(Metro Manila, Philippines) Being exposed to the reality and hardship of life at a young age is one of the most challenging problems one can go through in life, but imagine how harder and more painful it is to also witness your children experience the same misfortune.

Born and raised in Tondo, Manila, Johnny Avelino never thought that he would have to give up his studies when he was just on his 1st year in high school. However, after the death of his father, he knew at the age of 7 that his mom could not single-handedly save their family and he had to let go of his dream of becoming a policeman.

“Kung mag-aaral kami, dagdag pa kami sa gastusin kaya lahat kami natuto magtrabaho kahit bata pa,” Johnny explained.

His sister started off by sewing rags that she would later on sell. Meanwhile, he fetched water from a well. Their neighbors would pay him 5 pesos for his service. This later turned into construction projects where he was occasionally called for work. Through this set-up, their family managed to get by.

Years later, Johnny found himself still in the same disposition, still in the same job, only older, only with children on his shoulders.

At 47 years old, he and his wife have 7 children, 27 being the eldest and 4 the youngest, but not a child managed to finish college. One of them was Jake Avelino, 16 years old, who was profiled under the Department of Labor and Employment’s (DOLE) Project Angel Tree, which aims to improve the economic and social conditions of child laborers and their families.

Jake has been working for 4 years as a helper in Divisoria. He spent 4 years of his life carrying boxes of fish from trucks to stores. For 4 years, his journey of finishing studies was put on hold.

But Jake’s early exposure to labor is not completely caused by poverty. In fact, his parents were even supportive of his studies.

“Si Jake, natigil siya sa pag-aaral dahil sa barkada. Sabi ko, kung ‘yan ang gusto mo [magtrabaho], okay lang basta huwag malulong sa masamang bisyo,” Johnny said.

So, Jake followed his siblings’ footsteps. Everyday, he would earn 80 to 100 pesos, which he would contribute to their family’s expenses.

When asked if this is what he wanted for his son, Johnny was quick to explain that he never wanted any of his children to go down the same path that he took. Specifically for Jake, he was actually hopeful that he would become an engineer because of his potential in Mathematics.

Luckily, there was still hope – Alternative Learning System (ALS).

What started with shallow agreements among his friends became serious commitments. Now, the same friends who stopped along with him are back to schooling, too.

Admittedly, Jake became envious of his former batchmates. While they are already in their junior high school years, he is still yet to finish elementary. So, this time around, he is more dedicated to finish his studies.

With DOLE’s Project Angel Tree, Jake got the much-needed motivation and boost after receiving school supplies. Other sponsors also provided 10kg of rice per beneficiary which they can turn into a small rice business.

Aside from this, his parents and siblings are also all out in providing financial help in order to support Jake’s schooling.

“Tutulungan kita, susuportahan ka namin hanggang sa makakaya namin basta pilitin mo talagang makatapos ka,” Johnny said to his son.

This time, the father is more hopeful that his son will become the first degree-holder in the family and that Jake will finally prioritize his studies. For him, those years that were wasted are enough for Jake to realize what he had lost.

Indeed, it is easier to appreciate something once you realize that it can be taken away from you. It is often only then when one values what’s been lost. The same is true for Jake.

Now, he is thankful to DOLE and to his family for the continuous support which led him to a valuable realization – temporary comfort can never replace one’s hard-earned education – and this, he hopes, will transcend onto the next generations of Avelinos and stop the intergenerational curse.

END / Esteban Chua Jr.