MAGPET, PHILIPPINES – Bemel Grace Arnaiz, a 15-year-old girl from the conflict-torn town of Makilala on the Philippine island of Mindanao, has been able to attend school for the last three years because of a sponsor from Japan.
In 2010, she was offered a scholarship by the Mindanao Children’s Library Foundation, a nongovernmental organization, after its founder, Tomo Matsui, found out she belongs to a big, poor family that gets by only on farming.
“I was really surprised with the offer of a scholarship. Initially, I was scared, thinking it’s a scam by human-traffickers. But I learned later that they found (out) about my situation because my older brother was already (a beneficiary of the foundation),” said Arnaiz, who is now in her first year of high school in a public school. “Ever since, I’ve really been happy here in the foundation because I know I will be able to finish my studies.”
Arnaiz, who when she was in elementary school sold vegetables to support her schooling and her family, said she has a simple ambition in life — to finish college, possibly with a degree in education, and then work for the foundation, “because I want to give back.”
Arnaiz has already started to reciprocate the support she received from the foundation by participating in its activities, whether in the dormitory or outside in the general community.
When the foundation has guests, she doesn’t hesitate to emcee the program, join musical presentations and talk to the visitors. She also tries her best in school to get good grades.
On a recent day, Arnaiz joined a storytelling activity sponsored by the foundation in the Amabel mountain village in Magpet town.
Storytelling was among Matsui’s initial projects when he established the Library Fund for Asian Children in 2002, the predecessor of the present foundation.
“Storytelling is fun for children. Both storytellers and listeners enjoy the activity. It also helps them ease their emotional or mental burden, especially those who are caught in conflicts or trapped in poverty,” Matsui said.
Together with more than 30 other beneficiaries of foundation scholarships, Arnaiz enthusiastically shared stories of the Manobo tribe and distributed used clothes.
She also took part in a skit that elicited laughter from both the young and adults in the audience.
“I believe storytelling has positive effects on all of us, especially on our audience. For example, one child who is suffering from loneliness can temporarily forget whatever problem he or she has. Even for just a moment, we can make him or her happy with stories from books,” Arnaiz said.
The activity also enriches the vocabularies of the listeners.
Estelita Atan, 36, smiling as she watched the skit, talked about how she appreciated the activity, the first in their community.
She called it an alternative form of education for the children.
Atan said that because of the remoteness of their village from the nearest school, some children opt not to enroll or attend classes anymore. Others dismiss outright the option of schooling due to poverty.
“I like this a lot. It’s a good source of new knowledge. This is also good experience for our children,” Atan said as she pointed to her three children listening intently to the storytellers.
Arnaiz views the activity as an opportunity for her and her fellow students to “share the love” they have received from their sponsors and the foundation.
Scholarship winner Nena Sumin, who belongs to the Manobo tribe from the neighboring town of Arakan, continues to be awed by Matsui’s care for disadvantaged kids in Mindanao when he really has no direct connection with them.
“I really admire him because he truly loves each one of us. He is helping a lot of people and has produced many college graduates without asking for something in return,” the 18-year-old high school student said.
Sumin aspires to become a social worker with special focus on less-fortunate children.
Matsui offered a scholarship to Sumin starting in 2009 after finding out both her parents had died and she had been working as a domestic helper from a young age to continue her schooling.
The foundation is supporting 620 students from grade school to college, with 120 of them housed in its compound in Kidapawan, while the others, who are in high school or college, stay either in dormitories or at home.
The scholarship winners include Muslims, Christians and tribal members who come from very poor families or are victims of fighting in Mindanao.
So far, the foundation has produced about 100 college graduates.
“We survive with the support of our benefactors, who either directly sponsor our scholars or give us donations in various forms. But right now it’s quite hard to find additional sponsors from Japan, so we try to look in other countries, too,” said Matsui, who has learned to speak the Cebuano language.
He said almost 200 of the current 620 scholarship holders have no individual sponsors.
He also sees the need to build a new dormitory in the foundation’s compound because of overcrowding, noting the present facility would ideally house only 60 to 70 students.
Despite the challenges, Matsui finds no reason to stop supporting the disadvantaged children of Mindanao.
And he hopes his beneficiaries will join him in his mission so they can reach out to more children in need.
“I feel it’s best to continue helping Mindanao. I discourage my scholars to go abroad once they finish their studies,” he said. “By channeling their time and energy here, it means there is brighter hope for the future.”
Through storytelling, Arnaiz hopes the spirit of sharing she has learned from Matsui will eventually be passed on by children in the communities the group visits.
Her 20-year-old brother, Peter Paul, who has had a scholarship from the foundation since 2007, said, “It gives me joy giving joy to less-fortunate children because I am just like them.”