MANILA -- Meet Jessie. He is one of the street children who lives in the dark nooks of Plaza Divisoria in Cagayan de Oro.
Yet despite this, Jessie happily celebrated his sixth birthday last January 8, thanks to his "kuya" who not only bought him the cake but also helped fuel his dreams -- as well as those of the other street kids in the Mindanao city
Kerneil Baranda Balaga not only acts as big brother for Jessie and his pals. More importantly, he is their teacher who has given them hope for a better future.
The 26-year-old Balaga, who graduated with a degree in special education at Xavier University (Ateneo de Cagayan), is a formator at the National Service Training Program but transforms into a street tutor after work.
He originally planned to become an electrical engineer, but financial problems stopped him from pursuing such an expensive course.
With more time on his hands, Balaga decided to study the Bible and attend mass regularly. This short break turned to be a life-changing experience. When he finally resumed his studies, he decided to shift course to become a teacher.
"I learned a lot from the Bible about helping the needy," he told ABS-CBN News in an interview.
Balaga was in his sophomore year when he started giving tutorial sessions in Plaza Divisoria.
Kuya's first student
Although he never thought of giving classes on the streets before, he said he has always been helping the less fortunate in his own little way.
"I gave snacks to some homeless elders and to some street children. I gave medicine to them when they got sick. I brought to the hospital an old man who got into an accident. I brought a homeless teenager to the hospital when his neck was swelling. I applied Betadine to the wounds of some street kids who had skin diseases," he recalled.
Balaga was already satisfied with such acts of charity until one day, he met a streetchild who asked him about life. That marked his first tutorial session. The lessons continued for several days, with other children joining his class.
Funding was never an issue for the young teacher. Balaga even used his personal allowance to purchase books and educational materials for the kids. He also tutored kids in their neighborhood for a humble fee -- mainly to cover his transportation costs.
When Balaga landed his first job, he continued teaching the kids, allotting one to two hours during weekdays to teach on the streets.
"I roamed around the city to look for street kids to teach them reading, math, and I added story telling too," he said.
The viral photo
Balaga's life -- and advocacy -- took a major turn when netizen Cath Libarnes-Bagayna took a photo of him after one of his classes in Plaza Divisoria last July. Bagayna uploaded the photo on Instagram and wrote her observations in the caption.
"I always see this guy teaching less fortunate children at Divisoria. I find it so striking, unfitting -- ridiculous even, that a lone boy in his baseball cap, clean shirt and decent jeans, to actually sit on the floor with dirty, sometimes, rowdy street children without having to worry about safety and health," she wrote.
"Rain or shine he is there, unmindful of the possibility that he might get sick. He reads them books like a big brother does -- teaching them A B Cs and colors too. I know it is rude to stare at other people's business but I did -- can't help it! Until one day I finally had the courage to ask him questions..."
The photo went viral, and the inspiring street teacher earned praise from netizens. At the time, Balaga refused to be interviewed by the media as he continued his routine.
However, Balaga took advantage of the viral photo by asking netizens to donate additional school supplies and first-aid kits. He needed Band-aids and Betadine to clean the wounds of his students, who spend all day in the city streets.
As expected, donations poured in instantly just like the "shares" and "likes" the viral photo received and Balaga got his much-needed educational materials and books.
More students, bigger classes
Balaga currently handles classes in five different areas of Cagayan de Oro: Agora on Mondays, Gaston Park on Tuesdays, Cogon on Wednesdays, Carmen on Thursdays, and Plaza Divisoria on Fridays.
Each class has seven to 10 students, whose ages range from 3 to 11. He teaches them reading, coloring, drawing lessons -- and more importantly, values.
According to Balaga, his students are very responsive and appreciative of his dedication.
Balaga said he never expected anything in return. Besides, what can a street child give him apart from a sweet smile and attention?
According to him, the best reward he has received was seeing his students learn new things after each lesson.
"They just say 'thank you, Kuya' after the tutorial. Some little kids also hug me," he said.
Even the parents of the children are also grateful for Balaga's selfless devotion and initiative. He has also inspired some students from his alma mater.
"There was this student who approached me and told me that I changed her view of street kids. Her view then was that street kids were bad," he recalled.
Balaga said he is inspired by the dedication of the children, who are very eager to learn even though the streets are "not conducive for learning." He aims to be a role model to these kids, as well as to his fellow educators.
"One street kid told me that she wanted to be a teacher just like me. Other kids wanted to go to school and study well," he said.
"I feel I’m becoming more human, more Filipino, and more Christian in helping those in need for free," he added.
That Friday, Jessie and his playmates were not only grateful for the sweet cake. They also thanked their "Kuya" for his gift of knowledge and hope.