“With a heavy heart, we've decided to close the physical center of AHA Learning Center in Makati after 11 years due to financial constraints,” wrote Jaton Zulueta recently on his Facebook wall. “Just the physical center will be closed, AHA will still continue.”
Jaton is the 35-year old founder of AHA! Learning Center—a non-profit organization that offers a free after-school program to public school kids. If kids are having trouble keeping up with the lessons in real school, AHA! offers supplementary assistance.
Jaton was only 25 when he built the school. In an interview with ANCX, the Ten Outstanding Young Men (TOYM) awardee says the closure was painful because it is the same center that saw the birth and growth of the AHA! program over the last 11 years.
Jaton became a volunteer educator at a young age. It opened his eyes to the learning inequities in his immediate community in Makati. “I thought there needed to be more sustainable ways for continued learning and that we needed a safe space where children can go in if they needed help.”
That’s why he thought of putting up AHA! which stands for Angels Here Abound.
The Ateneo alum says that while he doesn’t come from a poor family, he knew the feeling of being incapable and inadequate. “Hindi kasi ako exceptional sa school,” he tells this writer. “Kaya naiintidihan ko yung feeling pagnasasabihan ka ng ibang tao na di mo kaya.”
So when he started AHA, one of the things he sought to provide the children—aside from lessons on Math, English and Values Education—is the capacity to believe in themselves. “I tell the kids, ‘kung walang naniniwala sa yo, ako ang unang maniniwala. Wag mong pakinggan ang iba na nagsasabing di mo kaya,’” he recalls.
Since 2009, the center has served over 19,000 students in the country, providing 6 to 8 after-school learning hours per week (200-300 hours a year). Before the pandemic, the school had been planning to expand their program in order to reach out to more underprivileged Filipino students. In March of this year, in fact, they were supposed to open four community centers until COVID-19 derailed the plans.
Jaton is usually all smiles in his interviews, wearing this kindhearted aura that most likely endears him to children and parents alike. While on this video interview though, the closure of the school seems to still weigh him down. He seems bothered; an English major struggling to express his thoughts.
He continues, however, and we move on to the subject of how AHA! was able to make the necessary pivot. Firmly believing that helping the children should continue no matter what, the AHA team quickly shifted to text-based learning programs, via Facebook messenger, which they called Eskuwelang Pamilya. The program encourages the participation not only of the students but of their respective families.
The transition was quite challenging, Jaton admits, but the kids have been responding very well to the lessons. “Dapat tumatagos ang lesson,” he notes. “It has to read like a love letter than a text because the medium is impersonal, and these are children.”
Aside from text-based lessons, the AHA team also holds an Eskwelang Pamilya LIVE from Monday to Friday 11:20 AM-12:00 PM at DZRJ 810 AM Radyo Bandido and at Sky Cable TV Plus Channel 224. Tito J—that’s how the kids call Jaton—and his team also posts learning videos on AHA!’s Facebook page.
The efforts have not stopped despite the pandemic. “We started reaching out to the students that we were taking care of, created 400 micro lessons, partnered with and trained 50,000 teachers in 16 school divisions,” he says.
And because of the hard work of their hundreds of volunteers, the program’s impact has multiplied. “This year seems to be about letting go of old dreams and learning new ones,” he said on his Facebook post, pertaining to the course their program needed to take in order to adapt to the new normal.
In the same post, he got a little sentimental. “I realized today that the center's biggest success story is me,” he said, recalling how he started doing volunteer work at 19. He also thought of his son Turo who, unlike his dad, wouldn’t be able to enjoy that same physical space in Makati now that it’s been closed down.
“Dun ako lumaki at natutong magmahal, mangarap at maging tao. Dun ko nakita na magaling talaga ang estyudanteng Pilipino, nangangailangan lang sila ng pagkakataon. Nalulungkot lang ako kasi lagi kong naisip na si Turo dun din lalaki—akala ko dun siya maglalaro, magbabasa, makakilala ng mga taong tumulong magpalaki sa akin.”
He wrote that a change in perspective might be the lesson the moment is teaching him. “Siguro mahalaga din niya matutunan (at mahalaga ko din matutunan) na hindi mahalaga kung anong meron ka, mahalaga kung paano mo mapapakita ang pagmamahal sa ibang tao.”
Jaton may have to close down the physical AHA! center, but the “home” their children beneficiaries had come to know for the past 11 years still exists in his heart and the hearts of the AHA teachers. “Ang 9708C ay lugar lamang,” he wrote in the Facebook message addressing the students. “Ang nagpasaya, nagpabuhay ng lugar na ito ay tao. Kaming mga guro ninyo ay nandito pa din.”