A Safe Place to Grow

At Children's Garden in Manila, young lives reach for the light

Story and photos by Whitney Bauck

Sharon Gersava2Today's young people have sometimes been referred to as "Generation Me," and their use of social media to fill the world with endless updates about everything from their breakfast fare to the ever-popular "selfie" seems to justify the label. However, even amongst a demographic often chastised for their self-centeredness, pockets of young people are doing God's will in innovative, sacrificial, and redemptive ways.

In 2004, in the crowded capital of the Philippines, one such group was forming. A young Filipino pastor named "Buddy" Gallo, along with a handful of 20-somethings from his church, had begun hanging out every Thursday evening in an area called Antipolo, getting to know the teenage street boys who would show up on the curb after the police had vacated the area. The informal ministry was entirely funded out of the volunteers' own pockets. Regardless, the young volunteers loved what they were doing so much that the project quickly snowballed. One of the original volunteers, Sharon Gersava (pictured above), recalls, "We did it once a week, then twice a week, and then we were just kinda like, 'Okay, who's going there today? Who's going there tomorrow?'" For about two years, the young people continued to spend their evenings playing with the boys, feeding them, getting to know their stories, and building friendships with them.

Though the volunteers didn't yet know it, the seed for the ministry that would become Children's Garden had been planted. It was becoming clear that "we needed to do something more," says Gersava. As they prayed about their next step, the volunteers concluded that they needed to shelter their new friends. But as young people either still in college or having just entered the workforce, coming up with the money necessary for such an endeavor appeared impossible.

However, as the volunteers continued to pray faithfully, an answer popped up seemingly from nowhere when Pastor Gallo bumped into a woman who was willing to let the group use a property in Antipolo, free of charge. Before they knew it, the team was meeting with the board members of a waning organization called Children's Garden, which had served as an orphanage, feeding program, and preschool at different stages since its founding in 1955. After countless legal discussions, the new group decided to carry on the legacy of Children's Garden by adopting the name for their own endeavor. As a new board of directors was assembled and all the necessary permits renewed, "CG part II, the new beginning," as Gersava calls it, came into being in 2007.

DSC_8787In its current manifestation, Children's Garden provides residential care for former street boys aged 10-18. The program provides the Alternative Learning System (ALS), the Filipino equivalent of a GED, to help older boys who dropped out of school at an early age to earn their high school diplomas; younger boys are enrolled in regular public school. The boys can also enroll in TESDA, a technical/vocational education program instituted by the government, where they can learn practical skills like carpentry or welding to help render them employable in the future. CG's five full-time staff members also disciple the boys through informal mentoring, Bible studies, and worship. CG feeds into another program called After Care, which caters to young men who have passed through Children's Garden but are not yet living independently.

CG's ministries don't stop with the boys: The staff also runs numerous outreaches to the community throughout the week, including service to neighborhood squatters, Bible studies with prostituted women and in the nearby women's prison, and of course the Thursday evenings with the street kids of Antipolo that date back to the early days of the ministry. The boys accompany the staff to many of these street outreaches, where they are "very good at serving, because they're ministering to people who come from their same background," according to Gersava.

Now CG's administrative head, Gersava declares that "Whenever I talk about Children's Garden I always say, 'It's all God's thing, from day one.'" The staff's conviction that God "orchestrated everything" certainly doesn't stem from a lack of setbacks, however. Despite the early volunteers' full-time commitment to the ministry, they essentially worked for free.

"These were passionate people who knew this was their calling," explains Gersava. "You don't really earn money [working] here. They don't care. They just have the heart to help these people."

For the first year or two that volunteers lived fulltime at CG, their only tangible compensation came in the form of free room and board and enough money to cover toiletries. Even now, staff salaries are almost always late, and the administration is often uncertain about how it will provide for their needs.

But Gersava's attitude towards the perpetually tight budget remains doggedly optimistic. She describes one situation when CG had no food for the next meal and no money to buy any as "one of the highlights of working here."

"We gathered and were like, 'God, we don't have food anymore.' We had 20 boys and 10 staff. We were praying, 'Just provide for us. You called us to do this, and you will sustain us, we know that.' The moment right after that prayer, the phone rings. The man on the other end was asking where CG was—but we were very careful about giving out information, for safety reasons. We didn't give the man CG's location. But a few minutes later, a car parked at the garage, and he got out with bags of groceries, rice, and toiletries that would last us for several weeks. We still don't really know who he was."

Gersava notes that this is just one of the many incredible acts of provision that have helped sustain CG since the beginning. This strong sense of God's presence, as well as the undeniable impact of the ministry, is what keeps the staff going.

"To see lives transformed really warms our hearts," says Gersava. "These were delinquent boys, most of them. They were pickpocketing, using rugby [glue to get high] and other drugs; they even sold their bodies back in the street just to survive—all these messy, ugly things… But to see them now, living their lives with meaning by the grace of God—there's really hope, you know? They can dream. They're not perfect, they still have struggles, but to see God change them is awesome."

1francisAlthough constant funding issues would be a deterrent to many, Gersava refuses to stop dreaming about the future of CG. "I think God has told me not to worry anymore," she says, claiming that she's seen enough unexpected provision that she's "excited for how God will show himself, because he always does."

The staff's current hope is to be able to open a safe house for the women in prostitution that CG has begun to reach out to. She relates the story of 17- and 21-year-old sisters who never finished elementary school and are now in prostitution, a reality for many girls and young women due to lack of alternatives.

"They say to me, 'I know this is really wrong. But I don't have an option, I have to do this. I have a kid who has to go to school." Others end up selling themselves out of emotional desperation, as demonstrated by the tragic story of a 12-year-old who used to attend CG's Bible study. Gersava recalls, "She just longed for the love, you know? And she's like, 'These guys need me. I don't have to try for their attention; they want me.'"

"What we're praying for now is to have a drop-in center," Gersava continues. "And then people can come there, and we can talk to them, mentor them, counsel them, disciple them, tell them about Jesus. A place where they can be safe, a place where they can learn." She notes that such a safe house might serve as an intermediary step towards the ultimate founding of a girls' home, similar to what is in place for boys now.

Regardless of what possible expansions the ministry might make in the future, Gersava and the other staff members keep moving forward in the belief that "we must be blinded in our own physical eyes to see how God's going to work." The staff continue to be grateful for the ways they see God using them, and the testimonies of changed lives continue to propel them forward.

Gersava sums up the Children's Garden mindset simply, asking, "If you can do something now, why not do it?"

Learn more at ChildrensGarden.ph.

A missionary kid who grew up in the Philippines, Whitney Bauck is a photographer, writer, and recent grad from Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill.

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