“Alex!!!!” I ran and hugged him. As I held him, he fought back tears. This was the third time our paths crossed.
I first met Alex when he was seven years old. He grew up at Bethlehem House of Bread Orphanage in Bulacan, Philippines. It was sadly, the only home he knew. He knew he had a mother, but he never knew her. He only knew her name.
He had a big head and tiny frame. Where Alex went, he was the loud one, always dancing, singing, and of course, trying desperately to get “Ate” (Big Sister) Maya’s attention. I originally thought that Alex was annoying until I stopped myself. I got mad at myself and thought, “What’s wrong with you, Maya?!? He just wants to win you over.”
And Alex did win me over, by being his perfect self. He was the squeaky wheel. But I now consider him a superstar.
He spoke English “like a boss.” He was bold, fearless. Other kids typically huddled in groups, were shy, covered their mouths when they laughed, but Alex would run over, hold my hand and give me the biggest smile and flash his sparkling eyes at me. He was also so smart. I was hopeful he’d become “somebody” some day.
I could also tell his life wasn’t easy and the kids would be mean, but he took it like a champ.
Two years later, I returned to Bethlehem looking for the Alex I missed, but the boy I found was quiet and withdrawn. When I tried to take a picture, he wouldn’t smile. Maybe he didn’t remember me. Maybe Alex had grown up. In the days after, I found it strange I never saw him at Bethlehem again.
Late one Friday night, I was out at the market to buy 100 slippers for kids in Norzagaray.
As I walked home, there he was!
“Did you eat?” I shook him, “Alex, kainan?”
He looked down and shook his head.
“What do you want to eat? Alex!” He whispered, “Burger.”
I led him by the hand. He ordered a double burger with cheese and egg and I gave him an orange. Finally, he opened up.
His foster “mother” sold coffee. Instead of staying with her, he preferred to be alone. I saw a child punishing himself.
After a few bites, he carefully tucked away his burger and orange into his pocket. I looked down. His slippers were worn and too big. I bought him slippers. Realizing it was late, I asked, “Where’s your mother?”
We walked passed slaughtered cows which hung like laundry. Stray cats feasted on guts and rotten vegetables. Karaoke machines blasted. Alex was numb to it all. He never let go of my hand.
Alex’s shack was right across the street outside Bethlehem. It must’ve felt terrible seeing it every day. Behind a flimsy board, he showed me the 8×8 floor he slept on with six others.
I told Alex to come to Bethlehem tomorrow. I wanted terribly to bring him back. I hugged and kissed him and told him to sleep.
Closing the heavy gate of the orphanage behind me, I heard “Ate Maya!” and ran to peek. He whispered, “Thank you.” I said “Go to sleep! Go home! I love you.” He responded, “I love you too.” He turned around and walked home.
I uncovered that Alex was transferred to a foster family for breaking rules, fighting, pulling girls’ hair, and rejecting authority. He became jealous of children who had families for Christmas. When he was younger, he often dressed up like a girl. Children called him “bakla” (“gay” in Tagalog). I also found out he’d been molested.
His behavior suddenly made sense. I remember being bullied by others and turning around to lash out at my mom. But Alex suffered worse. He was alone and even orphanages rejected him. He had nothing to soothe his pain and no one to show him he mattered. Before I left, I begged Leila to find him an orphanage to welcome him back.
When I visited San Martin Orphanage last Christmas, I didn’t know what to expect. My fear was that Alex would have forgotten me. When I got out of the car, I screamed “ALEX!” I told him how much I missed him. I asked, “Who am I?” He whispered, “Ate Maya.” I hugged him tighter.
Fr. Boyet allowed Alex to come with us to Manila. In the car, I kept my arm around him while he gazed outside. Alex felt special. It was a luxury to be out and see “normal” life.
When we arrived, he stuck close. Tondo is a living hell, a garbage dump where people scurry like rats to survive. I was a foreigner, and Alex never let go of my hand. He was fearless and acted like my bodyguard.
At lunch, Alex sat patiently and never asked or grabbed. I offered him a hamburger, and just like that night in the market, he took only one bite and wrapped it up.
By the time we got back, it was dark. Alex picked up a puppy and Fr. Boyet fetched dinner. That Christmas, Alex had a family, and I was happy Fr. Boyet loves him dearly.
Even though I’m on the other side of the world, Leila told me that Alex always asks her when she visits San Martin, “When is Ate Maya coming back?”
We’ll always remember how we found each other in the market that late night and I promised him we would never lose each other ever again.
The greatest love is to love and be loved in return.
I sponsor Alex through Maya’s Hope. He’s my superstar.
To sponsor a superstar like Alex, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Submitted by Maya Rowencak.