Elsie’s smile

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The first time I saw Elsie, Sister Celina was showing her an outgrown dress of my daughter’s, and telling her that it was going to be hers. Right there and then, I witnessed and was captivated by one of the most beautiful smiles I have ever seen. That was Elsie’s smile. It was hardly a smile that would qualify for a toothpaste commercial. All you could see were her gums and a few front teeth that have been eaten up and blackened by decay. But boy! was it beautiful!! It brightened up her entire face and shone with all the innocence that only children could muster. But it was more than that. Elsie’s smile that day radiated her joy and excitement at the thought that she was going to have another dress.

You see, Elsie just recently arrived at Casa Cittadini — Home for Girls. She only had one set of clothes that day she came in … the very ones on her back. She had to borrow from the other girls during her first few days at Casa. When Sister Celina was finally able to buy her one dress, she asked a question that was of utmost importance to her: did she still have to return that dress?

That day when Sister handed her my daughter’s old dress, Elsie’s smile showed her joy as she finally understood — that dress was going to be hers alone. Nobody was going to take it back. Today, Elsie continues to smile with that same contagious, joyous smile of hers. I would like to believe that it is a reflection of her inner joy and contentment. Having been taken in by the Ursuline Sisters at Casa Cittadini, she now lives a much better life.

Elsie’s life had not always been this good. At her tender age, Elsie already knows how it feels like to be abandoned by her own mother. Yes, tiny Elsie, who at age six looks no bigger than a four year old, has seen some of the worst that life has to offer. She still talks about her baby sister whom her father gave up for adoption due to poverty. And at that age, Elsie learned to cook rice by herself. Her case study reveals that their father often had to leave her and her brothers a week at a time because of his work. During these times, the children learned to survive on their own, sleep unaccompanied by an adult in a filthy shanty wearing the same unwashed clothes for days on end, and yes, cook rice when there was rice to be cooked.

But all that is behind her. Elsie now lives at Casa Cittadini along with 25 other girls under the care of Sister Celina and Sister Maria Fe. They all go to school and have a safe, secure, and loving home to return to each day where nutritious meals and clean, warm beds await.

Elsie is but one girl. But her life mirrors that of the 25 other girls whose life stories do not differ from Elsie’s. But fate brought them to Casa. Now they have a better shot at a future that is full of promise.

There are more institutions like Casa Cittadini that provide the same kind of service to disadvantaged children around Negros Oriental. Little Children of the Philippines, GWAVE, and GP Rehab are but a few of the non-governmental organizations that are actively working right now for these children’s welfare.

There was a time when these organizations worked individually and independent of each other and with little or no knowledge of the others’ existence. The idea to bring them together under an umbrella organization to maximize their effectiveness and to enable them to share their resources and expertise in their respective fields came up and thus, the Oriental Negros Children’s Advocacy Network (ONCAN) was formed. Under the Presidency of Baby Jambora of Chapel of the Doves, ONCAN is a fully functioning network made up of more than 30 member NGOs. It is actively working towards the advancement of its members’ capabilities and capacities with the end in view of maximizing their potential for the benefit of all the children under their care.

There are thousands more of little Elsies out there. And each of them is receiving the same kind of care and nurturing that Elsie of Casa Cittadini is getting. But the sad reality remains that there are probably hundreds of thousands more out there who have not been reached by the members of ONCAN yet. They have a daunting task ahead of them, but having seen their dedication and commitment, I am certain that they will get there.

If you wish to get involved, you may email me or visit the websites: http://www.oncan.org/CasaCittadini/CasaCittadini.htm.

(ONCAN is hiring a full-time psychologist to do counselling and evaluation of children who have been victimized, abused, or traumatized. Salary range is P10,000 to P30,000 depending on qualifications. If you are interested, please email me so I could give you more details. ONCAN will be accepting applications until August 5.)

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