7 provinces and a city: A street teacher's journey

Rhys Buccat, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 05 2016 06:01 PM | Updated as of Jul 05 2016 06:42 PM

MANILA - Many see summer as a time to relax and explore different tourist destinations. But for 27-year-old Kerneil Balaga, it is the best time to do “real work” on the streets.

Balaga, a special education graduate of Xavier University (Ateneo de Cagayan), used to be a formator for the National Training Service Program in the same school.

But last summer, after his one-year contract ended, Balaga decided to continue his passion for teaching street children.

When he was on his sophomore year in Xavier, Balaga brought used books to the dark nooks of Plaza Divisoria in Cagayan de Oro City where he held his first class. Starting with only three kids, his class eventually grew by word of mouth, further fueling his determination to help these kids who are “exposed to the hostility of the streets.”

From Plaza Divisoria, he decided to hold classes in various parts of Cagayan de Oro – Agora, Gaston Park, Cogon, and Carmen.

In July 2015, Balaga's life took a major turn when netizen Cath Libarnes-Bagayna took a photo of him after one of his classes in Plaza Divisoria. Bagayna wrote her observations in the caption and the post went viral.

(READ FULL STORY: Meet the young street teacher in this viral photo)

The journey

When his contract at Xavier University ended, Balaga decided to fly to Davao City to kick off his journey across the country. From Davao, he traveled to General Santos City, then to Cebu, Bohol, Ormoc and Tacloban.

While he enjoyed traveling and meeting new people, Balaga said his unfamiliarity with these places made it more difficult to find children who are interested to join his class.

He also felt homesick at times, since this is his first time to be separated from his family.

"Pinakamahirap, nami-miss ko ang family ko. ‘Di ko sila makikita, nami-miss ko sila. ‘Di kasi ako nasanay na malayo sa kanila," he said.

However, he did not allow this to discourage him. In fact, it even boosted his desire to go into smaller and far-flung communities to find the neediest kids.

“Doon ako mag-iikot at kung sino man ang makikita ko kahit isang bata lang – kinakamusta, kinakaibigan, at tinatanong ko kung gusto niyang magbasa, kung gusto niyang may matutunan,” he told ABS-CBN News.

With a few books in his worn-out backpack, Balaga holds storytelling and reading sessions, incorporating literacy with good values.

According to him, most children enjoy Bible stories, which are good “sources of inspiration” for their everyday lives.

Lost in the city

Balaga's hunger to share knowledge and spread good values pushed him to buy a one-way ticket to Metro Manila.

Last June 6, he arrived at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport with no idea of what awaits for him in the country's sprawling capital.

"Since Manila is the capital city of the Philippines, I decided to teach here. I also heard from the news that it has many underprivileged kids roaming around the city," he said.

Balaga visited poor communities in the slum areas to teach. He said it was sheer determination that guided him in this seemingly ambitious journey.

Through this journey, Balaga said he learned to be more nationalistic. Despite his sister’s offer to bring him to the United States where he could have a more lucrative career as a special education teacher, Balaga said he chose to stay in the country.

“Never kong iiwan ang Pilipinas dahil nandito talaga ang puso ko. Dito na talaga ‘yong gusto ko, ‘yong plano ng Diyos para sa akin na tumulong sa mga underprivileged kids,” he said.

Commitment for change

As another school year unfolds, some children will have the privilege of getting formal education, while many will be left in the streets to play with the harsh realities of life.

According to the 2013 Functional Literacy, Education and Mass Media Survey (FLEMMS) which covered around 36 million people aged 6 to 24 years, one in every 10 didn't attend school. The survey also showed that ARMM had the most out-of-school youth.

This is heart-breaking for people like Balaga, who believe that education is a basic human right and not a privilege.

“Nalulungkot ako na may mga naiiwang bata sa kalye dahil lahat ng bata dapat nakakapag-aral. Kasi doon nagsisimula ang kinabukasan nila," he said. "Para ma-improve o develop itong ating bansa, dapat talagang makapag-aral ang mga bata… sila ang foundation natin."

Despite the lack of funds and the risks he faces every day, Balaga said he will continue to journey on.

This, he believes, is his contribution to the much-awaited change his fellow Mindanaoan, President Rodrigo Duterte, has promised the nation.