In a tiny alleyway, the sound of laughter fills the air. Then you see them: a trail of children running behind a tall Dutch man. The sound of slippers hitting the concrete pavement mixes with the kids’ giggles as they try to keep up with the man’s big steps. They are intrigued by his blonde hair and blue eyes, surprised that a bule , or foreigner, would come around to their neck of the woods.
A boy in a bright green T-shirt is among those gathered around the man. He shouts out, “Hey mister, this is where I live. Do you see?” A girl with pigtails and no front teeth reaches for the man’s pinky and tugs at it. “My best friend lives here,” she says, pointing to a mint green door with most of the paint chipped off.
These kids are among the more than 20,000 street children living in Jakarta. This group belongs to one of several slums in the north. They reside in tenements or beneath overpasses, behind mountains of garbage piled up in dumpster fields, near railroad tracks or by Kalibaru harbor. In one slum, the stench of fish drying in the sun is overwhelming. There is also trash, rotting food, swarms of flies and dust clouds that rise from the dry fields where the children play football in sandals or in bare feet.
Most families that live in the slums are deeply impoverished, surviving on less than $1 a day; parents thus put their children to work to support their emaciated incomes. For these boys and girls, choices are scarce. Many will never receive an education. Most will live in the slums their whole lives. Some will die young, succumbing to disease or malnutrition.
For a very lucky few, though, there is hope. It comes in the form of nonprofit organizations such as the Indonesian Street Children Organization. For more than a decade, ISCO has gone into neglected slum communities and tried to educate not only the children but also the parents about sexual health, maternal health and family planning. It also advocates for children’s protection. It operates with limited resources, relying on volunteers like the Dutch man, Godard Strengers, to carry out its programs in neighborhoods often ridden with substance abuse and crime.
“The parents don’t care about education in the slums because in the past they didn’t go to school themselves,” said Meriah Tinambunan, ISCO’s executive director. “They cannot read, and the main problem is that they think education is not important for the future of their children.”
That is a mind-set ISCO works every day to try to change. Founded in 1999 and based in Jakarta, ISCO aims to improve the street children’s quality of life through free and equal opportunity education for every child and supportive health and nutrition services. Its vision is simple — fight poverty by educating future generations.
It hopes to eradicate child labor by giving these children options and a chance to have more than what their parents ended up with: a life of strenuous physical labor that leaves them with severe health problems and never enough money to support their families.
Some men work as taxi drivers, scavengers and fisherman. For the women, it’s work in the market, sell handcrafts or wash clothes. For other women, however, the way they choose to feed their families is through prostitution. Many of these mothers make a measly Rp 5,000 (53 cents) per customer. Since they often don’t use protection, these women who often already have a slew of children find themselves pregnant again without knowing who the father is, according to ISCO.
But for them, it’s nothing alarming. In fact, they think of their way of life as “normal,” Meriah said, and approach it with the mentality that they just need to get through the day. About 10 percent of ISCO’s children come from homes where the mothers work as prostitutes.
ISCO provides scholarships and free education to more than 2,307 children in 28 of its activity centers in Greater Jakarta, Surabaya and Medan. The nonprofit supports 1,218 children in 16 activity centers in Jakarta. The rest of the children attend eight centers in Surabaya and four in Medan. The sponsored children are between the ages of 5 and 17 and remain with ISCO until they graduate high school. ISCO limits the number of children they support to no more than two children per household.
How they pick the kids to sponsor is determined through regular house visits they have with the families in the various slums. The project officers, who usually live in the slums they are assigned to, go on these visits and assess if a family is eligible or not. Choosing can be difficult, but they look for crucial things, like how many children the family has, whether they own “luxury” items such as a television or a DVD player and how much money the parents make.
In Penjaringan, Irma, an assistant project officer, makes 25 to 30 house visits a day. She also checks up on families already in the ISCO program, like Lucy’s family.
Lucy, 9, lives with her parents and two younger siblings. The tiny girl is wearing a baby blue T-shirt with the word “princess” on it and sitting next to her mother, who is trying to breastfeed her agitated 10-month-old. Lucy is fighting blood cancer. She’s had four rounds of chemotherapy, which ISCO paid for, but still has a long way to go.
“I enjoy fairy tales,” the frail child says. “They make me happy.”
Lucy is having one of her “good days.” Her spirit seems to be high, and she shyly smiles when talking with Irma.
“I’m doing good today. I feel well,” she says softly.
Besides the project officers, volunteers are also integral to ISCO. Most of them are recruited internationally to teach English at the activity centers. Strengers is one of ISCO’s newest volunteers; he works with children in Karibaru. The children call him “Gogo” and eagerly wait for recess, when they all burst out of the activity center and onto the dirt fields where he plays football with them.
“It’s so sweet to see them excited. I feel like I am already bonded with the children,” said Strengers, who will teach at the center for six weeks. Besides generating interest in recreation, the volunteers also motivate the children to come every day to classes at the center.
“If we have a volunteer at the activity center, the attendance will be very good because these children are curious about this foreigner who has come to teach them,” Meriah said.
In turn, the parents want to send their children to the centers after seeing a positive change in them. “When we first meet the children, their faces are dirty and they look tired and lost,” Meriah said. “But after three months in the ISCO program, you really see the change in them. Their faces are brighter, they look happier, they want to talk more.”
Despite the challenge, change, however slow, is possible. “It’s a hard mind-set to change, but we do see a difference from 10 years ago when we just started,” Meriah said. “The parents didn’t even care a little bit about the children’s education, but now it’s getting better.”
In the decade it has existed, ISCO has had one child graduate from university after being in its program. This year, two more were accepted into college, with full scholarships. “Sometimes I can’t believe how far some these children have come and surpassed the expectations of their parents,” Meriah said. “It’s truly one of the best things to witness.”
For the children, it starts with the couple of hours at the activity center and a little bit of encouragement.
Caroline, a volunteer from Taiwan, stands in front her students and points to each word on the whiteboard.
“Come on guys, show me what you have learned,” she said.
Bright-eyed and eager, they begin.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are grey. You’ll never know dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.”