Down a narrow alleyway in Mandurriao, the commercial district of Iloilo, Philippines, is the squatter community of Bolilao. Although the primary passageway is only five or six feet wide, the neighborhood itself is often bustling with activity. Kids play basketball with homemade hoops and neighbors lean out their windows, watching the world go by.
Slum houses, often built from materials scavenged from the dump site, are crammed together right up to its edge. The garbage finds its way into the town, where it lines the streets and clogs the waterways. The settlement does have electricity but no running water or proper drainage. The smell of the garbage lingers over everything, getting into clothes and hair so that even those children who are lucky enough to go to school face discrimination from their peers.

Kristel lives in this community. Her mother, Melita, works odd jobs to provide the whole family with food. She can’t afford to send all ten of her children to school due to the cost of books, uniforms, and transport. “It’s impossible to afford,” she says. “I have no work and no savings.”
Kristel has this to say. “We are so poor that since I was four years old, together with my siblings we would dig through the influx of “fresh” trash, scavenging for plastic, cardboard, paper, wood, glass, metal and other items that can be sold to recycling agents!”

We met Kristel in one of our outreach meetings at Bolilao. She caught our attention not just because she is a surprisingly smart and witty kid with an undeniably rough life, but because every time we asked for her prayer request, she would always say, “I just want a brighter future for me and for my family!”
We came to know that Kristel most of the time must walk the four-mile stretch from her home to school. (She does the same four times a day). She often chooses not to eat during recess so as she would have something to spend on her projects.

She admits that she can’t help that she feels ashamed of her situation sometimes. Her school uniform is too worn out to wear. The last time her mom bought her a uniform was three years ago. The meager earnings made by her mother are not even enough to buy food for a day. So instead of shoes, she wears slippers. In order to save money, she settles for a used old, tattered bag.

It may be hard for many people to imagine what it would be like to live in such conditions, yet that’s the daily reality for the thousands who live at Bolilao. In the Philippines, poverty continues to affect millions of families with young children. This is visible in the number of young ones who wander the streets in urban areas, scavenge for resources or those who, at an early age, are forced to drop out of school for work to supplement their family income.
Amidst this dreary, heart-breaking situation, Kristel, along with her friends has never failed to touch our hearts. They laugh boisterously. They sing and dance as though they don’t have a care in the world. And when they talk, they talk about their dreams incessantly.

Today, I met with Kristel and her friends Shiela Ann and Ronamie. I came to know that Ronamie’s father was recently killed during a drug-bust operation. I also came to know that this tragedy surprisingly, gave birth to a dream in Ronamie’s heart. “I want to become a police officer someday and save a lot of children whose lives are being messed up with drug addiction.” Sheila Ann, who was sitting docilely beside Ronamie, turned to me and said, “I want to be a nurse. I want to take care of people in the slums someday. It’s hard when one gets sick and have nobody to take care of them.”

Kristel told me later that Sheila and her eight siblings at times need to share one meal because her parents are barely able to feed them. “You know what, every time we feel sad and disappointed, we always talk about what you told us during our outreach meetings. You told us that if we have the faith to believe that Jesus will answer our prayer, it will happen to us. That’s what kept us going. That’s what kept us hoping.”

Who would imagine that day I would find hope in a very unlikely place? I found hope in the dumps!