(Bill) Felisan Jr., 35, and Roel Sarnejo, 32, have turned
a new leaf. Both minor law offenders in their youth, in their
adult life, they have chosen to become law enforcers.
As young boys,
they walked the streets and the piers of Cebu City, pilfering
money or goods or wares from vendors and passersby, for food
or for gambling.
Today, as fathers
with two children each, they walk the same streets as men
of the Cebu City police. Bill is the liaison officer of the
police's Community Scouts Youth Guidance Center, and Roel,
a traffic officer.
One story -- of
rescue and renewal, with nudge and push from the community
-- binds Bill, Roel and the quiet success that is Cebu's Community
Scouts. Born 22 years ago as the Cebu City police's juvenile
section, the Center has assisted over a thousand Cebu children
in conflict the law, in their journey back to good citizenship.
"Diversion" is how the Center calls its program
to give child offenders a second chance at life.
early life of petty crimes
Bill was in sixth grade when the Cebu police launched "Operation
Fishnet" to rid the city of its teeming vagrant population.
The operation snared Bill, two younger brothers and seven
other boys. "Tinik daw kami sa lipunan [They said we're
a thorn on the side of society]," Bill recalls. By then,
Bill had started to skip classes at the Tejeros public school,
hanging out at the pier with boys pilfering veggies or grains
being loaded off the boats. Their loot, they sold to whomsoever
would buy. "Siga kami sa pier nuon [We were the hotshots
of the pier]," he says.
The eldest of seven
children bred in poverty in Bantayan island, Roel was lured
to petty gambling also in his sixth grade. He had lost interest
in his studies but still went to school to run a backyard
vice ring that drew other boys, using his 25-centavo daily
allowance as capital.
It was 1981. The
Cebu police's juvenile section had formed a task force to
get children off the streets, particularly the "rugby
boys," the vagrants, the orphaned and abandoned, and
those who snatch wallets or market produce, says Police Captain
Teresita Ayag, then a rookie but now director of the Center.
Ayag and husband Teodoro, a retired police superintendent,
had worked with as veritable father and mother to the boys
for most of the Center's existence.
Bill was in first
batch of 10 boys admitted in the Center, and Roel, in the
second batch of 15. At the start, all that the city mayor
could assure them were the essentials -- an old carnival yard
near the pier as makeshift home, and water and power services.
The city could not then afford to cover their meals.
To sustain the boys, Ayag said the police secured a job contract
with Pepsi Cola Company for the Center. The boys washed Pepsi
softdrink bottles by hand, for a token fee of 25 centavos
per bottle, or six pesos (P6) per 24-bottle case. "Parang
naglalaro lang ang mga bata [It was just like the boys were
playing]," Ayag says. Part of the income went to feeding
the household, and the balance, deposited in separate bank
savings accounts that were opened for the boys. The job contract
had yet another windfall: The empty bottles came with bottles
filled with softdrinks, a welcome treat for the boys. "Kahit
walang ulam, okay lang sa kanila basta may Pepsi [They did
not mind that we'd have no viand on occasion so long as they
had Pepsi]," Ayag recounts.
In time, the Center
and the boys launched many other livelihood projects. The
boys raised hogs, ducks and goats, planted vegetables, wove
buri, did carpentry, welded chairs and plant holders, made
hollow blocks, crafted fashion accessories, and cultured earthworms.
The boys were trained in the scout patrol system, organized
as troops and registered with the Boy Scouts of the Philippines.
They learned as well to do washing and cooking chores.
Scout leaders were
designated for various duties -- Bill led the vermiculture
project, and Roel, the vegetable garden project. The boys
took turns guarding the center at night, and worked on their
livelihood and house chores until noon. After a modest lunch
shared like a feast for all, they rested until 5 p.m. to prepare
for evening school. In the Center's early years, the boys,
though mostly in their early teens, had to restart mostly
as graders in the city's public schools.
And return to school
they did with a vengeance. A number of the boys like Bill
and Roel earned grades so good they were often exempted from
final exams, made it to the honors roll, or were accelerated
to higher grades. A placement test he took in second year
high school moved Bill straight up to college. "We worked
harder at our studies," Roel recalls.
But because Cebu
City had no public high schools and colleges by then, the
Center asked the Rotary Club to send those marching on to
higher levels of education on scholarship. The fund allowed
Roel to finish a two-year vocational course at the University
of the Visayas, and Bill, a bachelor's degree in Industrial
Technology at the Javellana College of Arts and Trade. Bill
had wanted to be a soldier but changed his plan after passing
the entrance exam to the Philippine National Police Academy.
Ayag says the Center's
administrators have a minimum goal for the children. "Our
target is for them to finish high school at least so we can
recommend them for jobs."
In hindsight, Bill
and Roel point to the good and bad relationships they fostered
with adults that sent them astray as children, but also led
them back to doing right.
With a mother given
to gambling and a father -- a laborer at the pier -- who was
given to drink, Bill grew up almost entirely by his own devices.
From age 9 to 13,
he was a "istambay" or bum at the pier. With other
boys his age, Bill met oncoming boats, egging passengers to
toss a coin or two in their direction. A coin sent the boys
in a race to the depths of the waters. When their harvest
of coins was lean, the boys stole copra (desiccated coconut),
corn, and whatever else they could sell for a few more coins.
They competed for coins to be able to buy what they thought
then was the best treat a boy could have -- a piece of ice
But fear gripped
Bill on the day the police came to arrest him and his friends.
"Akala namin isa-salvage na kami [We thought we would
be summarily executed]." The police brought the boys
to the former site of the White Gold Department Store and
a carnival, a deserted stretch of land in suburban Cebu where
bodies of salvaging victims often showed up.
street-smart to being really smart
Adapting to the rules and chores of the Community Scouts was
hardest on Bill and other boys snatched from the streets and
a life of almost total, if false, freedom. "Sa kalsada,
walang rules. '''Yung gusto mo lang. Bahala ka kung kailan
ka gigising o matutulog, pero 'di sigurado kung kailan ka
kakain [On the streets, there are no rules, except what you
want to do. You decide when you want to wake up, when you
want to sleep]."
One the streets,
"you can do anything pero patago-tago [You can do anything
but you are constantly on the run].
The downside is
the illusion of freedom did not offer a certain reality of
eating meals at the right time. "Kung may pera ka, may
pagkain [If you have money, you have food]."
In contrast, the
Center offered Bill and his friends three regular meals and
snacks, while government and private donors are often generous
with school supplies, old clothes and slippers. An initial
plan by Bill and his friends to bolt the Center never pushed
through. Over the last 22 years, Bill has embraced the Center
as his home, and the Ayag couple, his foster parents.
Today as the Community
Scouts' liaison officer and "kuya" or elder brother
to the boys, living witness to the value of giving child offenders
a second chance.
Apart from serving
them his life's lessons, Bill engages the boys in fun rounds
of basketball, volleyball, and sipa. Hope, he says, is the
singular message he stresses to the children. "Minsan,
parang masisiraan ka na ng loob pero huwag kayoing susuko
[Sometimes, you'd feel like your situation is hopeless but
don't ever give up]. Bill gives the boys periodic pep talks
but also regular fun. He engages them in basketball and volleyball,
or even hide-and-seek and sipa.
virtue of patience
He advises adults who work with children to their fill of
patience. In Bill's book, serving children in conflict with
the law is "very much like holding grains of rice in
your hands. "Hold it so tight and the grains will spill.
Hold it so freely and you are likely to lose it all."
Ayag is justly
proud of the boys of the Center who are doing well now. "Staying
here is better for these boys than staying in the streets.
Here, our setting is the family." The city government
has allotted a modest, annual budget for the Center, in due
recognition of the tremendous impact of its "diversion"
program. In the first eight months of 2003 alone, the Center
has received about 700 boys rescued from jails or the streets,
or about 90 a month on average. Of the 700, at most 20 children
face charges in court.
"We have an
agreement with the police and jail custodians that if there
are kids in jail, they must be brought to the Center. We ask
the complainants in minor offenses if it is possible not to
file cases anymore against the children," Ayag says.
"It usually happens that kids are released on recognizance
anyway, or their sentences are suspended because they are
By the example
of the Center and other nongovernment organizations, owners
of malls in Cebu City have likewise signed up to an agreement
with the city government that diversion is the first and correct
response to children accused of shoplifting. Instead of jail,
the Center is now the first stop for all these children. Ayag's
fondest hope is that in time, they would retell the story
of renewal of Bill and Roel.