A young Filipino educator who set up the “Kariton Klasroom” to bring education to poor children has been named CNN ‘Hero of the Year.’
Efren Peñaflorida was declared winner over nine other nominees from around the world in ceremonies at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles, California, last Nov. 21.
Anderson Cooper, one of the top anchors of Cable News Network (CNN), presented the award to the 28-year-old teacher from Cavite City. Peñaflorida was selected after getting the highest number of online votes, which reached 2.75 million in seven weeks.
Peñaflorida received $100,000 cash to continue his work with his group, Dynamic Teen Company. The cash prize is on top of the $25,000 bonus that Peñaflorida received after he was included in the top 10 CNN Heroes.
He said 90 percent of his prize will go to his group while 10 percent will be donated to his church.
“Nothing for me. I was here to represent the poor children (of the Philippines),” Peñaflorida said. For him, seeing the smiles of the children who rush to meet him when they see his pushcart is enough reward for his efforts.
He said the real heroes are the 10,000 volunteers of Kariton Klassroom who are now helping in educating more than 1,500 kids in depressed areas in Cavite.
“Our planet is filled with heroes, young and old, rich and poor, man, woman of different colors, shapes and sizes. We are one great tapestry,” Peñaflorida said in his acceptance speech before an audience of about 3,000.
Peñaflorida urged the crowd to “be the hero to the next one in need” and called on them to “serve well, serve others above yourself and be happy to serve.”
“As I always tell to my co-volunteers… you are the change that you dream as I am the change that I dream and collectively we are the change that this world needs to be,” he said.
Peñaflorida vowed to continue his work and offer himself as an example of an underprivileged kid who fell victim to violence driven by poverty and yet found a way to lift himself up.
Upon his return from the United States, Peñaflorida was conferred the Order of Lakandula by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in Malacañang. The Order of Lakandula, one of the highest honors given by the Republic of the Philippines, is conferred on those who dedicate themselves to the welfare of society, perform meritorious political and civic service, and lead lives worthy of emulation.
Peñaflorida’s triumph came exactly one week after boxing champion Manny Pacquaio made boxing history by knocking out Puerto Rican Miguel Cotto to become the first boxer to win seven titles in seven weight divisions.
When CNN early this year announced its annual search for Heroes, Peñaflorida was nominated by Club 8586, a youth group in Cavite that financed his elementary and high school education.
CNN’s Blue Ribbon Panel sifted through 9,000 nominees from over 100 countries, and soon narrowed down its choices to 28. On Oct. 1, CNN announced its top 10 finalists for its Hero of the Year. Peñaflorida made it. The finalists were selected by a panel that included former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, philanthropist and CNN founder Ted Turner, actress Whoopi Goldberg and singers Shakira and Sir Elton John. The winner was chosen online by the public, with nearly 3 million votes cast.
Peñaflorida said his inclusion in CNN’s Top 10 “gave Filipinos a breath of fresh air, a brief moment to cheer and celebrate,” since the Philippines was still reeling from the floods and devastation wrought by storms “Ondoy” and “Pepeng.”
As a child, Penaflorida chose education over gang life in Cavite City and vowed to create a way for other children to make the same choice. He was occasionally bullied and beaten by street gangs, which prompted him to decide to come to the aid of street children and rescue them from poverty and neglect through education.
Peñaflorida created a program that brought books to children in slums and on the streets, and the 10,000 members of his Dynamic Teen Company have brought reading, writing and hygiene to 1,500 youngsters. (See related story.)
“My message to children of all races, please, to embrace learning and love it for it will embrace and love you back and enable you to change your world,” Peñaflorida said.
Peñaflorida’s group was first recognized after it won the Bayaning Pilipino award for its heroic work in bringing education to poor children in Cavite.
Since 1997, more than 10,000 volunteers are now helping in educating more than 1,500 kids in depressed areas in Cavite.
The group later launched the “Kariton Klassroom,” an innovative way of bringing the classroom to the children in the depressed areas.
The pushcart classroom is now complete with teaching aids, blackboards and even folding tables and chairs to allow children to sit and read materials provided in a mini-library – a far cry from the humble effort of loading the books and school supplies in large plastic bags.
Peñaflorida now earns a living as a public school teacher in Cavite but still continues his pushcart classrooms on weekends where volunteers have started teaching the street urchins of Manila.
Peñaflorida recalled that he and other volunteers had to endure discrimination and even being branded as “trash collectors” with their pushcarts whenever they carry out their noble mission.
Emanuel Bagual, DTC chief executive officer, said the group’s newfound international fame had brought it many positive changes. Before, DTC members had to sell old bottles and newspapers to earn money and sustain operations. But after DTC was featured in the media, the group started receiving private donations, enabling it to increase the number of its pushcart classrooms from two to four.
The sweetest recognition, however, came in the form of replication: Other youth groups in Davao, Metro Manila and Zamboanga approached DTC, asking permission to implement the project in their own areas, Bagual said.
One group put up a pushcart classroom in Kenya. The DTC willingly gave the groups its modules, Bagual said.