A nonprofit organization founded by a Japanese man three decades ago is having an impact on child development in the Philippines, with personnel dedicated to teaching poor children life skills and self-awareness to enable them to blossom into adulthood.

The NPO, called ACTION (A Child's Trust is Ours to Nurture), is the brainchild of Hajime Yokota, 48, who founded it in 1994 and continues to lead it today. The projects, which are often referred to as "interventions," are aimed at problem children and youth in residential care facilities and impoverished communities.

"The aim is to equip children with life skills so they will be able to positively cope with life's challenges," Yokota told Kyodo News in a recent interview.

In late January, the NPO wrapped up a program on life skills intervention, or LSI, for children and youth in a poor urban community in the capital of Manila, the staff expressing gratitude that their methods for helping children are paying off -- and being appreciated all the more by the kids who have participated.

An employee of nonprofit organization ACTION instructs children in a poor district of Manila on Jan. 27, 2024. (Kyodo)

"For children in residential care facilities, the LSI will help ensure their successful reintegration to their families and communities," Yokota said.

ACTION's project officer Pia Silva-Llana said she was pleasantly surprised to hear the positive feedback from kids participating in the program.

"It's really good to hear that. I didn't expect them to notice," she said, referring to comments from youth participants, including Gwyneth and Vanwillson Tinao, siblings who said they appreciated the efforts the staff has made to "let us understand what our good choices should be."

Vanwillson, 11, and his 13-year-old sister Gwyneth said the NPO's constructive approach to breaking up fights, for example, is welcomed compared with the heavy-handed scolding techniques administered by teachers at their school.

"Adults usually just tell children what not to do...That's why they would repeat those (bad) actions because they don't understand and they don't know how to do other things that are positive," said Silva-Llana, who is among the facilitators of the LSI initiative that began in 2022 in the port city of Navotas.

The kids are fond of the sessions since the staff is there to listen to them about their concerns and problems, she said. This is often not the case at home or school, she suggested, saying the kids' parents "don't hear them out when they want to share what they've done in school."

Aside from helping the kids manage their emotions, the NPO's staff introduces activities that allow for the discovery and sharing of their interests and talents, increase self-awareness and improve communication skills with others to bolster their confidence.

The program also puts a heavy emphasis on problem-solving and effective decision-making, Silva-Llana said.

"The kids are enticed to attend because our activities are play-based," said Silva-Llana. Coloring and drawing activities as well as free snacks also keep the kids occupied.

Reign Belangel, 12, said she is no longer as shy as she was prior to joining the weekly sessions, while her brother, Rham, 11, has changed his ways, avoiding the use of foul language, fighting other children and stealing money from his mother, he said.

The NPO has developed four LSI modules, catering to the 5-8, 9-12, 13-16 and 17-18 age groups. A total of 16 communities in Metro Manila and in the region immediately north have adopted the programs, which are endorsed by the inter-agency Juvenile Justice and Welfare Council.

"We hope that one day, all Filipino children will be trained on LSI and become contributing members of society," Yokota said.

A Japanese version of the program was introduced to children's care facility staff in Tokyo in February, with the intent of achieving widespread use in Japan in the future, he said.

An employee of nonprofit organization ACTION instructs children in a poor district of Manila on Jan. 27, 2024. (Kyodo)

ACTION has also set up an initiative to train people caring for children in rehabilitation residential care facilities, making houseparenting a job avidly sought after by social workers. Social workers and houseparents are trained in imparting life skills to children, many of whom have run afoul of the law.

Supported by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the Philippine government's Department of Social Welfare and Development successfully implemented it as a training program in 2019.

"It is significant to ensure that the personnel are trained so they can help in the caring, healing and teaching of children," Yokota said of the houseparenting program.

"Training (them) and other staff members prevent children from reliving past trauma. Topics such as children's rights, positive discipline and managing stress are included in the training."

Through other programs such as karate, dance, hairstyling and massage therapy, children learn occupational skills that will potentially benefit them when they reach adulthood.

Yokota's involvement in the welfare of Filipino children in impoverished communities and rehabilitation facilities stems from his administrative work in camps following his 1994 trip to Zambales province, located north of Manila, at the age of 17.

At the time, the area was still reeling from the effects of the Mt. Pinatubo eruption in 1991, and Yokota saw the need to rehabilitate the families and communities, especially the children, including at an orphanage he visited.

Yokota's passion for helping led him to establish ACTION in Tokyo that same year and he was able to mobilize Japanese youth to help in the improvement of residential care facilities and communities in the area. The NPO's activities were initially concentrated in Zambales but were later expanded to cover some areas in Metro Manila.

Today, ACTION says it aims to create a suitable environment for children to achieve their goals and maximize their potential, which it strives to do through its programs directly catering to children and to people caring for children in residential care facilities and communities.

In December, the NPO was honored by the social welfare department for its outstanding contributions as an outside support agency in the Philippines.

"I would like us to become an organization that can be recognized as a safety net for children in residential care facilities and youth rehabilitation facilities," Yokota said.

"When children face various difficulties in their lives, we want them to see ACTION as an option to escape poverty," he added. "I want them to feel that there are adults who will not betray them."

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