By Dom Galeon
Images by Ali Vicoy
What started as a halfway home for women ended up becoming a home for young girls and boys who, for one reason or another, have found themselves in need of a bigger family—a family that could provide for them, give them quality education, form them, love them. That, in essence, is what House of Refuge is, and the thousands of kids who have found a home in this house all attest to that.
I had the chance to talk to some of them, three House of Refuge alumni who were part of the first batches of children this not-for-profit institution has taken in since it was founded in 1986. These three come from different backgrounds, but they had one thing in common: They were all in need.
PHILIP UY, MEMORIES FROM CUBAO
Philip Uy found his way to the House of Refuge when he was five years old. Philip was living on the streets of Cubao, he tells us. He didn’t have anything, save for his mother who was trying to survive by scavenging and begging on the streets. Philip was very young when his mother brought him to Manila after a failed marriage. It’s a rather familiar story. A woman who wanted to find a better life moves to the big city looking for opportunities. But no opportunity came her way, so she and Philip found themselves homeless.
Philip and his mother, however, lived separate lives. “She had her own life, and I had my own,” he recounts. His mother, trying to survive out there, barely had time to take care of him, so Philip grew up by himself. “As a street kid, I was filthy. I never had the chance to take a bath. But I was chubby,” Philip says, laughing. “I think it was all the germs that made me fat. Tabang hangin. My mom would find some leftover donuts and she would give these to me. I wasn’t really sad. I was a kid. I enjoyed being on the street. I found it fun, I loved how noisy it was because of all the cars and how it was bright and full of lights.”
But it wasn’t all bright and cheerful. Looking back, Philip admits that he had done things he wasn’t proud of. To stave off hunger, he had experienced sniffing rugby. To earn some money, he had worked as a go-between for patrons looking for some night-time fun. He didn’t know any better then, of course. To him, as a five-year-old living on his own on the streets, it was all just part of everyday survival.
Philip eventually found himself at a feeding center in Cubao. There he met a man named Arnold Cabalquinto, or Brother Arnold as Philip calls him, who asked him if he would want to live in a home. What drew Philip in, he admits, was the promise of food, that he would no longer go hungry. So he gladly accepted Brother Arnold’s offer. “To be honest, I wouldn’t have accepted the offer if there was no food,” he says, in his characteristic cheerfulness. Little did Philip know then that his hunger for food wasn’t the only one that his new home would satisfy.
When he got to House of Refuge, which was then located along Chico Street in Quezon City, Philip says he was afraid. It was different. Quiet. Gone was the noise from the busy street, the bright lights from business establishments that littered Cubao. But it didn’t take him long to be familiar with the four other kids who were already at House of Refuge then.
“I think they got there three days before I did. We were the first batch,” says Philip. Like him, these kids were found by people like Brother Arnold, wandering the streets of Monumento and Kamias.
About a year later, Philip’s mom found out about House of Refuge. She came to the house, demanding that Philip be given back to her. It was a rather emotional scene. Philip loved his mom but he didn’t want to leave House of Refuge. After it was explained to her that they would take care of Philip, giving him a home, sending him to a private school, as long as she didn’t have the means to do the same, Philip’s mother eventually accepted her son’s new life.
“I never hated my mother,” Philip explains. “None of it was her fault.”
Now, Philip has a family of his own, and he is building a career as a professional magician. But he hasn’t forgotten his mother, who now lives in Nueva Ecija with her sister. Philip regularly visits her there.
“I remember the day it was my time to leave House of Refuge,” he recounts. “I had turned 18, so the House couldn’t legally keep me anymore.” As he headed out the door, back to the streets but equipped with the knowledge and skills to build a life for himself, “tears were streaming down my face,” he adds, feeling that he lost a family. But House of Refuge helped him even afterward, putting him in touch with the company where he first got a job.
Philip says that he’s recently gotten in contact with Brother Arnold, whom he found on Facebook. Just last year, they had a reunion of sorts in Baguio. “He was one of those street kids around Cubao Araneta Center,” Brother Arnold tells me, recounting how he met Philip. “We have our street kids ministry every Saturday evening. Saturday morning they come to our house at Provident Village in Marikina to take a bath and lunch, we have Bible study after eating their lunch. Philip was one of those kids who listened well. He and another kid named Tisoy, a pastor now, used to visit our house. On Sunday some of those kids would come to attend church service.”
It was an honor and a privilege to have lived there. The House of Refuge became my inspiration, and it made me realize that there is hope for every child out there.
GERSON VILLACORTES, HOW HE LEARNED HE COULD BE AN ARTIST
Philip’s story is echoed in the lives of other children taken in by the House of Refuge. Among these is Gerson Villacortes, who came in about a year after Philip. Unlike Philip, however, Gerson wasn’t living on the streets prior to moving in to the House of Refuge.
“What I remember then, I was 16, and my family was having financial difficulties,” he explains. “My mother and father were separated, so raising four children was difficult. One day, I think we were in Cubao and my mom brought up the idea of having me and my younger sister moved to House of Refuge.”
Gerson’s mom was a volunteer in the church that was connected to House of Refuge. Gerson said he understood why it was necessary for his mom to send them away. But, unlike many of the kids in the House of Refuge, he was never really separated from his mom.
“She eventually worked as a volunteer for the House,” he says. “She was staying in the same home where my little sister was.”
Unlike similar institutions, House of Refuge had a program where they would send their kids into private schools. Gerson recalls how, despite their different background, they never really felt so different from the other kids in the school.
Aside from having time spent for their studies, living in the House of Refuge meant having a regimented and scheduled life. In the mornings, they would get up around 5 a.m., spend some quiet time in prayer, and then prepare for breakfast and school. “We only had two bathrooms then, so everyone had to wait in line for their turn,” Gerson explains.
After school, they would come back home and do their homework. Each kid was also assigned a particular chore—to do the dishes, the laundry, clean the rooms—which rotated daily or every week. Gerson recalls how their “house parent” at some point, an American named Brother Steve, had an eye out for the specific talents of each kid. Brother Steve saw that Gerson had a talent for visual arts, so he encouraged him to hone it, giving him time to practice and even mentoring him. This opportunity to develop his skill gave Gerson the foundations for his career now as a freelance photographer and graphic artist.
Naturally, when they were teenagers, Gerson admits that they also had a rebellious phase. He remembers how they went out late one night to hang out at SM Megamall. When they got home, their “house parent” scolded them for their lapse of judgment. Although strict, their “house parents” were never unreasonable, Gerson says. Kids who failed at a subject in school were never reprimanded. Instead, the “house parent” would talk to them and ask why they were having difficulties.
ALVIN CLAMOR, BEFORE HE BECAME A POLICEMAN
Another House of Refuge alumnus I had the chance to talk to is Alvin Clamor, who was batchmates with Gerson. “I was 13 years old when I came to House of Refuge. That was in 1990,” he recalls. “My mother was a volunteer there, helping prepare food for the children. On my first day, I was scared because there were lots of kids from different places.”
But, just like Philip and Gerson, Alvin eventually came to realize that House of Refuge was, indeed, a home. “What I consider to be the greatest thing that House of Refuge gave me was the opportunity to live with different types of people,” he says. “I learned to follow rules, to have self-discipline, and I learned how to build a relationship with God. And I was able to finish high school, thanks to the House of Refuge.” These are what, perhaps, helped Alvin to pursue a career in the police force, where he now serves as a police officer two at the NCRPO-Southern Police District.
Philip, Gerson, and Alvin realize how much the House of Refuge, and the people in this institution who have worked and who continue to work tirelessly to help children, changed their lives.
“It was an honor and a privilege to have lived there. The House of Refuge became my inspiration,” says Alvin. “And it made me realize that there is hope for every child out there.”
“The House of Refuge molded me into who I am today,” Gerson says. “Now, I have a kid of my own, two years old. I can’t help for her to be old enough for me to tell her about House of Refuge.”
Philip had already brought his kids to House of Refuge, showing them the institution that took care of him growing up. “I think I would be a completely different person if House of Refuge didn’t take me in, if Brother Arnold didn’t have that generosity to invite me,” Philip says. “The House was truly a blessing for all of us.”
Philip Uy now works as a professional magician for kids’ parties, puppet shows, and other events. You may reach him at (+639) 28 933 5792 or (+639) 05 257 6598. Gerson Villacortez is now a freelance photographer. You may reach him at (+639) 921 444 4583