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Learning amid tombstones

It is heartening to know that a group of young students has been engaged in a literacy endeavor since their high school years and even today as they go through college.

It all began when they were first invited to volunteer with the ATD (All Together in Dignity) Fourth World Philippines outreach at the Manila North Cemetery (MNC). A cemetery may be a most unlikely place to do any outreach, but it is the children of the families that live there that these youth volunteers were first drawn to. Many children were reluctant to attend school because they were bullied or made fun of. The volunteers discovered that these children were called “aswang” or taunted as “nangangain ng tao” because the cemetery was their home.

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Aside from poverty, the lack of resources, and proper motivation, these kid dropouts were greatly disadvantaged because they were unable to read and write. Literacy, a fundamental human right, was denied these children.

Thus, Ladders to Literacy (LTL), as conceptualized by Qjiel Mariano, was born in 2019, when he and his team of volunteers embarked on a project to help these children. LTL is a reading and writing initiative that aims to empower the children by guiding them to write a storybook about their community, or something relevant to their lives. This allows the authors to learn much-needed skills and to take pride in a book they can story-tell to peers. The stories evolve as a group endeavor while the LTL team polishes the book for publication.

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Today, there are two completed books that are available online: “Literate Lila,” based on the true-to-life experiences of a bullied child; and “Alamat ng Alitaptap.”

It may seem surprising that the books are written in English. Mariano says the stories are narrated by the children in a mix of English and Filipino, and await Filipino translations, something LTL needs help with. The advantage of using English is that it has been easier for LTL to be recognized and funded with international awards. Because LTL as a youth organization adheres to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and Sustainable Development Goals, it has drawn international attention. Its most recent recognition was the Youth Service America Everyday Young Hero Awards, which recognizes young people aged 5 to 25. Mariano hopes the children they help will themselves be recognized for their own small success story.

The group’s Saturday sessions take place in mausoleums turned classrooms, often interrupted by restless children who jump from one tombstone to the other. It is a community of about 800 families who have no other place to call home.

Living and learning conditions in such a place are challenging; the LTL team is encouraged by students whose countenances are literally transformed as they discover the power and the wonder of the written word. Just as inspiring is seeing these children feel safe in this learning space, with no fear of bullying, eager for the next session, and comfortable about returning to school. The pandemic has temporarily stopped these classes, but online storytelling sessions are provided by community facilitators for children who have donated devices.

For someone involved in literacy, Qjiel’s full name can be an initial tongue-twisting problem: Qjiel Giuliano Mikhl Z. Mariano (pronounced “Kiel Julyano Mikel”). It comes from his Scrabble-loving mother, who knows the high points the impossible Q and J letters command.

Mariano, 20, a sophomore nursing student, has his whole life and career ahead of him. He has much to look forward to, but he is also committed to his literacy project: “We were just a small group of friends who wanted to make a difference… Imagine a more proactive youth population… maybe a bright future for our country is not as impossible as it seems.”

For interested partners and donors, visit www.facebook.com/streetstoschools project or [email protected]

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Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected]) is founding director of the creative writing center Write Things, and was former chair of the National Book Development Board.

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TAGS: All Toger in Dignity, Commentary, education, Ladder to Literacy, Neni Sta. Romana Cruz
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