MAGPET, Philippines - Bemel Grace Arnaiz, a 15-year-old girl from the conflict-stricken town Makilala on the southern Philippine island Mindanao, has been able to attend school for the last three years because of a sponsor from Japan.
In 2010, she was offered a scholarship by the Mindanao Children's Library Foundation, a nongovernmental organization, after its founder Tomo Matsui found out she belongs to a big, poor family that thrives only on farming.
"I was really surprised with the offer of a scholarship. Initially, I was scared, thinking it's a scam by human traffickers. But I learned later that they found about my situation because my older brother was already their scholar," Arnaiz, now a first year high school student in a public school, told Kyodo News in a recent interview. "Ever since, I've really been happy here in the foundation because I know I will be able to finish my studies."
Arnaiz, who used to sell vegetables to support her schooling and her family when she was in Grade 1 until Grade 4, said she has a simple ambition in life -- to finish college, possibly with a degree in education, and then work for the foundation "because I want to give back."
And already Arnaiz is beginning to reciprocate the support she received from the foundation by participating in their activities, whether inside their dormitory or outside in communities.
When the foundation has guests, she does not hesitate to emcee the program, join musical presentations and talk to the guests. She also tries her best in school to get good grades.
Earlier on the day of the interview, Arnaiz joined a storytelling activity of the foundation in the mountain village Amabel in Magpet town.
Storytelling was among Matsui's initial projects when he established the Library Fund for Asian Children in 2002, the predecessor of his present foundation.
"Storytelling is fun for children. Both storytellers and listeners enjoy the activity. It also helps them ease their emotional or mental burden, especially those who are caught in conflicts or trapped in poverty," Matsui said.
Together with more than 30 other foundation scholars, Arnaiz enthusiastically shared stories of the Manobo tribe and distributed used clothes.
She also took part in a skit that elicited laughter from both the young and adults in the audience.
"I believe storytelling has positive effects on all of us, especially on our audience. For example, one child who is suffering from loneliness can temporarily forget whatever problem he or she has. Even for just a moment, we can make him or her happy with stories from books," Arnaiz said.
The activity also enriches the vocabularies of the listeners.
Estelita Atan, 36, smiling as she watched the skit, told Kyodo News how she appreciated the activity, the first in their community.
She called it an alternative form of education for their children.
Atan said that because of the remoteness of their village from the school, some children opt not to enroll or attend classes anymore. Others dismiss outright the option of schooling due to poverty.
"I like this a lot. It's a good source of new knowledge. This is also good experience for our children," Atan said as she pointed to her three children listening intently to the storytellers.
Arnaiz views the activity as an opportunity for her and her fellow scholars to "share the love" they have received from their sponsors and the foundation.
Fellow scholar Nena Sumin, who belongs to the Manobo tribe from the neighboring town Arakan, continues to be awed by Matsui's care for disadvantaged kids in Mindanao when he really has no direct connection with them.
"I really admire him because he truly loves each one of us. He is helping a lot of people and has produced many college graduates without asking for something in return," the 18-year-old high school student said.
Sumin aspires to become a social worker with special focus on less fortunate children.
Matsui offered scholarship to Sumin starting in 2009 after finding out both her parents had died and she had been working as a domestic from a young age to continue her schooling.
The foundation is supporting 620 scholars from grade school to college, 120 of them are housed in its compound in Kidapawan, while the others, who are in high school or college, stay either in dormitories or at home.
The scholars include Muslims, Christians and tribal members who come from very poor families or are victims of war in Mindanao.
So far, the foundation has produced about 100 college graduates.
"We survive with the support of our benefactors, who either directly sponsor our scholars or give us donations in various forms. But right now it's quite hard to find additional sponsors from Japan, so we try to look in other countries too," said Matsui, who has learned to speak the Cebuano language.
He said almost 200 of the current 620 scholars have no individual sponsors.
And he also sees the need to build a new dormitory in the foundation's compound because of overcrowding, noting the present facility is ideally good only for 60 to 70 scholars.
Despite the challenges, Matsui finds no reason to stop supporting the disadvantaged children of Mindanao.
And he hopes his beneficiaries will join him in his mission so they can reach out to more children in need.
"I feel it's best to continue helping Mindanao. I discourage my scholars to go abroad once they finish their studies. By channeling their time and energy here, then, it means, there is brighter hope for the future," Matsui said.
Through storytelling, Arnaiz hopes the spirit of sharing she has learned from Matsui will eventually be passed on by children in the communities the group visits.
Her 20-year-old brother, Peter Paul, who has been a foundation scholar since 2007, said, "It gives me joy giving joy to less fortunate children because I am just like them."