MANILA — On steamy weekend afternoons when most Philippine children are at play, Bernardo Peresas goes to school amid the gray concrete crypts of Kalookan cemetery.
One grade accommodates all who show up. Bernardo, an undersized 10-year-old dressed in dingy Boston Celtics shorts that dwarf his spindly legs, is the youngest. Most are in their teens.
The cemetery school is among the most unusual in the world. On a recent Saturday, Bernardo recited from a small red pamphlet that had only 26 sentences, one per page: "It's my right to be born and to be free. It's my right to have a good education and develop my potential."
A school dropout since he fled family violence at age 7, Bernardo is only now learning to read.
The real focus of the graveyard classroom, however, is survival. A dozen street children talked about sniffing a cobbler's glue called "rugby" to cut hunger pangs and discussed their memories of abuse. They told of police sweeps that ended in jail. And they acted out scenes from young lives spent begging in the scruffy industrial suburb of Kalookan by day and sleeping in mausoleums of the rich at night.
Boldly unconventional schools such as Kalookan's may offer salvation for these street kids--and not only in Manila. At a time when as many as 100 million children worldwide are largely homeless and on their own, the World Health Organization and many child welfare groups are betting that they can get the toughest cases off the streets by at least temporarily leaving them there.
"The usual response has been to focus on getting kids off streets, which means putting them into institutional care. But that costs a fortune and tends to be quite repressive without ultimately solving the problem or accommodating a child's needs," said Dr. Andrew Ball, director of WHO's Street Children's Project in Geneva.
"The result is that street children run away, and ultimately a cycle is created which makes them more hard-core and resistant to help."
Rather than wait for children to seek help, the project takes classes to the vacant lots, cemeteries and parks that are home to street kids. To prevent the children from growing into adult drug users, prostitutes or criminals, the program seeks to wean them from the streets and provide tools to help them integrate into society.
Rights Along With Literacy
Bernardo's class teaches children's rights along with literacy. "Many kids think of themselves as malas ako, or bad luck. They accept this kind of life as their due," said Teresita Silva, local director of Childhope Asia, an independent advocacy group that administers the WHO program in Manila.
"One of the first steps is to change their thinking, to help them feel some sense of worth and to give them a sense they can do something about it."
That critical first step can also be the most frustrating, however, for it means waiting for children to make decisions themselves.
Based on an approach tried by UNICEF in Brazil in the mid-1980s, WHO launched its pilot project in Manila, which has an estimated 60,000 street children, and six other major capitals in 1994. An advantage, child advocates say, is that the program is a realistic approach for countries where problems overwhelm limited resources.
The program is now used by local groups in more than 20 countries, from industrialized Australia to underdeveloped Zambia.
Operating through about 70 government and nongovernment agencies, the WHO project is among the world's largest coordinated efforts. Yet it reaches only about 20,000 street children.
Although poor countries account for the largest share of street children, the fastest-growing problems are in formerly Communist countries such as Russia and the Czech Republic.
Millions of new street children have been produced by civil unrest in countries ranging from Bosnia-Herzegovina to the former Zaire and by the fraying of the social safety net as formerly Communist nations shifted to free markets.
The WHO project targets hard-core cases such as Bernardo and the Kalookan youngsters, who are among the world's street children known as "throwaway" kids. They have few or no links with relatives and usually have serious physical or psychological problems.
Some admit to occasional crime, from picking pockets to prostitution. Survival instincts often result in fights, a recurrent problem for Bernardo despite his age and size. Many are filthy, their feet blackened and hardened from going without shoes. A few have open sores. An instruction manual warns street educators: "When the child touches you, do not wipe it."
For these kids, traditional solutions rarely work. "They've often been on their own for years," Ball said, "and going from the freedom of the streets, though rough and dangerous, to an institution where they have to get up at a certain time, eat certain food and participate in certain activities isn't conducive to solutions."
The remaining 75% of street children work or beg and usually still have contact with relatives.