Br. Dan Fenton, FSC
Why go to so much trouble for juvenile offenders?
It is a question that we are rarely asked directly. It might seem impolite. Those of us who work at Bahay Pag-asa Youth Center, however, are well aware that people do, in fact, ask themselves this question.
Perhaps, they give voice to it after we have left the room. “Why spend so much time, effort and resources on kids who have done bad things?” It is a fair question, and it requires a thoughtful response on our part.
It is worth noting that, in the world of Lasallian education, the rehabilitation of what we now call “children in conflict with the law” is nothing new. In 1705, the early De La Salle Brothers opened a school near St. Yon, France which included a boarding school, novitiate and a home for delinquent boys.
Much more recently (2002) and under the leadership of Brother Gus Boquer, FSC, a center for “children in conflict with the law” was opened in Barangay Granada, Bacolod City, adjacent to the ULSL Ecopark. Since that time, over 120 boys have resided at USLS Bahay Pag-asa Youth Center with 23 currently in residence.
So, back to the original question - why go to so much trouble? There are, in fact, good and practical reasons, however it’s best to understand what we do through the lens of the Gospel. Ask any parent why they go to so much trouble to help their troubled teenager and they will simply say, “He’s my son (or daughter).” No one really expects more of an explanation.
If, then, we really believe that we are all sons and daughters of God, then these delinquent kids are ours. We cannot simply abandon them to circumstances.
That’s how it works at Bahay Pag-asa - we are required to see our residents as our own family. Our commitment to them is not contingent upon our budget limitations. We will do whatever we can to see that they are safe, healthy and happy. We will devote ourselves to the realization of our dream (and theirs) that they become educated, moral, responsible and hopeful citizens. We will teach them the Gospel message by living it as best we can and entrusting it to them when they leave us to restart their lives outside our walls.
Lest you think that we, the staff at Bahay Pag-asa, have to constantly remind ourselves of this commitment, let me assure you that it comes as naturally as parental concern to those who have spent much time here.
If you did nothing but read case files, you might not want to set foot within our gates. However, our boys don’t want to be known by their offenses any more than I wish to be known by my worst thoughts, words, or actions. We all want to be understood and we hope that, when we fail at being the persons we are called to be, others will take into consideration our challenges and limitations.
Our boys, at Bahay Pag-asa, come from some of the poorest families on the island - we know because we visit their homes. Poverty, in and of itself, does not lead necessarily to crime, but poverty and hopelessness combined can send even the most good-natured youth into bad company. Add to that a childhood characterized by abuse and abandonment and toss in the influence of alcohol, drugs, gangs and syndicates and you have a fairly lethal mix that can turn kids into killers. The boys of Bahay Pag-asa do not make excuses for their past offenses, but they hope that you might understand how they found themselves in their current situations.
I would not want to burden you with a litany of the abuses suffered by the boys we take care of, but I will tell you that I find it difficult to believe, sometimes, that the things they have told me do, in fact, happen. Any doubts I may have had, however, fade in the light of reports from doctors and psychiatrists and confirmation from social workers and even family members of the boys. Some of these boys are lucky to be alive.
For those of us working at Bahay Pag-asa, our challenge is to tip the scale the other direction, by exercising patience and compassion, by educating and training for productive, healthy futures, and by offering ourselves as conduits for the saving power of the God who never stops seeking the lost.
During the days leading up to Christmas last year, the boys observed Simbang Gabi, rising each morning at 4:00 AM for a liturgy of the Word. Some of them were banking on the traditional belief that a wish is granted for those who complete the Novena.
I asked one of the boys here, “What are you wishing for?” He replied, “My wish is that you are my father.”
So that’s it - each of us here is called to be part of the family that is missing or perhaps that family that never was. This kind of work is not very efficient and it doesn’t generate income or publicity. It is unlikely to produce star athletes or grab prizes in national competitions. It is simply the good news of the Gospel reaching the farthest corners. As such, I think that it is, indeed, worth the trouble.