Turn Hardship Into Hope

Through Holt’s independent living and educational assistance program, one boy graduates college and returns to work for Holt’s partner organization in the Philippines — serving children and families at risk of separation.

When police found Marlon wandering the streets, he was only 5 — old enough to tell the police his first name, and to say he’d lost his mother, but not much else.

He was too young, though, to know many of the other things critical to helping a lost child return home — his address or last name, where he lived or even what country he was from. Or where his mother had gone.

Could Marlon remember the last time he saw her?

Was she with anyone else? Did they stop anywhere?

Could she have left him… on purpose?

And, if Marlon hadn’t been abandoned, how did he end up in a busy city center alone? Had he been kidnapped and left? Or trafficked? Was there someone — a family member or parent — out looking for him?

The police placed “found child” ads in the newspapers and broadcast his face across televisions screens in the Philippines. Radio ads pleaded for Marlon’s family to step forward.

Three times, ads went out.

Three times, police told Marlon they couldn’t find his mother.

Marlon (in the green and blue striped shirt in the center of the back row) practices for a signing performance with other students who live in the ILEA house.
Marlon (in the green and blue striped shirt in the center of the back row) practices for a signing performance with other students who live in the ILEA house.

Marlon lived in various care centers, staying at a place called Reception and Action Center for two years while a social worker tried to investigate Marlon’s background.

Still, nobody came to claim Marlon.

Marlon was given the last name “Cruz” after the police officer who found him.

When he was 8 years old, Marlon’s social worker declared him eligible for adoption — but his age and gender set him at a serious disadvantage to find a family.

Once a happy, vibrant little boy, Marlon grew more and more withdrawn and suspicious of everyone around him. Without constant love or attention, Marlon learned behaviors to help him survive — but also behaviors that put him at serious long-term risk. He dealt with the pain of losing everything — his family, his home, his identity — alone.

Before long, 10 years had passed, and Marlon, too, had passed from care center to care center, orphanage to orphanage. Very soon, he would age out of the Philippines welfare system and be alone. Years of hardship robbed Marlon of his ability to dream. He lacked ambition and didn’t have any plans for the future. Marlon hardly knew who he was. How was he supposed to know who he wanted to become?

Then, something incredible happened.

Marlon meets with Danielle Peebles, Holt’s SE Asia programs coordinator.
Marlon meets with Danielle Peebles, Holt’s SE Asia programs coordinator.

A government-assigned psychologist and a social worker reached out to Marlon. They connected with him, and spent countless hours helping him learn how his history — his abandonment, his loss — didn’t have to define his future. They helped him accept the hardest moment of his life, and learn that his feelings of worthlessness didn’t define him. He learned that he was worthy of love, and to feel love, he needed to start by loving himself.

Marlon began to grow brighter and happier and more open to the friendship and love of others. Just before he aged out of the system, Marlon received one last chance at something he desperately hoped for: a family.

Holt International and our local partner, Kaisahang Buhay Foundation (KBF), welcomed Marlon into one of the programs we help support in the region — the Independent Living and Educational Assistance program, or ILEA.

Marlon, in the black shirt, dances with other students at ILEA.
Marlon, in the black shirt, dances with other students at ILEA.

At ILEA, a group of 13-15 young adults and teens who grew up as orphans live together as a makeshift family unit. Most of the ILEA scholars are high school or college students who have recently aged out of the Philippines social welfare system. Rather than be forced to live completely on their own, ILEA provides a place to transition from life in an institution to independent life. They receive vocational and life skills training, and other support to learn how to care for themselves on their own. The scholars encourage one another in their studies, and often share meals or spend time together doing social activities. They receive educational assistance as well, helping them stay in school and build the best possible future for themselves.

With new-found opportunity, Marlon began college. He continued building his self-worth and self-esteem. In deep and meaningful ways, Marlon built relationships at ILEA. He made friends, and also became a mentor to the younger scholars just entering the program. While hardships among the scholars at ILEA aren’t rare, each student’s story is unique — and they use their shared experiences and differences to counsel each other.

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In April, Marlon graduated college with a bachelor’s of science degree in community development, in large part thanks to the assistance he received from supporters of Holt International.

Holt International and KBF also welcomed him into a position as the new community development worker for Holt’s partner in the region, Kaisahang Buhay Foundation. In this role, Marlon provides outreach within the community to offer services that strengthen families and help children stay with their families — including capital assistance programs and services for poor working youth. KBF is the recognized leader in child welfare services in the region, and the organization helps homeless and at-risk children reunite or remain with their families by providing parent education support, employment and financial assistance, microloan programs and follow-up services to ensure stability. KBF also works to prevent child abandonment by providing counseling and support services to single women, housing, nutritional support and post-delivery services such as medical care, free daycare and more. KBF also oversees the ILEA program — the program that helped Marlon learn how to succeed on his own.

Today, Marlon is indeed poised for success, and he says he has complete faith in himself to survive all of life’s difficulties.

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