover, their fight is now my fight.

My heart is full and I am thankful for the opportunity of a lifetime. Being part of the Make Believe crew for this event is a privilege and a blessing. I commend every member of our team: our fairy queens Lively Lesley & Rambunctious Roan, my co-elves, Retro RiaNutty Nini, Super Stef, Stellar Summer, Yo yo Yas, Romantic Rap & Jolty Jiano. My insecurities were proved powerless thanks to this bunch of enthusiastic crazies with dedicated hearts.

I will probably never get over this, but I am looking forward to working with these unicorns again. Until then, Jumping Jacques, signing off.

To end, let me reiterate our mantra for the entire congress: Sulong, batang Pilipino!

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