At Boys Town, regrets over lost glory

ERNESTO Beren, 61, remembers the Manila Boys Town of old with fondness. He recalls that the 23-hectare institution had a rustic landscape, surrounded as it was by trees, and huge grounds that gave him and his fellow young wards plenty of room to play.

The life it offered was not exactly ideal for the 10-year-old boy since he had to be away from his family, but the priests who ran the place made sure the boys felt safe and loved. And while daily chores were included in their daily schedule of study and play, Beren himself says these only helped instill in the wards discipline and good values.

Beren spent a decade at Boys Town, leaving it only after he graduated from high school. Not long after he left the institution that nurtured him, he traveled to Denmark, along with other former Boys Town wards, as part of the official Philippine gymnastics team to the World Qualifying Championship. There, he and fellow former Boys Town ward Norman Henson qualified for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico.

It was at Boys Town that Beren became a world-class gymnast. Back then the Town had a strong athletic tradition, thanks to its administrator, Fr. Jose Mirasol, who initiated sports activities for the wards and tapped expert trainers for them. To this day, Beren remains a devoted athlete and conducts regular gymnastics training sessions at the Rizal Memorial Stadium.

Fr. Mirasol’s religious order has long relinquished administration of Boys Town, and the endowments the institution receives today are being stretched to the limits just so the Town can still provide care and education for underprivileged boys-as well as girls and abandoned elderly.

But up until a couple of years ago, wards at the Parang, Marikina institution had few complaints, and felt themselves blessed to be able to live at Boys Town, where each cottage has a house parent to watch over a maximum of 20 wards.

The dark side

According to several wards and employees, Boys Town has acquired a dark side ever since Daniel Cabangangan was appointed its officer in charge in April 2004. Instead of garnering medals and honors for the institution, as their predecessors had done, several wards in the present Boys Town say they have been receiving mostly abuse from Cabangangan and the volunteers he had recruited.

Although many of the boys are determined to stay on, one teenager described by his teachers as being bright and full of potential has gone missing after being mauled one night with several other wards.

Wards and Town insiders say Cabangangan has gotten away so far with all sorts of abuses — including the alleged molestation of some boys, condoning of the physical abuse of several wards and new recruits by his posse of young men — because he is said to have powerful backers at Manila City Hall. The city government has jurisdiction over Boys Town.

Cabangangan denied such accusations in a recent interview. Dr. Jose Baranda, head of Manila’s social services department, meanwhile maintains that there has been no abuse of wards at Boys Town, and refuses to say much more. Cabangangan used to be with the same department before he transferred to Boys Town in 2003 as administrative officer.

Former Boys Town administrator Jean Joaquin says she came to know Cabangangan only after he began working for the institution. Having had no problems with him, she decided to recommend Cabangangan to replace her in 2004, when she moved up as assistant head of Manila’s social services department. That, however, was only after her first choice, Boys Home OIC Leonila Borja, turned down the chance to be her successor.

Town and City Hall insiders interviewed for this report do not mention Joaquin when they talk of people perceived as Cabangangan’s allies. But they do point to Baranda, as well as to Ryan Ponce, Mayor Jose ‘Lito’ Atienza’s special assistant for social services.

Powerful allies

Boys Town lies within Ponce’s sphere of responsibilities, but Town personnel and insiders say that the young man often bypasses the institution’s offices during his visits there and instead goes straight for the fighting-cock farm located inside the complex. He sometimes also visits the piggery, which some insiders estimate could hold at least 100 heads at any given time.

Current and former Boys Town personnel say that poultry and pig-raising were allowed in the past inside the complex. But they say these were strictly for the wards’ and in-house staff’s consumption, and were never on the scale they are today. Certainly, too, there were no cocks being raised for sabong (cockfighting).

Ponce has yet to reply to written queries. Cabangangan, for his part, denied the existence of a gamecock farm in Boys Town. There are only poultry, he said, adding that by then all the chickens had already been killed and fed to the wards.

But a recent visit to Boys Town confirmed the existence of a cock farm — complete with individual perches for the fighting cocks, which one insider estimated to number between 500 and 700.

The area — which occupies a long stretch of land in the complex — is restricted to Boys Town personnel who have reportedly been tasked to manage the farm, assisted by outsiders hired to help tend to the cocks. One of those at the farm reluctantly admitted he was not in the employ of Boys Town, although he was there to look after the cocks.

Boys Town insiders say that the farm is being run for profit by some individuals with ties to the Town management. The beneficiaries do not include Boys Town, which has sometimes even paid for pigs raised at the complex and then were slaughtered for the meals of the wards.

According to Osita Mariano, OIC of the Girls Home (one of four centers in the complex), and Boys Home’s Borja, their units were made to each pay P8,000 for a “Boys Town” pig that wound up as a dish during an event at the institution.

As for the fighting-cock farm, Town personnel would probably sell the cocks gladly were these the institution’s, if only to augment the funds the complex gets from donors like the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO). As it is, they say, some personnel have resorted to experimenting with plants to treat minor ailments among the wards.

Short of funds

One house parent also recounts how he had to wait for two days before he could bring a sick young boy to the hospital because the staff had to scrounge for money first. Even then, he had to walk the ailing child to the nearest corner where they waited for a jeep, just so they could save as much of the P1,000 they had for expenses they might incur at the hospital. (The boy was found to be in such a serious condition that he was required to have an operation on the same day he was brought to the hospital.)

Some staff also complain that under Cabangangan, the Town administration has acquired a habit of getting more than its maximum share of the quarterly allocation given by the PCSO to each of four centers. They say the administration can take only as much as P3,000 to P4,000 per quarter per center.

Emelda Lopez, OIC of the Foundling Home, which looks after boys from ages three to seven, says that sometime in June last year Cabangangan requested P33,000 from her unit. According to her, the Boys Town head said he would use some of the money to buy a water pump for the Home for the Aged (another center within the complex) and another portion for the repair of a PCSO ambulance that doubles as Town service vehicle.

It was not until December when Cabangangan finally submitted the liquidation report. Worse, the report showed no purchase of a water pump; neither was there any indication of any vehicle repair.

Most of the supporting documents also consisted only of cash vouchers. “Kung anu-anong resibo ang sinubmit (All sorts of receipts were submitted),” grumbles Lopez, noting that these included those for veterinary vaccines and medicines.

Town staff say it is not as if the administrative office has no funds of its own. For instance, since Cabangangan became Town head, all donations — in cash and in kind — have gone straight to the administration. The staff say they do not know what happens to the donations, because they are no longer receiving updates on the Town’s financial status, unlike in previous administrations.

Donors’ funds

Given the stories told by house parents, though, it is unlikely that donated money is being used to purchase medicines. Or for that matter sports equipment, which wards say is sorely lacking. Then again, Cabangangan has said that he hopes to introduce ballet instead of reviving the Town’s gymnastics program, which has practically disappeared after he dismissed gymnastics trainer and former Boys Town ward Pelagio Austria last December.

Austria had been training the Town’s wards in gymnastics since 1997. Since then, several wards have won in various gymnastics competitions. One of them is Arnold (not his real name), 18, who has won gold and silver medals. Arnold says he misses his mentor, who “was like a father to me.” He also longs to join gymnastics competitions again. He would have joined the recently concluded Palarong Pambansa if only he received support from the Town administration.

In 1999 Arnold was one of five Boys Town male wards who participated in the First Gymnastics Association of the Philippines’ Gymnastics Competition. Their team emerged second runner-up. Like other Boys Town wards who trained under Austria, he has won several medals. He, too, is one of two other wards who filed complaints of sexual molestation against a male volunteer brought in by Cabangangan.

Jorge Billote, who clinched the gold medal in the gymnastics division of Palarong Pambansa in 2002, is another former Boys Town ward trained by Austria. Billote was also named the Most Outstanding Athlete in the secondary division for gymnastics in the Milo Little Olympics in 2001. At least 10 other wards under Austria’s mentorship have won various medals in other competitions, including the National Capital Meet (2001), the Milo Little Olympics and the Manila Youth Games.

Decline of sports

But Cabangangan says that at 51, Austria was already “too old” to be a gymnastics trainer. Besides, he said, Austria had “a case,” but declined to elaborate on what that was. Insiders say Austria had been accused of somehow being involved in the disappearance of several pieces of iron sheets at the complex. They add, however, that they do not believe the accusation.

What is more plausible, they say, is that Austria lost his job because he was seen as sympathetic to the wards who had filed complaints at City Hall. They note that his relief came at the heels of the complaints; some have even speculated that his dismissal was meant as warning to those thinking of supporting the wards’ claims of abuse.

Like Beren, Austria has only fond memories of Boys Town — at least the one he grew up in. “It was beautiful then,” he says, referring not only to Boys Town’s physical structure but also to the overall environment that nurtured him in his youth.

He echoes Beren in saying values inculcated in the wards, who also received a great deal of love and affection from the personnel. Too, Austria makes special mention of the regular sports activities that helped mold the young boys into men.

And so when an opportunity came for him to become a sports trainer at Boys Town, Austria took it even though there was a more lucrative job waiting for him elsewhere. He says he also listened to the advice of fellow former wards who urged him to restore to Boys Town the strong sports program they had enjoyed.

The position — which was at volunteer level — gave him a monthly honorarium of P2,000. But as Austria says, “Hindi naman ‘yung pera ang tinitingnan natin dito. Ibabalik natin ‘yung glory (Money was not our main consideration here. We just wanted to restore the glory of Boys Town).”