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Never a Dull Moment in Manila
| APOSTOLATE | ON THE MEDIA
When Ramon Austria took on the job of principal at the first Mano Amiga school for poor children in the Philippines, he also took on a mission.

mano amiga principal
Together with like-minded colleagues, Mon Austria has devoted himself to providing quality education for the impoverished and gifted students of Taguig through the Mano Amiga Academy.

January 19, 2009. Ramon Austria is at the helm of a new mission in the capital city of the Philippines. As the first principal of the new Mano Amiga (Helping Hands) school, he is heading up an innovative approach to help lift children and their families out of the extreme poverty of a nearby squatters’ community. The following article, reprinted with permission from the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s “Sunday Inquirer Magazine” section, tells his story.

***
Right Hand Man
By Ruel S. De Vera
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 04:27:00 12/14/2008

As a child, Ramon “Mon” Austria knew what it felt like to be uprooted. Born in Quezon City, he was only 4 when his family moved to the Federated States of Micronesia, where his father Rolando took a job as state physician on an island called Kosrae.

“Only a few people can boast of having spent their childhood frolicking on some island—and I’m one of them,” says Austria. “I could swim whenever I wanted because in Kosrae, you’re never more than five minutes away from the ocean.”

It was education—a  theme that would pervade much of Austria’s life—that brought him back to the Philippines after four years. Years after this idyllic childhood, while taking up management economics at the Ateneo de Manila, Austria thought about doing a bit of volunteer work after graduation.

He was drawn to Regnum Christi, a lay movement within the Catholic Church that provided him an opportunity to be involved in the youth apostolate in Washington, D.C. for a year.

This experience started him on the road to a teaching career, a path the 24-year-old Austria confesses had never crossed his mind.

“Are you kidding?” he says incredulously when asked if this was something he had all planned out. “There’s no money in teaching.”

His eventual work among young students he explains away as "divine intervention." He was never too keen on working with children, he says, and yet he wound up doing just that in Washington. “Little by little, I learned to love working with children,” he clarifies. “It’s something that just happened.”

And what Austria initially intended to be just volunteer work gradually steered him on a set career path. Returning from Washington D.C., he signed up to teach religion at Beacon International School in Taguig City. After two years there, he embarked on a project that was meant to change lives through education, in perhaps the same way that his life had been changed.

The project was the Mano Amiga Academy. Translated loosely as “friendly hand” or “helping hand,” Mano Amiga Academy hopes to transform lives by putting children in schools. “We believe that the best way out of poverty is through quality education, since this gives children the means and the opportunity to rise above their condition and attain their dreams and aspirations in life.”

From humble beginnings in Mexico in the 1970s, Mano Amiga is now a network of over 30 schools all over the world. The Mano Amiga branch in Taguig is the first in the Philippines.

Austria
mano amiga
Leaning towards a better life: Austria (top, center) with schoolchildren and teachers from Mano Amiga.
explains that the school goes beyond what is expected and in turn expects more from its students: “Mano Amiga in Latin America has met with tremendous success: over 90 percent of its graduates complete their high school education, over 93 percent go on to university or technical school. Mano Amiga students also perform exceptionally well in regional scholastic competitions, even managing to edge out students from elite private schools.”

Austria recalls that when he was initially approached for the project, he readily expressed interest in being involved in the pioneering school. But having received no word for three months, he presumed the job was not for him. He was deep in preparation for the coming term at Beacon when the Mano Amiga people got back to him with the offer to become its principal. It took him only two weeks of discernment to decide that he wanted to be in a pioneering school with a vision to help disadvantaged children.

“It was tough for me to leave Beacon because it’s just such a good place to work in,” Austria explains. “But I knew I had to leave because Mano Amiga was going to begin its school year pretty soon and I couldn’t possibly juggle both. Only time will tell if they made the right decision in hiring me as principal.”

Mano Amiga welcomed its first batch of 45 students on September 22, 2008, and is targeting a quota of 48 to 50 by yearend.

The school works primarily with children who live close to it, in this case, the Habitat for Humanity site within the FTI Complex in Taguig.

“There is a squatters’ community right outside our compound and all our students are from that area,” says Austria. “Before enrollment, we do a socioeconomic profile of each family to determine their level of need.” Much like a regular school, Mano Amiga has its standards and qualifications for students, but the ultimate criterion for selection is clear: “the level of commitment of the family, particularly the parents, to be an active partner in the education and formation of their children.”

The children receive instruction and materials for the nominal cost of P200 a month, subject to the family’s ability to pay. The land is a gift from the Taguig City government; Mayor Freddie Tinga and wife Kay are generous sponsors. The building was formerly used by Habitat for Humanity.

There are plans to move Mano Amiga to a larger campus with a permanent building, Austria adds.
The decided edge of Mano Amiga is its youthful and dynamic faculty, including its teachers, Rev Siasoyco, Martha Ragandang and Malou Fernandez, plus volunteer Tara Puyat. It is they who face up to the challenge of running not just a little school, but a learning center for impoverished pupils.

“There’s never a dull moment when you’re working in Mano Amiga,” says Austria. “We have problems with the building, health problems with some of the students, and so on.”

As the school grows, Austria is also looking towards continuing his studies. He is currently working on his Certificate in Professional Education at the University of the Philippines and then perhaps work towards his masters.

The busy director actually considers himself a laidback person away from Mano Amiga. “I like watching TV and movies,” he says. “I sometimes go for mindless movies that don’t require much thinking.” The self-admitted “Sudoku geek” also enjoys basketball and table tennis in his spare time.

Not that there’s an abundance of that. Mano Amiga continues to expand its program, right now offering enrichment activities two Saturdays a month as well as looking to partner with an organization that can help the community. “We welcome volunteers,” Austria adds.

So far, says the Mano Amiga director, the project has begun its life-changing work. It is a wonderful experience despite the many obstacles, he adds. “I love the fact that my work means something to me. And it pushes me to give my very best because I know that I have to do it for the children and their families.”

It is, he says, work that goes beyond brick and mortar, beyond textbooks and grades. It is the work of building new lives and spawning a permanent address for new dreams.

“I love the fact that my job right now enables me to connect and interact with families and get to know them in a very human level. I value very much the chance to help them in ways I normally wouldn’t be able to do if it weren’t for Mano Amiga,” Austria says. “It is I who feel really blessed.”

For donations and inquiries, please contact Lynn Pinugu, Mano Amiga’s Institutional Development Manager, at 0920-9283552 or by e-mail at lpinugu@altius.org or Ramon Austria at 0917-8290184 or e-mail at raustria@altius.org.

***

Interested in donating to the Mano Amiga cause?  Contact Amber DeMartino at 800-961-8153 or send an e-mail to amber.demartino@catholicworldmission.org.

You may also send a check to: 
Catholic World Mission
33 Rossotto Drive
Hamden, CT 06514
www.catholicworldmission.org

To read another article about the Mano Amiga school in the Philippines, click here.


PUBLICATION DATE: 2009-01-19


 
 

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