|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
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
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.
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.”
|Leaning towards a better life: Austria (top, center) with schoolchildren and teachers from Mano Amiga.|
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.
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
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
There are plans to move Mano Amiga to
a larger campus with a permanent building, Austria adds.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or Ramon Austria at 0917-8290184 or
e-mail at email@example.com.
Interested in donating to the Mano Amiga
cause? Contact Amber DeMartino at 800-961-8153 or send an e-mail
You may also send a check to:
Catholic World Mission
33 Rossotto Drive
Hamden, CT 06514
To read another article about the Mano Amiga school
in the Philippines, click here.