QUEZON CITY, Philippines (CNS) — Jane Ollivier lost her parents by the age of 10. For five years, she bounced among various relatives before she entered the School of Life, a residential program for teenage girls in metropolitan Manila run by the Missionaries of Mary.
“I wasn’t treated as a child who needed help, but as a member of a family,” she said. “I found the care of a family that I was looking for.”
In her three years in the program, Ollivier earned an education degree. She taught school for a year before returning to the School of Life as the home life officer to help other girls learn to be self-sustaining.
The sisters “gave me a foundation of what real life was like,” said Ollivier, now 30.
The School of Life is one of the central programs of Association Compassion Asian Youth, or ACAY. For more than 20 years, the association has focused on providing the support, skills and structure to change the lives of troubled teens and young adults in the Philippines.
The school, founded in 2000, provides a home for around 20 girls, ages 14-21, many of whom were abused. The program helps them with school or vocational training and teaches practical life skills such as budgeting and managing a house, planning meals and shopping. The young women also can earn money by doing administrative tasks for the program and making and selling crafts.
ACAY is the brainchild of Sister Sophie Renoux, who prefers to be known as Sister Sophie de Jésus. In 1995, the French sister heard a call to help children in the Philippines after she participated in World Youth Day in Manila as a member of the Community of the Beatitudes. She moved to the Philippines from France two years later.
Now, the programs are models for other organizations in the Philippines as well as similar programs in other countries. Girls are referred by nongovernmental organizations and detention centers or after they age out of other social service programs; boys are referred through social workers, counselors and other staff at the detention centers.
After they leave the program, the women tend to work at offices or as teachers or nurses, and the men become carpenters or entrepreneurs or work in the field of social development. Most alumni return to speak with the young men and women still active in the program.
A caring, family-like atmosphere is fundamental for the teenagers, Sister Sophie said. The sisters, staff and volunteers offer encouragement, counseling and support.
“Emotionally, I had people I could lean on,” Ollivier said. “The sisters gave me that motherly care I was looking for. They’re not just there to give you the basic needs, but they are there to give you everything that you need to empower you as a woman.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown restrictions affected virtually every aspect of the programs, yet the resolve of the sisters, staff and volunteers of ACAY has not faltered.
“We used this time to strengthen and unify everything from within,” Sister Sophie said. “The focus was to consolidate and unify who we are as persons through more prayer; as missionaries through quality time with our young girls from School of Life; as a mission with our staff through focusing on training, working with the teams, redesigning our concepts and our educative strategies. We never felt that we stopped. Life continued in ACAY even more intensively.”
The Philippines endured the longest and among the strictest pandemic lockdowns of countries around the world. Rules varied, but generally, those under 21 or older than 60 were not allowed to leave their homes, and everyone else was under a curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. Offices, transportation and schools were closed, and only one member of the household at a time was allowed to leave home to pick up essential food and medicine.
Last May, ACAY organized an online fundraiser that drew more than 60 participants from several countries and raised enough money to provide food baskets and financial help for more than 40 families and help with food costs for the School of Life for three months.
Through email, phone calls and social media, ACAY staff and the sisters have kept in contact with those in the After Care Program, the transition, coaching and monitoring period for young adults after they complete the School of Life or Second Chance programs. This is a critical period: ACAY notes that 92% of participants in the Second Chance program who received aftercare coaching between 2009 and 2018 did not go back to detention centers.
During the lockdown, Sister Sophie and three alumnae of the program moved into the School of Life house with 12 girls to quell their anxiety and oversee the many changes required in the program.
With schools closed, the School of Life emphasized other activities and training. Some girls sewed masks in the school’s craft shop to donate to workers at a nearby hospital. Others made shawls, jewelry and other handicrafts. They did household chores and gardening, practiced online job interviews and improved their English.
This cohort of girls “has definitely been the most trained group of young girls we ever had,” Sister Sophie said. “Trainings tackled their human growth as much as preparing them for self-sustainability and spirituality.”
When schools reopened in August, the girls took online classes with volunteer online tutors. As quarantine measures eased, a licensed teacher taught math and history at the house.
Another foundation of ACAY’s approach includes reconnecting the participants with their families and providing family counseling.
“We really believe parents are partners with us, so we integrate them in the recovery journey of the young people,” Sister Sophie said. Participants in the School of Life and Second Chance programs are processing their past experiences, “but if the parents don’t do the same, they are left behind,” she said.
“It’s extremely important that we also involve them into a process for themselves — a process of learning and understanding what they have experienced.”
Finding extended families can be a challenge, but the effort is worth it, said Sister Rachel Myriam Luxford of New Zealand. Family members are often found through social media, usually Facebook, she added.
“Belongingness is huge,” she said. “It’s time-consuming and hard, but nothing compares to the change that happens in the girl when she knows you’re with her, trying to locate someone in her family.”