Growing up in a poverty-stricken part of Cavite City, Efren’s life was full of struggles even at an early age. He lived near the city dump site, his parents (his dad a tricycle driver and his mom a vendor) worked hard to make ends meet. The young Efren knew back then that it was education which will be instrumental to alleviate their destitute status. Thus, he made sure to always do his best at school. However, Efren often encountered neighborhood kids who would hang out outside his school who either bullied him or enticed him to join gangs, some even resorting to the violent actof beating him up. When Efren was in fourth year high school at the Cavite National High School, the bullying reached a new low: the bullies started to throw rocks at them.
This experience eventually drove Efren and three of his high school classmates to form Dynamic Teen Company in 1997, which aims to divert kids from joining gangs and notorious fraternities and involving themselves in petty crimes. Through Dynamic Teen Company, the group came across Club 8586, Inc., a non-profit, non-sectarian and non-denominational organization helping the less fortunate in Cavite City. Club 8586 already had a good reputation at that time.
"It was here where I met my mentor who changed my perspective," Efren says, pointing out that the mentor prefers to remain nameless. "We joined in their volunteer work and jail outreach programs. Our eyes were opened to reality, how kids who aren’t properly guided grow up to be criminals rotting in jail cells or ending up at the cemetery."
Dynamic Teen Company started as a friendship club of around 20 members and their major platform at the time was to provide youth awareness projects, talent and self-development activities and community services. Now, the group, which now has 125 volunteers in Cavite City alone, holds different activities to address these issues.
In 1999, Dynamic Teen Company led by Efren began to reach out to slum kids by conducting outreach classes, bringing them plastic bags with food and goodies to lure them. Four years later, Club 8586’s office burned down and the group got the idea of utilizing the unused push carts from Club 8586. A volunteer, Michael Advincula, took charge of conceptualizing the design of the carts. Michael was a former Akyat Bahay gang member and Spaghetti gang member, stealing cable wires and selling them, before being taken in as a volunteer by Dynamic Teen Company.
"It was Michael who thought of the concept," Efren recalls. "He was the one who did the shelves, the built-in blackboard." They stocked the pushcarts with books, pens, tables and chairs and this gave birth to the "pushcart classroom," where they replicate a school setting every Saturday in the most unlikely places like the cemetery and the municipal trash dump.
This year, the pushcart classroom has a total of 350 enrollees in four sites, with kids with ages ranging from 2 to 14 learning the basics of counting, reading and writing. The group hopes to bring the "pushcart classroom" into the roads of Manila soon. However, their good deeds are constantly met with challenges.
Dynamic Teen Company"We came to a point where we almost gave up," Efren shares, adding that it was his mentor from Club 8586 who kept encouraging them. "He said,’Why would you be ashamed of doing something you know is right?’"
So Efren and his team pursued their cause more passionately. Efren’s determination was further cemented when he met Cris Valdez, a six-year-old orphan boy whose arms and back got badly burnt when he accidentally fell into burning tires during a scavenging hunt at the city dump site.
Now 10 years old and in Grade 4, Cris volunteers as a hygiene and first aid demonstrator. From January to November, Efren relates how Cris earns money, selling candies at his school, and saves the money to buy slippers for streetkids come Christmas time. Cris has even formed his own group, Aklat Para sa Lahat, with 15 kids of the same age. For this, he got recognized as well and was featured recently in Jessica Soho, Kapuso Mo, together with the Dynamic Teen Company. This certainly gave the group good publicity.
However, exposure and spreading awareness to their noble cause and not publicity were the two things in Efren’s mentor’s mind when he filmed the group’s "pushcart classroom" activities one Saturday and uploaded the video in youtube.com. Efren’s mentor believed that the Internet was a good way to let others know of their cause so they can reach out to even more kids in need. It didn’t take long for the video to catch attention worldwide. Eventually a staff member from Oprah’s Angel Network, a website inspired by respected daytime TV host Oprah Winfrey, found out about it. As a result, Efren’s story was featured on the site. In December 2008, someone from CNN got wind of Efren and his group’s efforts and got in touch with them, suggesting that they submit Efren’s story for CNN Hero of the Year.
Efren was reluctant at first because he believed that the good work that they they were doing was a team effort. Ultimately he was convinced to agree to be the organization’s representative since he is one of the founders. So in January 2009, the CNN staff flew in from New York to interview Efren personally and to shoot footages of their actitivities. The segment was shown worldwide in the first week of March the same year, giving Efren, who celebrates his birthday on March 5, a great birthday gift.
"We were very happy of course because it was a big step for us, especially because CNN is a network accessible worldwide," Efren says. The final 10 nominees for CNN Hero of the Year will be announced on October 1 and awarding ceremonies of the winner will be in November. Efren never expected something as big of a deal like this.
"The concept [of the pushcart classroom] is not entirely ours. There are many around the country whom I’m sure are doing the same. We don’t like to claim the idea is our own. The nomination is a representation not only for our organization but for the whole country as well and everyone else who are doing the same thing."
It looks like that Efren is doing a good job of representation. He has recently been featured in the Ako Mismo advocacy campaign with heavyweight personalities Ely Buendia, Angel Locsin and Charice Pempengco. Efren was also chosen as one of the Bayaning Pilipino given by the Gawad Geny Lopez annually to honor Filipino heroes for their unconditional sacrifices for the country and for the welfare of others.
Efren considers it a great honor to be regarded as a modern-day hero but believes that no one is too ordinary to be heroes.
"We should all start the change from within," he says. "All of us, we should open our minds and hearts to accommodate to the needs of the less fortunate and release the hero within. We are all capable of contributing to our community and to our country."
- ROCHELLE C. PANGILINAN