Elena’s laugh is very contagious. At one glance, it seems like the 20-year old is a happy-go-lucky girl. She doesn’t care if her voice is too loud as long as she is able to lighten up the mood with her silly stories.
But deep inside, Elena is a fighter. She is determined to prove something: that a street girl can use her brokenness to change for the better, with the help of kind-hearted souls.
ESCAPE AND ABUSE
Elena became a street girl because of choice, not circumstance. She was very young when her parents separated. She spent her early childhood days with her Lola (grandmother). Her parents eventually got back together and took her home with them. But she already resented her parents, and could not understand why they scolded and hit her. So at seven years old, Elena left her so-called broken family to go with her “barkada” (peers).
Elena was happy for she felt she belonged with her friends who understood her. They were children of the streets — sleeping under bridges, on “nitsos” or tombs in cemeteries, along sidewalks, parking spaces, inside a jeep, practically anywhere. Elena and her friends were begging for food and money, and when worst comes to worst, they would steal. Soon, she was also sniffing rugby and solvent and even tried shabu and marijuana.
“Na-addict ako sa bisyo. Gusto ko kasi pag-high ako nakakalimutan ko lahat ng pangit at masama. Nakukuha ko kung ano gusto ko (I got addicted. I liked it when I was high because I forget everything that’s ugly and bad. I get what I want),” Elena said.
Elena lived the street life for a year, scouring the areas of Monumento and Letre in Caloocan. She said she became miserable along the way, doing the same things all over again and feeling worthless and hopeless. Her experiences of abuse became an eye opener.
“High ako at nakatulog ako sa tambayan namin sa sementeryo sa may Letre. Pag-gising ko wala na akong damit, ang sama sa pakiramdam. Sinabi na lang ng mga kaibigan ko na na-abuso ako (I was high and fell asleep at a cemetery in Letre. I was naked when I woke up, and I felt really bad. My friends then told me that I was sexually abused),” Elena said.
“Isang beses sa overpass naman ako natulog. Biglang may dalawang lalaking tinutukan ako ng kutsilyo. Dinala nila ako sa isang abandonadong bahay. Buti na lang may nakakita at tumawag ng barangay tanod. Naligtas ako (One time I slept on an overpass. Two men woke me and pointed knives at me. They led me to an abandoned house. Lucky for me, someone saw and told the authorities. I was saved),” Elena recounted.
HOPE AND HOME
It was also out in the streets where Elena met Nellen, a social worker/ street educator for Childhope Asia Philippines. Nellen helped Elena learn about her rights and responsibilities as a child, and urged her to go to a center and leave the street life. Nellen also found out that nine-yeard old Elena was already sick with tuberculosis.
Elena found herself under the care of Tahanan Sta. Luisa (TSL), a recovery and rehabilitation center for street girls who have been physically and sexually abused. The center offers “caring, healing, and teaching” — a holistic approach to help street girls heal and confront the abuses they have experienced.
But at first, it was too much for Elena to take in and adjust. Having been used to the ways of the streets, it was hard for her to follow rules and regulations. She always wanted it her way.
“Hindi ako sanay na madaming bawal, ayoko ng sinasabihan ako kung ano gagawin and namiss ko ang buhay sa kalye. Kaya madalas tumatakas ako. Wild ako noon. (I did not like it when people tell me what I can and can’t do. I missed the street life, so I did everything to go out of TSL. I was wild),” Elena said.
But for the countless times she tried to escape TSL, the social workers and house parents always found a way to find her and make her come back. “Elena was one of the most difficult children we had. She was very emotional and expressive. But we know that healing takes time, and we could not leave her behind. It’s always about giving them another chance,” said Anna, Center Director of TSL who was a social worker at the time Elena came to the center.
EDUCATION AND RECOVERY
Elena eventually opened herself up to the healing process. Through TSL’s program, Elena was able to understand and learn from her experiences, and to channel her emotions into something positive. She learned about God, prayers, blessings, and dreams.
“Naramdaman ko sa Tahanan yung pagmamahal na hindi ko naramdaman sa pamilya ko. Tinulungan nila ako sa bawat pagsubok at yun ang naging inspirasyon ko para mapatawad ang sarili ko. Para tanggapin na may pagkakataon ako para magbago and ituwid ang landas ko (I felt the love of a family in Tahanan. There, people were willing to help me in every trial and that inspired me to forgive myself. It made me realize that I have a chance to change for the better),” Elena said.
At 11 years old, Elena was not able to read and write. She participated in TSL’s alternative education sessions — a special school set-up where street girls are able to learn the basics of reading and writing, values education, and skills training. Those who passed their ALS examinations can earn certificates and graduate in Elementary and High School. It seemed a long shot at first, but with determination and hard work, Elena was able to pass all her ALS examinations. She was qualified to go to college in 2015. With TSL’s help, Elena was able to enroll in a vocational course to study automotive technology. But this time, TSL taught Elena how to live independently — she was also given the responsibility to earn for herself, and decide on her own.
Elena could not juggle the hardships of working and studying at the same time. So for the last time, she left TSL with a heavy heart but with a renewed and higher purpose.
FIGHT AND DREAM
Armed with her 10 years of learning in TSL, Elena is now out on a mission: to pursue her dream of showing little street girls that they will not be “nobodies” forever. She wants to finish college, and be a social worker someday.
She is now working for Messy Bessy Company, a line of natural, biodegradable, non-toxic home and personal care products, for the meantime. There, and through the help of Consuelo Foundation, she is able to earn and at the same time prepare to enter college. Elena is learning how to be independent, how to manage her money, and how to act as a professional.
“Lagi akong magpapasalamat sa TSL dahil siya ang nagbigay sa akin ng paulit ulit na pagkakataon na magbagong buhay and mangarap. ‘Yan ang nagiging kalakasan ko para hindi sumuko sa buhay (I will always be thankful to TSL because it never gave up on me and gave me many chances to change and dream. That inspires me not give up on my dreams),” Elena said.
Elena believes that she is now able to make better decisions, and that soon, she will attain her dream with the help of people sent by God to guide her.
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