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New Found Family in Meritxell

01 May

By: Bernice Sy, Abigail Yu, Elen Yuloque

For our group’s ethnographic activity, we decided to go to an area or activity done by sector-based cluster organizations (SBC) in the Ateneo. This is something that we were always meaning to do in college, but never got around doing it. We observed that a lot of Ateneans are involved in a lot of charitable organizations in the Ateneo campus. Our group was also interested in how Ateneans develop their passion to help through these SBC organizations. SBC organization includes Kythe, Habitat for Humanity, Tugon, SPEED and etc. Tugon is a non-profit organization that advocates the eradication of child sexual abuse and abandonment int he Philippines, aims to empower kids who have gone through abuse by creating activities and programs that can help in their growth and recovery. With the help of Tugon, we were able to go to Meritxell Children’s Home located in Marikina City, which has been taking care for sexually abused and abandoned children since 2008. The home housed around 9-10 toddlers (mostly ages 2-4 years old), but also housed some kids who are around 7-8 years old. We met our key informant and other Tugoners on a Tuesday morning at 8:30 AM, excited and ready to visit the children. For us, this was a new adventure and a first time experience; but for him, it was his normal Tuesday routine.

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When we arrived to the area, we were welcomed by a young girl who answered the door. At first she was a bit surprised as to why we were there. She asked us nicely, “sino po kayo?” Our key informant said that we were there for an area engagement with Tugon, and she immediately knew why we were there. She said, “Tugon? Okay, pahintay na lang kasi tulog pa ata mga bata”. Upon entering, the center looked pretty much like a regular home, with lots of illustrations on the walls and a mini playground at the yard. It was a colorful sight. When we got there, it was quiet and peaceful. We saw a few teenagers listening to music and watching TV and older women doing household chores. These young girls were around 15-20 years old and were actually also victims of abandonment or sexual abuse, but were not adopted soon enough. According to Philippine Law, children over 15 cannot be adopted, which is why they stayed and helped out in the center.

Once the kids were already awake, we had to wait for around 10-15 minutes for them to get ready. At first they seemed a little bit groggy but upon seeing us, they immediately became very energetic and playful. The kids and babies came running to us one by one with the biggest smiles on their faces. Most of them were very happy and eager to play with us, they were even the ones reaching out to us. However, there were also a few kids who seemed shy and preferred to stay inside their rooms. From here, we can already see how our presence alone already had an influence on the way the kids and babies acted, behaved, and felt. There were different reactions and responses from the kids and babies in the center.

The sounds we heard were mostly from the little kids (1-7 years old). They were always very happy, cheerful, cute, and huggable, that we became attached to some kids. They were laughing, screaming and asking us questions while we played with them. Some will ask us to carry them. Some kids ignored us, but some were so cute and huggable. Just like Baby Hershey who immediately went up to Abby and hugged her– She was too adorable! Baby Michael, on the other hand, wanted multiple people to carry him. At first he wanted Bernice to carry him, then he wanted Elen. He would walk a few times but then he would eventually go up to someone asking to be carried. Baby Lance was the youngest of the kids at 1 year old, and was the cutest but the shyest of them all. We would go up to him to try to make friends with him but he would just walk away. There was also one kid, which we found out from our key informant, that had mild autism, which was why his playing style was a bit more intense so we had to keep an eye on him.

The older kids (around 7-8 years old) were a bit harder to talk to at first but eventually also warmed up to us. We attempted to play with the kids first by high-fiving them and carrying them around, but eventually a 7-year-old approached us and we played “teacher-teacher”, where a she educated us on how to fold origami. She was really adorable and you could really see passion in her doing it. We played with the babies and kids until it was time to go. Honestly, it was difficult for us to leave these children who gave us so much happiness and fulfillment in such a short period of time that Bernice almost cried inside when doing so.

Our key informant and area coordinator was Kent Collado. While we were struggling with the kids and babies at the start of the event, Kent seemed very experienced and the kids knew him already. We noticed how Kent handled the kids and how it seemed very natural for him to interact with them. This is because he is frequent area goer from Tugon so he really knew how to entertain the kids. Before going in the venue, he explained to us the advocacy of Tugon. He also gave us the background of the babies and kids from Meritxell Children’s Home. Most importantly, he  reminded us of things that we must and must not do. He gave us tips on how to talk to the kids and how to handle babies. He told us that the babies and kids in Meritxell Children’s Home rarely get to go outside the center and that they only get to interact with the people inside the center such as their “Ates.” It is during events such as area engagements that they get to meet people from different age groups and backgrounds. What probably struck us the most was when Kent reminded us to stay away from the topic of family. According to him, the children in Meritxell Children’s Home were brought up without knowing what “moms” and “dads” are. According to him, these children do not have the same concept of family as we do. Thus, as first time area goers, we had to be careful with what we talk about and how we talk to them. When we were heading back to Ateneo, Kent also gave us a debriefing by asking us how we felt about the experience. He also answered some of our questions about the kids and babies. He explained to us the process of adopting the children in the center. It turns out that Meritxell Children’s Home is very strict when it comes to screening possible parents. They want to make sure that the kids are really going into a decent family. In order to ensure this, they conduct background checks and interview the parents beforehand.

Given that even in Ateneo, there are a number of sector-based organizations such as Tugon, Kythe, Speed, Habitat for Humanity and many others dedicated to doing charity work for many different types of people, it is safe to say that going to areas and supporting charitable organizations is common in the Philippines. This is also evident since whenever there are typhoons or other calamities, there are relief operations held in different areas. There are many different types of charities who have different advocacies that they are passionate about. People do this to give back with what they have, and this is especially apparent during Christmas season since people want to give back during the holidays. But sometimes, it can be doubted if people really give back and do charity work really for the benefit of others or just for the self.

Besides doing charity work, adoption and child abandonment is also very common in the Philippine context, where about 1.8 million children in the country have been “abandoned” or “neglected”, according to LA Times. The reason for this could be because of poverty. Orphanages in the Philippines are poorly staffed, and when children get older, the more difficult it is for them to get adopted. As already mentioned, some kids do not even know the concept of “parents.” This shows how despite the fact that many things have improved in the past, our country needs to dedicate more of their time in helping these abandoned kids find a better home.

Overall, going to the Meritxell Children’s Home was truly a memorable and fulfilling experience for the three of us. Generally, the people (group of girls who were watching TV and the girl who answered the door) were very welcoming of us in the home, while the kids’ responses varied from being shy to approach us to most of them being able to warm up to us by the end of our stay in the children’s home. Since it was our first time going to this specific charity house, we felt a little bit nervous at first. We were worried that the babies won’t warm up to us especially since they have never seen us before. Furthermore, the three of us are generally shy when it comes to meeting new people. Before interacting with them, we first observed their actions. At this point we were already feeling pretty excited to play with them because they were like little balls of sunshine and full of energy. While playing, chatting, and just interacting with the babies and kids, we can’t help but feel really happy inside. Seeing them laugh at our jokes or have fun with the games we played already placed a smile on our faces. Honestly, going to the area was very timely for us. We were all stressed that week because of all the academic and extracurricular activities but seeing how the babies were so carefree and full of positivity made us forget about our problems at least for two hours. Because of all the joy we felt while in the home, it was so hard for us to leave the center. We all felt like two hours definitely wasn’t enough because there’s so much more to do with them and talk about. At the end of the day, we all agree that going to the center was such an amazing experience and we most definitely will come back again if given the chance.

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  1. What insights were gained from participation compared to just observing?

Aside from just observing, the three of us had the opportunity to participate in the area engagement at Meritxell Children’s Home. Instead of just watching them and noting what they do, we were able to get information personally from them. We were able to exchange conversations with them, thus our understanding of them became deeper, more personal, and more accurate. Through participating in the event, we learned how happy they are with their lives. The kids there treated each other with love, care and respect. Elen remembered there was this little girl named Charise who had a lollipop. Charise wasn’t able to remove the wrapper because of her small fingers. Participating in the event allowed Elen to help Charise and witness something so simple yet so moving. Once Elen gave the lollipop to the Charise, she can see the excitement in the little girl’s eyes. But instead of tasting it immediately, Charise chose to let her younger sister try it first. What made the situation heartwarming was the fact that despite having just 1 small lollipop, she still chose to share it among her siblings. From this experience, we were able to realize that family doesn’t necessarily mean blood relation, it is treating one another with love. Another thing we realized from interacting with them is how contented they were with their lives. One would probably think that a child who doesn’t have his/her parents probably would feel incomplete or sad. But, talking to them and knowing their stories made us realize that they are very happy people. Simple things make them laugh and their outlook on life is very positive. We would not have known these if we didn’t engage conversations with them.

  1. What did having a key informant add to your understanding?

On our way to the area, Kent explained to us the advocacy of Tugon and why it exists. He told us about the Meritxell Children’s Home and what to expect when we were in the area. He also briefed us of what we had to do and what we cannot do while we were in the area. 

Kent also told us about the situation of children and how they are adopted. As a frequent area goer, Kent says that seeing the kids smile and playing was something that they really look forward to every week. But, some of these kids get adopted and area goers can no longer interact with them. He tells us that this is bittersweet for area goers, especially when they have to let go of their favorite kid. But knowing that the kid, now, has a better life and has something called a family makes area goers realize how important their visits are to the other kids who don’t have this opportunity. But, what struck us the most was when he said that most of the children are abandoned at a very young age and are unable to grasp the same concept of family as we do. Kent warned us not to touch on these sensitive topics and avoiding them would be better.

After the area visit, Kent gave us a debriefing. He asked us how we felt before during and after the activity; he also asked how we defined the experience and if we wanted to go back. Kent also explains to us the adoption process and how tedious it is, just to ensure that the kids goes to a good family who can provide him/her a better life. He also explains to us the adoption process and how tedious it is, just to ensure that the kids goes to a good family who can provide him/her a better life. But, these kids also don’t understand what adoption is. So, the staff will only tell other kids,”Aalis lang siya, may pupuntahan lang siya.” Without Kent, we won’t be to go to the Tugon area and be able to fully understand the internal factors. He helped us understand a lot of things that were behind the smiling faces of the kids.

  1. What was learned from participant observation at this event that a questionnaire or interview about it might miss?

According to dictionary.com, participant observation is a technique of field research, used in anthropology and sociology, by which an investigator (participant observer) studies the life of a group by sharing in its activities. Participating in the activity allowed us to put ourselves in the shoes of area goers, getting the first hand and full experience of the visit, So one gets a total feel of what it’s actually like to immerse oneself into it. We observe how the kids reacted towards us compared to frequent are goers and how we interacted with the kids. It creates a more natural environment for all parties involved, which allows all to act how we would normally act. We were able to take note of nonverbal expressions of everyone including ourselves. The experience would have been different, the kids won’t be running around, screaming and laughing. Kent and the other area goers were free to say and do whatever they want. If we conducted an interview, our questions might limit how he answered us. He can also grab a lot of input based on the surrounding. If we decided to have a questionnaire, we could have placed biased questions. We could also have interpreted their answers differently.

  1. For what purposes might a questionnaire or interview be better than participant observation?

As mentioned, participant observation is great because a person gets to have first-hand experience of the event. However, if people are pressed with time, or if the place or event is very far or not within the vicinity of the person, then it might be better to conduct interviews with those who have participated in the event for convenience.  Questionnaires/interviews might also be better if a study needed to be done requires more than just a couple of respondents in order for data collected to be consistent across the whole population.

For further explanation, DeWalt and DeWalt (2002) from qualitative-research.net claims that participant observation can be used as a way to increase validity of the study, since anthropologists are able to fully grasp the context of the study. Participant observation is geared towards getting qualitative data such as grasping people’s behavior, while making questionnaires and interviews are more for getting quantitative data, such as getting the demographic of the population. Furthermore, according to the same source, one must take into account the types of questions the study intends to answer, and the opportunities and time frame the research gives. Participant observation can also be regarded as the “beginning step in ethnographic studies” as the same source claims, since this can provide the researcher with a source of questions that will be made to create questionnaires for future respondents.

To summarize, choosing whether it is better to use participant observation or interviews as a data collection method ultimately depends on 1, the type of data needed to be gathered, 2, the feasibility the research entails, and 3, the overall status of a research study (whether or not the research just started or ended).

  1. Using our cafeteria observation exercise as reference, what insights did you gain about Philippine society and culture from the event that you observed and participated in?

With regards to Philippine society, we realized that there are a lot of different organization that are geared towards eradicating child abandonment and abuse. But, reports say these cases have actually increased and becoming more prevalent throughout the years. According to Inquirer, there was a total of 4,374 report cases to the Department of Social Welfare and Development(DSWD) on 2015. In 2016, there were already 2,147 reports of abuse during the first quarter of the year. Despite the efforts of NGOs and the government, these issues still exist and don’t seem to lessen. These may be because the root causes, such as poverty, of these issues are not yet fully resolved.

The government, mainly DSWD, continues to create programs to protect these kids. There are also a lot of NGOs that help people who are victimized. There are individuals who have the initiative to create organizations to house these abandoned children, and help in their own ways. But, further research suggested that the Philippine government actually hinders other children to get adopted and have a family that cares for them. Based on an article from the LA Times, a kid from Meritxell Children’s Home was supposed to be adopted but because DSWD needed “necessary” documents, they had a hard time to put her up for adoption.

When we also went to the area, it was evident that there were more girls than boys that lived in the home. We can infer that there are more girls that are abandoned or abused. This came very surprising to us that, even up to now, because the Philippines is the no.8 country to be a woman, according to Forbes. Women in society still experience more abuse and are more marginalized, despite the achievement of women in Philippine society.

We also realized that it felt fulfilling to go out our comfort zone and see the real situation of our society. We also think that as the youth, we don’t get a lot of opportunities to take part in these kinds of activities or exposed to these issues when we are younger. We only get a chance to be involved as college students.

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