Quezon City, Philippines — Jane Ollivier lost her parents by the age of 10. For five years, she bounced around between 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 of Life, founded in 2000, provides a home for around 20 girls between the ages of 14 and 21, many of whom were abused. The program helps them with school or vocational training and teaches practical life skills to help the girls become self-sustaining, such as budgeting and managing a house, planning meals and shopping. The girls also can earn money by doing administrative tasks for the program and making and selling crafts.
The Second Chance program for teen boys who are in detention centers began in 2002 and also emphasizes personal development, such as through anger-management classes, and vocational training to enable participants to get jobs in construction and other skilled trades once they are released from detention.
ACAY is the brainchild of Sr. Sophie Renoux, who prefers to be known as Sr. 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.
There, she found few programs to help teens, so she and Sr. Edith Fabian, a Hungarian sister Sister Sophie knew through the Community of the Beatitudes, founded Association Compassion Asian Youth in 1997. Over the years, they were joined by Sr. Laetitia Gorczyca from Poland and Sr. Rachel Myriam Luxford from New Zealand, who were also members of the Community of the Beatitudes. Together, they founded the Missionaries of Mary, a diocesan community, in 2007.
Now, the programs are models for other organizations in the Philippines as well as similar programs in other countries. A Second Chance program began in Marseille, France, in 2014. Members of a nongovernmental organization in the Democratic Republic of Congo have welcomed ACAY staff in Kinshasa for training and have gone to the Philippines to find aspects of the School of Life to incorporate into its program for teenage and young women.
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.”
Raymart Montinola credits the sisters with helping him change his life. He was in a detention center at age 18 when a social worker referred him to the Second Chance program.
“I felt hopeless,” he said. “I had no skills. I couldn’t get a job.”
The sisters helped him get an apprenticeship in furniture-making. When he was inspired to start his own business, the sisters loaned him money for machinery and helped him find clients. Now in business for more than a year, he is supporting his wife, who was in the School of Life program, and their two children.
“I learned a lot, and I’m thankful because they’re still there, even if I’m not in any program now,” said Montinola, now 30. The sisters “continued to give me opportunities, give me wings so I could fly.”