Recently I was talking to a group of forty young boys who had been taken out of filthy jails and sub-human conditions in the so-called youth detention centers of Metro Manila. 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. Jason, ten years old, jumped up, spread out his arms and began to spin around in a playful demonstration of ‘being free’. Everyone laughed and enjoyed the moment.
The boys between 9 and 16 are living happily in a beautiful home in the countryside and finding and experiencing their basic rights and joys that we, who have never suffered an injustice or been in conflict with the law or lost our freedom, take for granted and so hardly ever cherish and celebrate. You may never value it until it is taken away.
A large majority of the boys at the Preda Foundation’s New Dawn Home for Boys in conflict with the law are not convicted and not on trial. They 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.
It is the first time for them to experience such rights and respect and for them it is an amazing wonder. 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 under the bad influence of adults 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 a 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 – ‘You are free here at the Preda New Dawn Home for Boy to stay or leave. Know that you are of importance, value and are good in yourselves. Do not believe or think of yourselves as bad, criminal or useless young people. You are God’s children and the most important in God’s family. Jesus said so.’
Hearing and knowing this good news, each one, free of fear, reprimand and punishment, they can develop self-awareness, self-consciousness and begin to grow as persons. It is a vital part of being fully human and something they have hardly ever experienced. 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, so conditioned are these 9- to 16-year-old boys. 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.
Normally good children who are misunderstood and unloved and branded as bad will likely become what they are called. Adults and parents must be careful never to physically, verbally or emotionally abuse children. They will rebel and find ways to retaliate. They feel injustice like everyone else.
At times I challenge parents of troubled, unruly and drug-taking children by asking how it is that they were born innocent but have become like this. I ask them, ‘Why do your children take pain-killers? Who is causing the pain? How have you treated and spoken to them as they were growing up?’
Inevitably the parents will respond defensively. ‘It’s not us, he (she) never listens to us, has no discipline, never obeys, steals, takes drugs, seldom goes to school, is a computer games addict, does not come home and prefers to be with the street gangs.’
Some parents admit that they voluntarily turned their child over to the detention center, ‘To teach him/her a lesson’, they say. Punishment is no cure for troubled and hurt children. It hurts and alienates them all the more.
To parents like that I usually respond, ‘How is it then that your son is here at Preda for two months and has never run away, does not steal, does not take drugs, is never violent, is helpful, does his duties, attends classes daily and respects the staff and other boys? Perhaps there is a problem in the home? With you he is a wild rebel. Here he is a normal respectful boy. Who needs to change, you or him?’ And so the parents have to reflect on their family life and ask if there is a lack of loving parenting.
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.