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With an ocean of garbage as his playground as a child, Efren Peñaflorida Jr. was accustomed to living amid the ills of society. The slum area in Cavite province where he grew up abounded with solvent-sniffing kids and tough gangsters. People sifted through dumpsites during the day and slept in the cemetery’s empty crypts at night.It was 1997. Peñaflorida, a gangling 16-year-old youngster back then, was occasionally bullied and beaten by street toughies. No one would have thought that, 12 years later, he would be short-listed by Cable News Network (CNN) as a candidate for its CNN Heroes. “I grew up really poor. My father was a driver and my mother was a laundrywoman. When I went to school, I experienced being mocked, bullied, discriminated against," said Peñaflorida, the second of three children. “I wanted to settle scores with the bullies. But I realized I could turn a bad experience into something positive." At the time, Peñaflorida was part of Club 8586, a youth group in Cavite. His mentor encouraged him to help curb the rampant gang wars and fraternity feuds in their communities, where kids as young as nine years were already involved in violent fights. ‘Pushcart classroom’ Despite having to cope with his own limited means, Peñaflorida formed the Dynamic Teen Company (DTC) with his two peers. The fledgling group ventured into work among destitute and out-of-school youth, teaching them basic literacy skills, values formation, and even personal hygiene. Armed only with plastic bags loaded with books and school supplies, Peñaflorida and his team roamed the shantytowns of Cavite, offering kids a unique chance to learn useful things in the “street classroom" setting. Years later, the platform for their mobile classroom would evolve into pedicabs, and eventually into what it is today – a Kariton Klassrum (literally, “pushcart classroom"). The Kariton Klassrum now carries a mini-library, reading aids, blackboards, and even detachable tables and chairs. Peñaflorida says that his commitment to teach basic literacy to kids is his way of “paying forward" – having been a scholar himself. His elementary and high school education was funded by World Vision Philippines, while his college education was shouldered by Club 8586. Not surprisingly, he took up a degree in Education. Now 28, Peñaflorida earns a living as a public school teacher in Cavite. On Saturdays, he continues his pushcart classrooms –which have expanded into Manila – with other teen volunteers now reaching 2,000. Aside from teaching literacy, the group also conducts feeding programs for abandoned street kids who scavenge for food by sifting through heaps of garbage. Who is a hero? When the world-renowned Cable News Network (CNN) early this year called for submissions for its annual search for Heroes, Club 8586 nominated Peñaflorida. The network’s Blue Ribbon Panel sifted through 9,000 nominees from over 100 countries, and soon narrowed down its choices to 28. On October 1 (October 2 in Manila), CNN announced its top 10 finalists for its Hero of the Year. Peñaflorida made the cut. The word “hero" has been used so loosely, that these days even someone who performs a singular, momentary selfless act like jumping into a river to save a child is quickly declared a hero. But the same public recognition is not so easily earned by a person who performs selfless acts quietly and doggedly from day to day. Nonetheless, Rezcel Fajardo has no doubt in her mind that Peñaflorida is indeed a hero. One of the co-founders of DTC, Fajardo says she knew from the start that her colleague would be included in the CNN shortlist. “He is a modern-day hero. He would use his meager salary to buy food for the kids. In fact, he had already pledged the prize money to the children he is helping, should he win," Fajardo said. But like a real hero who embodies humility, Peñaflorida refuses to take the credit for the honor given by CNN, much less brag about it. He says that his inclusion in the roster of 10 finalists is already an honor in itself. “This is not about me," he says. “If the people vote for me, they are actually voting for the poor kids DTC is teaching and the dedicated volunteers behind this work." ‘Rainbow after the rain’ Peñaflorida views his inclusion in CNN’s Top 10 as the proverbial “rainbow after the rain" to Filipinos. On October 2, the country was still reeling from the weeklong floods wrought by storm “Ondoy" when it braced itself anew to face typhoon “Pepeng’s" wrath. Like many other citizens who volunteered for Ondoy-related relief operations, Peñaflorida joined others in packing and distributing donations to flood-stricken communities in Cavite. True to his mission, his pushcarts turned into relief carts used to collect donated goods. Peñaflorida says that Anderson Cooper’s announcement of the Blue Ribbon Panel’s decision “gave Filipinos a breath of fresh air, a brief moment to cheer and celebrate, to be inspired all the more" to pursue volunteer work and rebuild our nation. The many heroes emerging from the Ondoy tragedy inspires Peñaflorida to devote more of himself to the disaster victims in his home province. “There are many people who rose to the occasion, but their stories remain untold. It’s an honor to represent a nation of heroes," Peñaflorida says. “Indeed, the Filipino is worth dying for," he adds, quoting the famous words of his personal hero, Ninoy Aquino. With Filipinos abuzz with Peñaflorida’s nomination, the young man recently visited the World Vision office one busy afternoon and was promptly hounded by media. He now confesses he is still unaccustomed to being thrust into the spotlight.
Peñaflorida recalls that he and other DTC volunteers had to endure taunts and rejection for many years, while carrying out their mission. “We’ve experienced being degraded and unwanted, so we just had to bow our heads low while they shouted, ‘Here are the basureros (trash collectors)!’" Despite the difficulties of bringing education closer to impoverished youth, Peñaflorida finds fulfillment not in awards and other forms of official recognition – not even in the flattery by politicians who have started courting him for their election plans – but in the smiles of the children who rush to meet him when they spot his humble pushcart. Peñaflorida’s success is not your ordinary rags-to-riches story. While he is no longer hounded by the pangs of hunger and destitution, he continues to offer himself to the underprivileged as an example of a kid who fell victim to violence driven by poverty and yet found a way to lift himself up. With heroes, the need to catalyze change always leads to endless possibilities. Even if the only possibility at first is to simply start pushing a pushcart. - GMANews.TV To vote for Efren Peñaflorida Jr. and view CNN’s Top 10 Heroes of 2009, click here..