He was once a boy with no dreams. As a child, Roberto “Ambet” Yangco slept on the streets, scavenged food, sniffed rugby, and was in conflict with the law. But the goodness of people he would later meet will change his life and the way he saw the world. And his service as a Peace Corps staff in the past two decades, helping at-risk Filipino youth, has been his way of giving back.
Ambet was recently given the prestigious John F. Kennedy Service Award at the US Institute of Peace in Washington D.C. To date, he is the first Filipino national to be given the recognition. Looking back at what he’s been through while standing on the podium to accept the honor last May, with his wife and two sons in the audience, he thought it all too unreal. “I would not have imagined this moment in my wildest dreams,” he told the audience.
The JFK Service Award is given every five years and commemorates the “vision, leadership, and commitment to public service” exemplified by the US President and Peace Corps founder the award was named after. Ultimately, the honor recognizes members of the Peace Corps network “who embody the spirit of service and help advance world peace and friendship.”
Throughout his stint in the Peace Corps, Ambet has trained, managed, and supervised almost 400 volunteers. He started out as a youth sector technical trainer and quickly moved up to become a regional program manager. He later served as sector manager for the group’s Community, Youth, and Family Program, and over the pandemic became associate director of programming and training.
The JFK award is an acknowledgment of the life-changing impact Yangco has left on volunteers and thousands of vulnerable youth. “His commitment to service has helped protect Filipino adolescents from homelessness, trafficking, violence and drugs, through education, work, and life skills development,” states an article on the Peace Corps website. “Many of his program participants have been inspired by his dedication and pursued careers in social work as a result.”
Life in the streets
Born in Olongapo City, Ambet is one of 13 children of Pampanga natives Rogelio and Julieta Yangco. Four of his older siblings died early so for most of his life he played the role of eldest brother to his younger siblings along with his Kuya Rod. Their parents were sidewalk vendors so Ambet and his Kuya practically lived on the streets of Olongapo.
As a boy of five, Ambet was already selling plastic bags in the public market. “Tina-target ko yung may kasamang Kano. Nangungulit ako, ‘Ate, buhatin ko na yang bitbit mo,’” recalls the Peace Corps associate director, smiling at the memory. “They would usually not trust me because I was small, I looked frail. But I would not stop bugging them until they gave me P5 or P10.” Apart from plastic bags, he also sold newspapers and collected junk. There was a time he was a parking attendant and a carwash boy.
Surviving on the streets also meant soaking up the life it offered. “I did petty crimes. Nagnanakaw ako ng pagkain at kung anu-ano,” Ambet tells ANCX. “My sport was gambling. I sniffed rugby. I drank alcohol. I was a child in conflict with the law. I was apprehended a number of times, though it didn’t reach a point where I got jailed.”
When his parents had to go back home to Pampanga with the younger Yangco children, Ambet and Rod were left on their own in Olongapo, tasked to eke out a living to support the rest of the family.
The brothers’ lives would, however, take a turn when they met a pretty twenty-something lady who they would later know as Grace del Rosario. Grace spotted them one evening while the brothers and their friend Zaldy were having dinner on a sidewalk. Rod and Zaldy, both in their teens then, offered the lady food. But Grace simply smiled and walked away.
Ambet didn’t appreciate the gesture from the two boys. He thought the girl might just bring them trouble. “Sabi ko, baka mamaya bumalik yan may kasamang malalaking lalaki mapaaway pa tayo,” he recalls his ten-year-old self talking.
True enough, Grace showed up again, and yes he brought two tall, muscular men with her. “Dalawang bagay lang ito,” the child Ambet thought to himself then, “humanda na kaming tumakbo o mapalaban.”
The suspicious kid was surprised to find del Rosario was an NGO worker and her escorts were volunteer catechists. The three invited Ambet, Rod and Zaldy to come to a shelter for street children called Bahay Silungan. There—the street kids were told—they could eat a proper meal, take a proper bath, and sleep on a decent bed. Also located in Olongapo City, the center was run by the nuns of Daughters of Charity who at that time was managing the St. Joseph Community Center Foundation. Curious, the boys showed up at the center the following day. “It was our first time to see beds and a shower,” Ambet recalls to ANCX.
The center would became the Yangco brothers’ home for a while until it was time to decide who between them would stay in Bahay Silungan—which could only accommodate one kid per family. Apart from being able to stay in the shelter, there was also a scholarship being offered. Since Rod had finished high school by then and Ambet had yet to finish Grade 5, the brothers decided Ambet will stay at Bahay Silungan. Meanwhile, Rod continued his work as market kargador to help provide for their younger siblings.
“[Kuya Rod] would give me allowance from time to time,” Ambet recalls. “He would go to the shelter if manpower was needed. He would always volunteer his service to the center because he was thankful that they took me under their wing.”
The Yangco brothers had an agreement they will work together to help the family. But this would change when Mount Pinatubo erupted in June 1991.
The Pinatubo eruption shook the entire nation but its impact in Pampanga was devastating. Inside Bahay Silungan, people got so busy preparing meals to feed the thousands affected by the calamity. “I was opening hundreds of cans of sardines and cooking sacks of rice,” Ambet recalls. His brother was usually the first to volunteer in such relief ops but the younger Yangco had not heard from Rod in days.
With Pampanga’s roads made impassable due to the heavy ashfall, Ambet was surprised to see his father appear one day at their shelter’s doorstep. Mang Rogelio said he walked all the way from Pampanga to Balay Silungan and was looking for Rod. Ambet told his father he had not seen his Kuya for days and thought he went home to Pampanga.
Worried, Ambet and Mang Rogelio spent hours and hours looking for Rod in the ash-covered city. Until they heard of an accident at the public market—a roof had fallen due to the weight of ashfall. Thinking Rod might be there, Ambet and his father made their way to a funeral parlor where they were confronted by dead bodies. One wore a shirt similar to Rod’s—a sports fest uniform.
Ambet refused to conclude so quickly that it was his brother’s—until a wallet was found containing Rod’s ID and some cash, money the latter set aside for his younger siblings’ school supplies that school year.
“Nung may evidence na that [Kuya Rod] was dead, that’s when I sat on the porch of the shelter,” recalls Ambet. “I was angry with him. I felt betrayed. We had an agreement that we will work together in helping our family.”
Ambet says his brother’s death was the darkest period in his life. “At that time, I was on the brink of losing hope. I was angry with God. I was questioning Him, ‘Why us?’” One person kept him company during that period of grief, someone Ambet refers to as Ate Timmy. “She did not say a single word. She just sat with me, and I felt that I wasn’t alone,” he says. “I think that [gesture] saved me.”
Finding his future
After Rod’s death, Ambet reunited with the rest of his family in Pampanga. He went back to school and during breaks he would visit Bahay Silungan to work on handicraft projects. He previously learned how to make candles and ceramics, and thought he was pretty good at both. Eventually, he learned how to make religious figurines out of Pinatubo ashfall or lahar. He was paid a peso for each figure he made. He worked from 6 in the morning to 9 in the evening making those figures, hell-bent on adding more pesos to his earnings.
The day after his graduation from high school, Ambet decided to leave home. A big argument with his father triggered a strong desire to carve out a better future for himself. He went to St. Joseph Community Center Foundation to ask if he could be given a scholarship. “My thinking was if they won’t give me a scholarship, then I will just work as their candle- and ceramics-maker so I could send myself to school,” recalls Ambet. “But Sr. Socorro Evidente said, ‘You can study, your payment will be your work here.’”
With all his exposure to community work, Ambet naturally became keen on taking up Social Work in college. But since there was no school in Olongapo City offering the course, he decided to take up Accountancy instead. A day before his enrollment at Columban College, however, an opportunity opened up at the Concordia College in Paco, Manila. Sr. Socorro told him the school, then already open to male students, had a Social Work program and the foundation could send him there as a scholar. Ambet didn’t have to think twice.
Unfortunately, however, the foundation ran out of funds, so to support his social work studies, Ambet offered his services to the institution. He took on a janitorial job at Concordia and pitched in where help was needed—whether it was at the printing office, or the library, or the convent.
On his senior year at Concordia, Ambet started joining activist groups which compromised his scholarship. On his last semester, he decided not to enroll. That’s when another angel came to his rescue—Concordia College’s guidance counselor, Weng Mozo. He was quite close to the lady because he was one of the school’s peer facilitators. “When Ms. Mozo found that I had not enrolled, yung buong sweldo niya naka-envelop pa, unopened, ibinigay niya sa akin,” says Ambet. “Sabi niya, ‘Go to the registrar, enroll now, pay for your tuition, and go to your classes.’”
Ambet was able to enroll that semester. He graduated in 1998.
The good in everyone
It was while working at ERDA (Educational Research and Development Assistance) Foundation as a social worker when the boy from Olongapo met John Borja, a Peace Corps member. Ambet would start out as a technical trainer in the organization and become a full-time staff in 2004.
“I’m happy to be in Peace Corps because I get to inspire volunteers,” says Ambet, now 45, looking back on the last two decades. He got the chance to meet some of these volunteers during his family’s recent trip to the US.
There are many difficulties and challenges in a social worker’s life, says this Filipino JFK awardee. This is especially true when the cases they are helping to resolve are made more complicated by delicate factors, like domestic or sexual abuse within a family. “That is why you need to have a very strong conviction to continue becoming a social worker,” adds the Peace Corps veteran.
Still, no matter the odds, Ambet says he loves the vocation because it reminds him of the goodness of man. “Ambet became possible because of many people who believed in second chances,” he says. “My wanting to always help other people came from the fact that I received so much goodness from so many people throughout my life.”
Photos courtesy of Ambet Yangco