About the author: Noel Romero del Prado was a Tulong Dunong scholar from Sto. Niño Elementary School. He is forever grateful to Fr. O’Brien’s help and guidance, and to the Ateneo de Manila University for granting him scholarships in High School(1988), College(1992) and School of Law(1997). He teaches Filipino Literature at the Loyola Schools. He is a child rights advocate and a volunteer lawyer for abused women and children, and for children in conflict with the law.
He delivered this speech at the Reading of Honors Program of the Ateneo de Manila High School. This is the most touching if not the best speech I heard in my four years ministering to Ateneo High School students.
I have always known that everything I have today comes from my Ateneo education. And I owe my education to one man, a Jesuit priest named Fr. James O’Brien, or as we fondly called him, Fr. OB. Fr. OB was the Jesuit behind the Tulong Dunong Program of the Ateneo de Manila High School. I am a Tulong Dunong scholar from Sto. Niño Elementary School in Marikina. When I first came to the Ateneo de Manila High School, it was for the Summer Tulong Dunong Classes.
When Fr. OB was preparing us for the adjustment that we had to make, he told us that “Ateneo de Manila” should be renamed as “Ateneo de Alaskahan.” We all thought that he was cracking a joke, with his usual dry sense of humor. I soon realized that he was describing a fact.
Back in 1984, the Ateneo High School did not have uniforms. We were only required to wear collared shirts and long pants. When I heard about this, I dreaded the first day of school. Why? I only had two collared shirts and one pair of jeans. Before coming to Ateneo, I did not need more than two collared shirts. I only wear them to Sunday Mass. My mother is a dressmaker, and she thought that it would be a good idea if she made me two sets of khaki pants and white polo shirts. And so everyday, I would wear my uniform: khaki pants and a white polo shirt. As fate would have it, alaskado ako. Even my TD batchmates would laugh behind my back. After two weeks, and those two weeks actually felt like an eternity, when I could not bear one more day of alaskahan, I felt that I had to do something, anything. It was time to blend in. But how could I? I only had two shirts. I knew that I had to try. The result of that experiment was soon revealed to me. It did not work.
The alaskahan escalated. I had two classmates who strategically place themselves to meet me at the door of our 1-G classroom. Every single day, they would make bets on which shirt I was wearing. They bet on either shirt No. 1 or shirt No. 2. And everyday, they would announce what I was wearing, and usher me into the classroom with an even more resounding alaskahan laughter, as I entered the bigger laughing group.
This was especially difficult because my mother would require me to wear the same shirt two or three days in a row because that meant saving on laundry soap and water. I could not tell my parents how difficult it was to go to school.
Some of my TD scholar friends even advised me to ask money from Fr. OB, but that would mean that I would have to tell Fr. OB my story. Nahihiya ako na ikwento kay Fr. OB, na nahihiya ako, na mahirap ako.
“There is no shame in being poor.”
Fr. OB has always reminded us, and he reminded us so passionately that there is no shame in being a Tulong Dunong scholar, and that there is no shame in being poor, for we got into the Ateneo just like anybody else. Now I can admit this. There was not a single day that I was not in tears, or almost in tears. But nobody saw me cry. I went to school everyday, did my best, and endured my Ateneo de Alaskahan. At one point, I thought of quitting school. But I equally struggled with how to explain to my mother and father, and my other father, Fr. OB, that I was giving up.
But I soon realized that there is also a limit to what I can take. One Monday morning, just like this one, I mustered the courage to speak up. As soon as I reached my classroom, and as soon as my shirt was announced for the day, I looked up and made eye contact. I told my tormentors, “Pasensiya na kayo, mahirap lang kami.” And as soon as they heard those few words, they stopped laughing, almost in shock. I, too, was in shock. In my head, I would repeat those words (“Pasensiya na kayo, mahirap lang kami”), over and over, for days on end. I did not realize what I have done.
Looking back, that was the first time that I was not afraid to go to school. I realized that my classmates were simply foolish. They were not cruel. Okay, some of them were a bit cruel. But after that exact moment, I felt like a great weight has been lifted over my entire humanity. There is some exaggeration here, but it really felt like an exaggerated grace of overcoming.
And the solution to my problem was simple. It was the simple truth that I am poor.
Every time I would come back to the Ateneo High School, I am always feel a certain natural high. While this may be where I spent the most difficult times, I can say with conviction that this is the place where I also spent the happiest days of my life. My high school classmates are my lifelong friends.
Years later, I found myself in a lot of volunteer work. I volunteer for Bantay Bata 163, the Child Justice League, the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), and other child rights and child welfare non-governmental organizations, providing free legal services to children and women, who are victims of physical and sexual abuse. I have also worked with other lawyer volunteers in giving free legal service to children in conflict with the law, children with disabilities and children with special needs, street children several years before they were called batang hamog, street families, indigenous peoples, children with HIV, child victims of trafficking in persons and child pornography, child laborers, abandoned and neglected children, children in situations of armed conflict, children in commercial sexual exploitation, among others.
In 2007, we started volunteer group called KaEskwela, another NGO with a modest objective of collecting used books and delivering them to public elementary and high schools. After eight years of just online coordination and offline volunteer work, we have reached around forty (40) schools in areas as far as Catanduanes, Leyte, Ifugao, Davao del Norte, Davao del Sur, Aklan, Bataan, Laguna, Pampanga, Tanay, Montalban, Marinduque and Isabela. Our first school beneficiary was not far from home. It was actually home for me: Sto. Niño Elementary School in Marikina.
When I look back, I realized that my earliest volunteer work began in high school: AKAY and Tulong Dunong, and between those years, I would volunteer teaching my classmates Filipino, Geometry, Chemistry and Physics.
Even when I was in college, I remember giving free tutoring sessions to some of our neighbors. When people would ask me then, and even now, when I volunteer to give free legal assistance or consultation, they would say, “Bakit hindi ka maningil?” “Why don’t you charge for your services?” When I received this invitation to speak to you today, I have thought long and hard about the answer to this simple question. And my answer is anything but simple.
Ateneo has given me free education. From High School, to College and until Law School. Ateneo has given me Fr. O’Brien and Tulong Dunong, and everything flowed abundantly into my life like a tidal wave of blessings. When I volunteer to tutor, to teach, to stand in court for a child victim, there is always a peso equivalent of that. There is the standard going rate for an hour of tutoring, lecturing and even lawyering (if there is such a word). But when you give it for free, it becomes much, much more valuable. People begin to ask why. Why are you doing this? What do you get in return? If not money, then probably pride, psychological gratification, and other equivalent values? People always suspect that here must be a catch somewhere. My answer is that I have received the blessing way ahead of whatever it is that I do as a volunteer. I am a Tulong Dunong scholar, first and foremost.
When Pope Francis visited the Philippines, I did not have the chance to see or peek at him. But his words touched me. In particular, he said,
“Allow yourself to be blessed by the people that you serve.”
And then I realized that this man, another great Jesuit, has articulated in very simple terms what I suspected all along. Through several years of serving as a volunteer, I have received not just the blessing of Tulong Dunong, not just the blessing of grace and gratitude, but also the blessing of those whom I thought could not give me anything in return. Pope Francis spoke to me, not even personally, but spoke to me in the deepest personal level, as a volunteer. Through all of my work with child victims of physical and sexual abuse, I realized that whether a child has become a victim or an offender, we can trace the root cause to the breakdown of the family. When the family or family values breaks down, the father or the mother is absent, is neglectful, or worse, become the abuser. I realize how lucky I am to have parents who have raised me and kept me in their home. I am blessed with an Ateneo who loves me, with Fr. OB and Tulong Dunong. And I am overwhelmed with gratitude. I am silenced by sheer grace. I realized that I am drawn, called upon and invited to become a better son to my parents, brother to my siblings, husband to my wife and father to my children.
I have always known that everything I have today comes from my Ateneo education. And I owe my education to one man, a Jesuit priest named Fr. James O’Brien. Last year, together with my other Tulong Dunong Batchmates, Emmanuel Velasco and Aries Espinosa, we collected a book of essays on the life and work of Father James O’Brien. The book is titled, “A Jesuit Safari’” and all the proceeds of the sale go entirely to the Tulong Dunong Foundation, in order to support more TD scholars.
In my essay on Fr. OB, I wrote:
“I have always known that everything I have today comes from my Ateneo education. And I owe my education to one man, a Jesuit priest named Fr. James O’Brien
This man saw God’s infinite grace in all things, even in the small and simple things. This man believed in the pure and raw wisdom of children. And he sought them out, to listen to them, as he listened to God, in all things.
Fr. OB understood the wisdom and humility of being led by grace. I believe that he is still inviting us to speak, and to listen.”
I invite you to listen, to how God is working in your life, as He is indeed working in all of our lives and in all things.
Maraming salamat po at magandang umaga sa inyong lahat!