Brave Belinda

Thousands upon thousands of students are graduating this year. And it is customary for media outlets to churn out graduation stories that are really of interest in this country that puts so high a premium on education. We are sharing with you this moving story we just read in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Poor, brave Belinda tops Grade 6 class

Written by Tonette Orejas

City of San Fernando – The story of Belinda (not her real name) is a story of hope.

Her father died of a heart attack in 2000. Her mother was twice arrested for selling shabu (metamphetamine hydrochloride) and has been doing time at the Women’s Correctional Institute in Mandaluyong City since 2004.

Her eldest sister entered the same illegal drug trade and landed in the Pampanga provincial jail in 2006.

On March 26, Belinda, now 14, graduated salutatorian from a public elementary school here, earning two awards for academic excellence and a medal for “best in homework.”

She has been working as a maid in a neighbor’s house since she was 11, and with her wages not only put herself through school but also helped in the upkeep of two younger brothers.

“I think I was the happiest graduate,” she tearfully told the Inquirer in an interview on Monday.

Belinda’s determination to complete her primary education was known only to some of her friends and teachers. Her personal circumstances went unannounced during the graduation rites, to protect her and her family from stigma.

“She knows where she stands. She’s clear about her aim: To finish college, to rise out of poverty and give her family a decent life,” said Leoncio Vergara, the school principal.

No surrender

Other young people with a weaker will would have given up. Belinda did not.

The family was originally from Meycauayan, Bulacan. Her father moved his wife and eight children to this Pampanga capital, to a shanty by a riverbank near the Baluyut Bridge, hoping to do well in his small jewelry-making business.

Belinda was 6 years old then.

When her father died, her mother tried to keep the family afloat by selling native snacks in the neighborhood—until a woman named Vangie, who lived by the old railroad tracks, enticed her into selling shabu.

“I don’t blame my mother,” Belinda said. “She finished only first-year high school. We received no help from our relatives.”

People came to buy the stuff right in their home, said Belinda.

“It’s white, like alum,” she said of the substance that her mother had packed in plastic sachets.

Belinda said she and her siblings were constantly in fear: “We were very scared whenever we saw a policeman. We could not tell our mother to stop what she was doing because we knew she did it because of us.”

Before dark one day in February 2003, policemen raided the house.

Recalled Belinda: “I saw them coming. They had guns tucked in their waistbands. I wanted to shout to alert my mother, but I could only cry and rush to her side. She was repacking the shabu and two men were having a smoking session in our house.”

Uncertain survival

Instantly, everything became uncertain, Belinda said.

She said the raiders took even the siblings’ savings.

Belinda and a sister older by two years decided to spend the night with their mother in jail. But they were sleepless and were reduced to weeping, unsure of how to survive the coming days.

Eventually, Belinda dropped out of school and, along with a 20-year-old brother, went back to Bulacan to sell vegetables. (Another brother was unemployed.)

They returned to San Fernando when their mother was released from jail.

But barely a year later, her mother again took to selling shabu. Again she was arrested.

Belinda said she had seen her mother only once since the latter was sent to the Women’s Correctional Institute.

When their eldest sister was clapped in jail for the same offense, Belinda and two other elder sisters decided to seek employment as maids.

A neighbor took Belinda in, allowing her to study in between doing house chores.

She was the top student in her fifth-grade class.

Belinda’s monthly pay of P1,500 is spent on the school needs and meals of her two younger brothers. Her two sisters, who work as a nanny and a canteen helper, take care of the house rent and the utility bills.

A church organization in the village gives Belinda a monthly allowance of P500.

Heavy burden

Belinda said that on nights when she despaired over what had happened to her family, she turned to God: “I told God that perhaps He’s just letting us go through this trial. But I asked him, ’Why does it have to be us? Why is the burden too heavy?’”

Yet she continues to nurse plans for the future, including taking a hotel and restaurant management course after high school.

School officials are working to get her a scholarship from Mayor Oscar Rodriguez, who is amazed at her story of courage.

But Belinda’s plans are not for herself alone. “I will try to work for the release of my mother and sister from jail,” she said.

Asked if her classmates had been supportive, Belinda said: “It’s like they pitied me. As for myself, I was ashamed. There are so many different jobs. Why did my mother and sister have to sell shabu?”

Lesson in a soap

Belinda also found comfort in watching Mel Tiangco’s television show, “Magpakailanman,” every Friday night.

She said there was a lesson in that soap—“Habang may buhay, may pag-asa” (So long as there’s life, there’s hope)—and it rang true.

It also helped that under her school’s child-friendly policy, teachers were able to get information on the students’ family situations.

Belinda’s own situation was uncovered through that tracking system, said Vergara, the principal.

The school serves two villages in San Fernando’s slums.

In the school where 1,217 pupils enrolled in the last school year, the dropout rate is 3 percent. Only 71 percent completed the sixth grade.

Naturally, there’s pride in Belinda’s accomplishment.

“She’s young, yet eager to make it in life,” an elder sister said.

Go to inquirer.net to read original story.

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