Manila street ex-urchin nostalgic for past; feels lucky to get second chance

MANILA - What he remembers most about his life in the streets was the freedom.

For three years since he turned five, Ricky Nieco spent most of his days roaming Manila's mean streets, begging for coins from anyone willing to give.

He needed the money for food, of course. But more than that, the streets offered him a world he could step into away from his home, away from his father.

His father had a drug habit. He wasn't abusive or violent, but he wasn't of much use either.

"We were free. We went wherever our feet could take us. I was happy," Ricky recalls.

Home - a shack in the middle of a sprawling enclave of squatters surrounding Manila's harbours - reminded him of how poor he was. It was like a tomb for still-born dreams.

The streets, on the other hand, were wild and open. There, Ricky felt anything could happen. So, he embraced the streets. He begged, so he could continue running away from home.

But he knew all streets eventually led to dead ends.

Fortunately for him, his grandmother plucked him out of the streets when he turned seven and took him under her care at a city north of Manila.

The old woman sent him to school, supporting him with her meagre income running a small knick-knack store.

Yet, whenever school was out, Ricky and his cousins would head back to their old stomping grounds around Luneta park in Manila.

While most children his age were playing video games, watching TV or going on overseas holiday with their families, he was asking strangers for food money.

When his grandmother died when he was 17, Ricky went back to his father.

By then, he was already too old to be begging in the streets. It would have been the end for him.

That was when Childhope Philippines found Ricky. The non-government organisation sent the boy through a special course that allowed him to finish high school.

Now 19, Ricky is in his first year of college, taking up a four-year course on information technology.

Childhope is paying for his tuition and providing meal and transportation allowances.

Ricky gets about 20,000 pesos (S$611) a year, not enough, but a Singaporean, through Childhope, is helping augment that budget. His benefactor, who prefers to remain anonymous, is supporting two other wards.

"I never believed that my life would end in the streets. I'm lucky to have had this chance that most of my friends didn't have," Ricky says.

His friends have had to settle for so much less.

One is already a mother, even though she's still in her teens. Most of the boys are also teenagers now, and they make their living hopping from one odd job to another: washing cars, carrying baggages at a nearby port, mopping floors, running errands.

A few rely on petty theft.

Drug dependence is common.

All have accepted that their lives have reached a full stop.

But not Ricky. He is still hoping to spin a much longer, more interesting yarn.

rdancel@sph.com.sg