December 13, 2010

A hero's story, one year after

(Artist's rendering of the Kalingain Batang Mahirap Learning Center in Cavite, of the Dynamic Teen Co.)

SINCE winning CNN’s Hero of the Year Award in 2009, Efren Peñaflorida of the Dynamic Teen Co. (DTC) has become probably one of the most recognizable faces in the country.

During former US Vice President Al Gore’s speech at the SMX Convention Center in June—which was quite a highbrow affair from where we were seated—I amusedly observed men and women, dressed to the nines, crowding around Efren and requesting for photos to be taken with him. He gamely posed with his fans, and gave them his shy smile, exuding humility and a generous spirit that endeared him to them even more.

According to Jan Chavez Arceo, one of his many supporters who knew him even before he received the CNN award, “Efren still takes public transportation” when he moves about. “We even have to insist to send a car to him so he can attend his many appointments.” She also notes he didn’t take a single centavo from the $125,000 award money given to him by CNN, not even to give some to his parents or buy his own house, as we Pinoys are wont to do. (Of course, thanks to the IRS, the award was reduced to $80,000.)

Efren, who spoke to the BusinessMirror during a press briefing by the Discovery Suites for its Christmas tree-lighting ceremony, said the money all went to an account in the name of DTC. It is the organization he cofounded with three other high-school classmates in 1997, which first started out implementing a feeding program for the children in the slum areas in Cavite, then graduating to its now-famous pushcart-literacy program.

Efren is the second child of Lucila, a vender, and Efren Sr., a tricycle driver. His older brother Edgardo is an overseas contract worker, while younger sister Glennis May also helps out in DTC. Efren Jr. was able to finish a college degree in computer technology from San Sebastian College, with the help of his mentor, KB Manalaysay, founder of Club 85-86, which also nurtured him in its own street literacy program. Thereafter, he finished an education course from Cavite University, received an honoris causa PhD in Pedagogy from the National Teacher’s College, and will hopefully complete his master’s degree in Economics Management (“’pag maluwag na ang oras”).

A portion of the prize money went into buying a 291-square-meter lot in Cavite, where DTC’s Kalingain Batang Mahirap Learning Center will rise. About 10 percent of the prize money was donated to the church, while the rest was used to set up a scholarship fund for the kids they cater to, who all want to go back to school.

Efren hopes that the center would be inaugurated by March 5, 2011, his 30th birthday. He cites generous sponsors like La Farge Cement, Boysen Paints, HCG bathroom fixtures and Mariwasa Tiles who’ve helped put up the two-story building, which is designed like a pushcart.

“There is a room for computers, a library, an activity room,” he excitedly explained. The center is basically a place where kids can hang out, as well as supplement their education as DTC plans after-school tutorials. “Hopefully, the kids will be encouraged to study, do research, do their activities there.” The entire building is estimated to cost P11 million. SGV & Co., meanwhile, has volunteered to do the group’s bookkeeping.

(Efren Peñaflorida, 2009 CNN Hero of the Year awardee, answers questions from media at a press luncheon, Dec. 2, 2010.)

Asked how his life changed after winning the CNN award, Efren said: “In the beginning, I know I had a calling to do this task. Right now, it’s a bigger responsibility, because I’m not just an individual, but I represent the whole DTC team.”

I asked him if it was much easier to court girls now since he’s been declared a “hero”, he chuckled and said, “’Di ko alam. Wala pa sa priorities ko.” He is focused, he stressed, on DTC’s projects. The young man took all the good-natured ribbing in stride, especially after I asked him about his rumored desire to court actress Angel Locsin.

I asked Efren if he’s so conscious now of his every movement that he can’t even smoke or drink, or go to parties, like most normal young men like to do. “Even before naman, I didn’t smoke and drink. I have no vices,” he said. But he excitedly told us how he rubbed elbows with celebrities like Jessica Alba, Renée Zellweger and Jon Bon Jovi after the CNN awards.

Rezcel Fajardo, DTC co-founder, intimates, though, that since Efren’s win, he has lost a lot of his private time. He is so well-known that people literally stop him in the streets and ask for a photo-op. “He also has to attend to so many engagements,” she says in Tagalog, and that it has become quite difficult now to even get him to attend simple get-togethers among friends. But Efren tries to keep his Saturdays and Sundays free, so he can still go about pushing a kariton filled with books and teaching the slum kids.

Since DTC started its street literacy program, Efren says 1,800 of the kids who used to crowd around their pushcarts have gone back to school. Some have even graduated and are now professionals.

Since winning the CNN award, he says, the team now gets more respect from the community and many now believe in their cause. “Dati sinisigawan kami ng mga tricycle drivers na sagabal kami sa daan,” Efren recalled with amusement.

However, this doesn’t mean it is much easier now for his group to convince parents to allow their children to join its projects. “A day with us can mean a day without extra income and food for these families,” Efren explained, as the children are also put to work by their parents. Still he is proud to say that many of their kids who finished college have returned to help out in accomplishing DTC’s mission.

While it’s true that donations initially poured in after he won the CNN award, Efren is almost embarrassed to admit that a number of pledges promised them never materialized. He says it was those pledges which emboldened the group to construct the learning center. “Pero ngayon ang hirap na balikan ’yung mga nag-pledge,” he said. I asked who these companies were, but he respectfully declined to identify them. Rezcel told me that one organizer in the US even ran away with the funds that were supposedly donations for their organization.

Apparently, after the CNN event, a group presented itself to put up a concert to raise more funds for DTC, but claimed losses from ticket sales. The organizer then tried to bill Efren for its concert expenses. “Saan ka naman nakakita ng beneficiary, siya pa ang magbabayad ng expenses ng organizer? Because of that issue with the organizer, Efren just left the US without the donations,” she sadly narrated. “Now there are donors from the US asking us if we received their funds, and we have to explain what happened.”

(Efren with Discovery Suites general manager Bobby Horrigan, and hotel owner Cynthia L. Tiu light up the hotel’s Christmas tree in the lobby.)

Efren says DTC’s funds from the CNN win are almost used up, so the group needs assistance in sustaining the learning center and professionalizing its operations. “We need to make sure that utilities are paid, and administrative and maintenance services are funded. Right now, everyone is [working] on a voluntary basis,” he said.

Mercifully, there are legitimate groups like Discovery Suites which have put their money where their mouths are. If guests book the hotel’s “Christmas Three” package—a three-day/two-night stay at a cost of only two nights, including a buffet breakfast for two in a Junior Suite—a portion of the room revenues will be donated to DTC.

“We were touched and inspired by the selflessness of Efren and the organization’s youthful volunteers,” says Discovery Suites general manager Bobby Horrigan. “Giving the children a chance for a better future by providing them basic education is a worthy and admirable cause. Real change will happen if you provide the essential tools to succeed.”

To augment the donation, the hotel will likewise allocate a portion of its December beverage revenues from 22 Prime, its steak restaurant, and Restaurant 5, its café, to DTC.

Asked his long-term vision for DTC, Efren says he wants its projects replicated nationwide. There are already a few areas like Naga, Cainta and Quezon City which have put up their own street literacy programs. Even Kenya and Nigeria have asked Efren for his help. But his ultimate aim is to keep encouraging more children to go back to school because, as he himself has experienced, a good education improves people’s lives.

Let’s help Efren achieve his dream.

* * * *

For inquiries on the Christmas Three project, call Discovery Suites at 719-8888 or e-mail Donations to the Dynamic Teen Co. will also be accepted at the hotel for the duration of the promo.

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the BusinessMirror. This piece was originally published on Dec. 10, 2010.)

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