Thursday, December 18, 2008

Of vegan cupcakes and teen prisoners

So yesterday a bunch of coworkers from my real job and I went to visit the kids at CRADLE, or Center for Restorative Activities, Development, and Learning Experiences at Camp Bagong Diwa in Bicutan. CRADLE sounds like a nice warm place you'd want to come home too, right? CRADLE is essentially a prison for teen criminals. I hesitate to use the word "criminals" -- they aren't rapists, or drug lords, or murderers. Actually, I didn't really get to ask them what they did to deserve living in CRADLE. I suppose they snatched purses and cellphones while sniffing glue... Perhaps the occasional Jets vs. Sharks rumble...

This was an official company social responsibility / employee volunteer visit. Ten of us sponsored a Christmas lunch for the 37 "children in conflict with the law". By children I reckon they're 14 to +20 years old. The usual diet of these kids are rice and vegetables, maybe the occasional fish. We (my company) sponsored adobo (definitely not vegan - pork and chicken stewed in soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, pepper, and bay leaf), juice, and fruits (apple and orange). ACE International, the NGO that asked us to join them, provided the rice. My baking company / I provided the vegan cupcakes, because what's a Christmas without cupcakes, right? And surely these kids don't get cupcakes in prison...

I didn't really grasp the reality of our visit until we saw prison buses that look a lot like this one parked outside. I pictured the movie Con Air and thanked God that my first visit to a prison was at a kids' prison (well, prison's prison right? It's harder for the kids I'm sure).

Seriously, they were so HAPPY that we visited. No one visits them, not even their family. They were completely normal people who just so happened to live in prison. Some of them helped us carry our things in. A bunch of them were setting up drums and an electric guitar (!! they get crap food everyday but they have an electric guitar?). There was a freaking karaoke machine in the room. How Filipino it is, right? You'll always see a karaoke machine anywhere and everywhere in the Philippines -- even in prison.

This little guy isn't a criminal unless you consider being cute and makulit / playful a crime. His name is Michael Jordan (typical Filipino name) and he's the kid of the prison cook. What kind of prison allows the cook to bring in his kid to hang with the "prisoners"?

Apparently it's illegal to take photos of the kids with their full faces seen (back heads or profile are okay). But they were so smitten that we brought cameras and wanted us to take their pictures. I told one of the administrators there that I'd either delete the pictures after or put black bars on their faces. So disclaimer, now they look like real criminals with the bars on their eyes but seriously, they were like younger brothers you never had.

All my coworkers stayed in the back hanging around during the actual meal. One of the boys (let's call him Boy from now on) asked me to sit with him and his friends and I thought it rude to say no. So while they had their adobo and cupcakes I had my baon of beans and togue or bean sprouts (I know, typical hippie food -- I've been eating a lot of sugar and I needed something healthy) . Of course Boy was curious about my food. I think my exact words were, "Hindi ako kumakain ng karne dahil ayokong may mamamatay para sa pagkain ko," which roughly translates to "I don't eat meat because I don't want anyone to die for my food." Well they immediately got it and didn't ask me anymore questions.

(getting lunch and praying before eating)

Boy looked like he was about 16 or 17 years old. He had a boyish smile and seemed pretty sincere. I had an interesting time conversing with Boy. He told me that they were all grateful for us to bring them food and spend time with them. He admits that no one really visits them regularly; he hails from Antipolo which is at the northern tip of Metro Manila and his family has pretty much forgotten about him (!). He's been in CRADLE for 3 years now, the longest among the boys. He misses normal life and his family. Life in CRADLE is mind-numbingly boring. They don't do anything because there's nothing to live for. Some of them have done their time but are stuck there because of bureaucratic red tape -- arghhh, typical government!

(boy band)
It's hard to see them as criminals because their crimes were founded on poverty. These guys were dirt poor, brought up in an overpopulated country that didn't care about them. Their parents were dirt poor and so were their parents' parents. I'm not trying to excuse their crimes, but how can you call them criminals when the only way they could feed themselves is by stealing? I know, stealing is wrong... But who's to blame for their dire circumstance? Poverty begets criminals, and 1/3 of the Philippines is poor.

While we were packing up to leave, Boy approaches me and asks if I could come visit on December 23. Aw man, my heart broke for him! I told him I wish I could, but I can't. I told him I'd get in touch with CRADLE's / ACE's administrators to see if we can visit again. He shrugged it off, but I'm sure he felt bad. He said it was his birthday on the 23rd (and no one visits). :(

Man, some Christmas they'll be having on the 25th, huh?


Me bringing 10 dozen mini cupcakes to CRADLE wouldn't have been possible without my dear Christmas elves. They loved piping the frosting and sprinkling the sprinkles on the cupcakes while I was busy frantically baking other goods for my clients. Fina, Honey, Emy, and Marivic, thanks so much!

I leave you with this photo of some of the CRADLE boys (with some of my coworkers). How deceivingly content they look, no?

One more thing -- we couldn't give these guys straws for their juice. Could be used as a stabbing device, you think? So they can have drums but not juice straws?

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