MANILA— A young man from Cavite City near Manila in the Philippines has gone from scavenging for trash, to advocating children’s rights, making him one of three finalists for the International Children’s Peace Prize. The annual award recognizing remarkable contributions toward countering problems of children, is expected to be announced this week in The Hague.
Kesz’s radiant smile reaches children in bedraggled clothes who press in tightly to listen to him read a story about a mouse that goes to the moon in search of cheese. They sit around a table in this one-room daycare center in Barangay Muzon, an impoverished community along Manila Bay.
Kesz and some young volunteers give lessons on reading comprehension, children’s rights, personal hygiene and planting vegetables.
“I saw myself from the children," says Kesz. "When I going to the other cities, when I saw these children in the streets begging money, I saw myself from them before. So I motivate to help them.”
Since Kesz was two years old, he begged, stole and picked trash at the dumpsite where the family lived. He says he was abused at home and he later ran away.
One day, members of a Christian children’s advocacy group called Club 8586, found Kesz sleeping outside a convenience store. Efren Penaflorida recalls the four-year old covered in scabies woke up and immediately begged for money.
“But of course we don’t give money," says Penaflorida. "What we did, me and my mentor KB, KB is his guardian now, we invited him to attend the pushcart classroom. So we could give him food and teach him basic education.”
The pushcart classroom is an alternative-learning program for street kids; a sort of traveling mini-school that also provides meals and personal hygiene items.
Club 8586 founder Harnin “KB” Manalaysay sent Kesz back home with a pledge to pay for his schooling. Instead, he was again forced to scavenge. When Kesz was five, he was shoved onto a pile of burning tires by scavengers crowding around a garbage truck. Club 8586 paid for his burn treatment - but then his mother abandoned him.
“My mother said it’s better I’m in the hands of Club 8586 because I will take care," he says. "She said also… She said I am bad luck.”
Kesz’s luck changed under the guidance of Manalaysay and other mentors. The six year old became an honor student. By the time he turned seven, he made a pivotal birthday wish.
“I wish for myself is... the birthday gift that I received I also want to give them, like tsinelas, laroan, like candies,” says Kesz.
He says he wanted poor children to have what he got: flip-flops, toys and candies. This was the start of Kesz’s ambitious mission. The yearly birthday handouts soon included clothing, personal hygiene items and a simple message to kids not to lose hope because they too could turn their lives around.
As the program expanded, he and a core of youth volunteers began reaching thousands of impoverished Manila youths. Last spring, Championing Community Children branched out beyond the Philippines, reaching poor children in Indonesia.
His work ethic is impressive, says 22-year-old volunteer supervisor Klarence Baptista.
“Kesz is like a light that shines and inspires the people around him with his simple way of helping others,” says Baptista.
There are still reminders of his difficult past. After he was nominated for the Peace Prize, he began receiving extortion threats because of his new media attention - leading him to stay out of sight and only use his first name, “Kesz,” to protect his identity.