MANILA - Anna Centillas was 4 years old when she first met her mother.
Anna’s mom left for Metro Manila when she was still a baby, leaving her and her brother with their maternal grandmother in Bacolod, Negros Occidental until the latter died in 1995.
In the same year, her uncle brought her and her brother to finally be reunited with their mother. It turned out, their mother already had another family in Quezon City.
“Doon ako nilagay sa mama ko e may other family 'yung mama ko so hindi ko siya kilala personally at sa mukha. Bagong tao siya for me,” Anna said in an interview with ABS-CBN News.
It was during her stay with her biological mom that Anna experienced physical and sexual abuse.
"Lagi akong nakakatikim ng kurot sa mukha sa mama ko. Palo rin. One time, New Year noon, naiwan ako sa bahay then dumating 'yung stepfather ko. Pinipilit n'yang ipasok sa pants n'ya 'yung kamay ko at nahuli ng mama ko 'yun. Ako pa 'yung pinalo," she said.
One time, Anna came down with a fever. Since she had no place to sleep, she decided to rest underneath the dining table.
Rats then started biting her fingers.
Instead of taking care of her, she said her mother kicked her to rouse her from sleep.
After that incident, Anna, then 5, sought help from their barangay chairperson, who took her to Bantay Bata, a child welfare program that provided her temporary shelter.
After a few years in the program, several people came to Bantay Bata and offered to bring her to a new home in Alabang, Muntinlupa. She recalled that she was given a choice – which of the women in the SOS Village in Alabang would be her new mom.
“Pinapili ako kung sino 'yung gusto kong maging mama. Then si Leticia Antoy 'yung napili ko,” she said.
She was 10.
A HOUSE THAT BECOMES A HOME
Child welfare worker Hermann Gmeiner founded the first SOS Children’s Village in Austria in 1949. Its primary mission was to help children who endured suffering and were left orphaned after World War II.
Seventy years later, approximately 86,000 children call more than 570 SOS Children’s Villages around the world their home.
About 170 villages are in Asia and Oceania alone, according to the SOS Programmes Worldwide 2017 report.
Situated in the Philippines are 8 villages housing almost 1,000 children and young adults who are abandoned, neglected, or orphaned. According to the UN Children's Rights and Emergency Relief Organization, about 1.8 million children in the Philippines, or more than 1% of the entire population, are abandoned or neglected.
“Ang SOS, ang binubuo talaga is 'yung nawala sa bata, which is 'yung pamilya,” village director Raymond Rimando said.
The organization provides family-based care to the kids in their villages to prevent family breakdown, which leads to abandonment or neglect.
Fondly called "Tatay" (father) by more than 75 children in the village in Alabang, Rimando explained that while there are aunties and mothers in each home which houses some six to eight kids, the village director is THE only one whom they go to as their father to create a semblance of a family in their community.
Tatay Raymond shared that while he is the "haligi ng tahanan" (pillar of the home), his role in the village is to help the "mothers" when it comes to the children.
Like Mama Letty to Anna and her siblings, Adelina Canaleja is just one of the house mothers to the children in the village.
Nanay Adel explained it was not easy to become a parent to children who started with different backgrounds.
“Noong simula siyempre challenging kasi hindi ko sila talagang kilala nung dinala sila dito. Unti-unti mong madi-discover ang characteristics ng bata. Iba-iba rin kasi ang pinanggalingan nila, iba-iba ang ugali nila,” she said.
Hannah Quinto, the Alabang village's creatives and communications assistant, said the organization has zero tolerance for child abuse. In fact, children in the villages are disciplined through positive means as part of SOS Children’s Villages’ commitment to ensure the rights of children, especially those without parental care.
“Ang ginagawa ko po kukunin ko privileges. Bawal manood ng movie 'pag weekend o hindi lalabas para maglaro sa hapon,” Nanay Adel said when asked how she disciplines the children under her care.
"Bawal manakit," said Tatay Raymond, adding that if needed, they look for partner experts for children who might need for counselling.
While there is no manual for creating a family, the house parents and aunties in SOS Children's Villages have to undergo training on how to properly handle and discipline children, said Quinto.
House aunties should be single, and must undergo training and exposure with children before getting promoted to a house mother, a child-care professional who lives with the children in their respective home in the village. To become a “tatay” or village director, one must have the skills for management as he oversees the whole village.
Meanwhile, all the other employees in the villages are trained for child protection and safeguarding.
Villages in the Philippines are funded by the SOS Children’s Villages International. Donors, sponsors and governmental subsidies help fund the organization, with most of the revenues coming from Europe. SOS Children’s Villages in the Philippines aims to be fully sustainable by 2020 with the help of campaigns and fundraising activities.
FINDING A FAMILY
Anna was just one of the children Mama Letty took care of in the village.
After their first meeting, the house mother brought Anna to SOS Children's Village in Alabang. There were several homes inside the village with names such as “Love”, “Hope” and “Understanding.”
Anna was brought to one house with the name “Acceptance.” It was a name that fit the most important lesson Mama Letty taught the children.
“Magkadugo man o hindi, basta marunong ka dapat magmahal ng tao sa paligid mo,” Mama Letty told the children.
It was the beginning of Anna’s acceptance that she had finally found a real family of her own.
“Wala akong nakalakihang totoong nanay at totoong tatay so nung sinabi n'ya (Mama Letty) na puwede ko siyang maging mama, in-embrace ko yun. ‘Mama ko siya.’ May family pala ako. Puwede pala ako magka-family sa ibang tao,” she said.
She also got a new dad: Papa Noel who was then house "father" in the village.
"'Pag naguguluhan ako sa mga desisyon ko nung high school ako, kay papa ako lalapit or 'pag masama loob ko kay mama, sa kanya ako hihingi ng payo. Sa kanya ko natutunan kung paano makinig sa ibang tao, kung paano maging kalmado kahit sa anong sitwasyon. Siya 'yung nagturo sa akin na 'wag matakot magsabi kung ano man 'yung nararamdaman ko," she shared.
Anna said she never felt out of place despite living under the same roof with children of different ages. She told ABS-CBN News that she and the other children built ties they treasured even outside the village.
She never shied away from talking about her non-traditional family. Classmates and friends call her and her siblings "astig" (awesome).
“Ang astig daw kasi kaya naming maka-survive na hindi kami lumaki sa totoong pamilya namin, iba nagpalaki sa amin, nasa ganitong lugar kami. Ang strong daw,” she said.
“Lagi kong sinasagot na wala[ng family]. Meron lang akong mama. Never ko naman ikinahiya na laking SOS ako, never sumagi sa isip ko na dapat hindi i-share. Lagi kong sine-share sa ibang tao ‘yung story ng buhay ko not to the point na kaawaan nila ako. Gusto ko ma-inspire sila na may ganitong org na nag-e-exist, na nagke-cater sa mga bata para maging mabuting tao,” Anna said.
For her, SOS Children's Village was the only place where she felt free to dream and explore life.
“Naging masaya po ako dito. 'Yung feeling na 'yung kagustuhan ko lang dati nu'ng bata ako na magkaroon ako ng sarili kong family, maayos at masayang family, dito ko nakita at naramdaman sa SOS,” she said.
However, she admitted there were times when she longingly waited for her real family to visit her in the village. Her family was notified of her whereabouts prior to her transfer to the village, and was told of the possibility of their reconciliation in the future.
She also left her family a photo of her preschool moving-up ceremony, and the village's contact number and address in hopes that someone would come to visit.
“Meron kami dito sa SOS na Family Day. 'Yung totoong family mo puwedeng mag-visit dito. Palagi akong nasa gate nag-aabang ako na baka may dumating,” she recalled.
Anna waited for 10 years for her family to visit.
“[I was] hoping na sana dalawin ako nina kuya at tiyo ko. Kaso hindi naman po nangyari.”
She tried to reconnect with her family but found out that she was the only one who was estranged and rejected by family after she sought help from the barangay.
“Feeling nila masama ako sa kanila kasi mas mahal ko itong family kong ito kaysa sa kanila," she said.
She was also disowned by her older brother, who told her that they were not biologically connected.
“Pinipilit kong maging strong. Ayoko na weak ako kay Mama, gusto ko makita n'ya na strong ako,” Anna said.
Finding a loving home in the village did not quash Anna’s hopes of reconnecting with her biological family.
In 2018, as her 27th birthday gift to herself, she tried locating her maternal relatives who confirmed her older brother’s revelation about their ties. This summer, she plans to return to Bacolod to pay homage to her grandmother.
In 2011, inspired by her house mother and her experience in SOS Children’s Village, Anna took up an education course in the University of Perpetual Help System DALTA - Las Piñas.
She is the second graduate in the family.
Anna left SOS Children’s Village in April 2015, a few months shy of her 24th birthday. Despite this, she plans to eventually buy her own house where she will invite her house siblings to live with her.
Anna, now 27, is teaching preschool children mathematics, language, reading, and science at Our Lady of Pilar Montessori Center in Las Piñas. She resides in a dormitory near her workplace and visits her family in the village a few kilometers away whenever she can.
“Kung ano 'yung laging sermon ni Mama sa amin before kumain, 'yun din po sinasabi ko sa mga estudyante ko,” she said.
She added: "Masaya ako kasi dati ako lang ito. Ngayon ako na nagse-share ng kung anong sermon sa amin, ako na ang naggi-give back sa kanila.”
She also has a message for children who find themselves in shelters away from their own families.
"Sa mga batang katulad ko, may purpose kung bakit wala tayo sa sariling family natin ngayon. May reason si Lord. Gawin mong inspiration 'yung mga bagay na pinagdaanan mo para maiangat mo 'yung sarili mo."
"Sa una mahirap tanggapin na wala tayo sa family natin pero 'pag sinubukan mong yakapin 'yung realidad ng buhay na andito ka na sa village, lahat ng bagay gagaan."
Anna added, "Don't dwell on the past, but instead make it as your inspiration to make your life better."