Recently I was talking to a group of 40 young boys who had been taken out of filthy jails and sub-human conditions in the so-called youth detention centers of metro Manila, the Philippines. I told them, “You are the children of God and the most important in God’s family. That’s why you are here, you are free and have rights and dignity.” They stared wide-eyed with incredulous looks of awe and bafflement.
Now the boys are living happily in a beautiful home in the countryside and finding and experiencing their basic rights and joys that so many of us take for granted.
A majority of the boys at the Preda Foundation’s New Dawn Home for Boys are sent to get treatment and therapy and help for troubled lives. They are free to run wherever they want in the grounds. There are no guards, steel bars, wire cages and brutal treatment which they experienced in the jails and youth detention and so-called reformatory centers where they were locked up like animals without light, exercise, education or entertainment, affirmation or legal process.
The Preda staff and I tell them the truth about themselves- “you are good, you have rights and dignity, you have had a hard life and made mistakes but you can choose now to live another positive way.”
They listen with wide-eyed wonder and can scarcely believe this good news since they have hardly ever experienced being loved, wanted, valued, supported, fed and cherished. Instead they have been rejected all their lives and told they are a burden and pest to their family and society and deserve punishment and imprisonment. They might as well have been on death row.
Now at Preda this bad experience and negative conditioning is being turned on its head. Now they are told that “you are free here at the Preda New Dawn Home to stay or leave. Know that you are of importance, value and are good in yourselves. Do not believe or think of yourselves a bad, criminal or useless young people. You are God’s children and the most important in God’s family, Jesus said so.”
They feel respected and valued and can have a dream to reach a positive goal. They are assured that they will be helped to achieve a better, happier life for themselves and their future families when they grow up. What attitudes they have today will be how they will treat others in the future. They must learn and grow for the better.
It takes time for all this to sink in. We have to undo the harm and negativity that has been heaped on them from childhood by parents, relatives and local authorities. They have been branded by parents and society as worthless thieves, drug dependents and social outcasts. But they are not.
What inspires and motivates the youth is to know that their parents are willing to cooperate and attend parenting seminars and to accept and admit that they too have made mistakes and are willing to reconcile with their child. The hope of family reconciliation and peace-making and acceptance back into the family is what motivates the boy to continue in the Preda home. The loss of love and friendship with parents and family is the greatest hurt and loss. Peacemaking and acceptance is the greatest gift.
Columban Fr. Shay Cullen lives and works in the Philippines.