My Hero? I did not vote for Efren Peñaflorida!

LOS ANGELES - Saturday, 21 November, towards the end of a gala event, “CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute,” Cable News Network's anchor Anderson Cooper announces that Filipino Efren Peñaflorida is the 2009 CNN Hero of the Year. Their hero! It's a Filipino who has won over many other deserving CNN heroes in their own countries. No thanks to me.

Efren is the founder of the Dynamic Teen Company (DTC) based in Cavite City near Manila; DTC is a 12-year old doing-the-best-we-can-where-we-are project of a street-children classroom manned by volunteer teenagers pushing carts loaded with books, blackboards, school supplies (Edson C Tandoc Jr, 23 November 2009, newsinfo.inquirer.net), and chairs (ph.news.yahoo.com) - and hearts loaded with faith, hope and love. The greatest of these is love.

Efren won over 9 other 2009 CNN Heroes because he had the highest CNN online votes, that is to say, he was the CNN Hero whose heroism people around the globe were impressed the most. Having read much on the subject, more than 100 Web pages, I see that Efren deserved my vote, but I didn’t give it to him. I'm not apologizing. Listen to my story.

I'm a Filipino. I don't go out of my way to read the news offline or online but I knew about the online voting because I received an email on 4 October from Isa who received it from Fernan asking people to go online and vote for Efren: go visit CNN.com/heroes. Privately, I said No, I will not. On 22 October, I received an email from Yoly who received it from Rosden asking me to do the same (go vote online, not say No in private). Again, I said No, I will not. On 27 October, I received an email from Nitz who received it from Malou pleading, "Please vote Efren Peñaflorida of the Philippines - CNN Hero of the Year." Again, I said No to myself. On 19 November, last day of voting, I received an email from Jun who received it from Nora asking me the same thing. For the last time, I said No, I will not. I can be as stubborn as a mule. The spirit wasn't willing, the flesh was not.

Before the CNN poll deadline, in a conversation, somebody did mention about casting my vote and I said I did appreciate the heroism but not that you needed online votes in order to win an award. Heroism is not a popularity contest, I said. I never liked popularity contests - like I know opinion polls are popularity contests - otherwise, they don't make any business sense at all. I know a little too much about online polls, for instance, that you can vote as many times as you want, and it costs you almost nothing, unlike text votes. Compared to text votes, online votes will save you money and sore fingers from pressing the keys - just click the mouse button, left.

I said the problem with online votes (and text votes) is that somebody wins on personal popularity, not personal merit. I remember only too well that little girl from Cabuyao, Laguna, Charice: she missed winning the 1 million-peso Grand Prize for ABS-CBN’s Little Big Star singing contest because she had the highest voice but not the highest votes, quality vs quantity. They said Charice’s text votes were too small and made a big thing out of it. They made her the saddest little girl in the world, #3 instead of #1. But for Mom Raquel's big heart, they almost killed her little girl Charice's big dream. They saw Little; they didn't see Big; they didn't see Star. Their talent failed them. Folks, let me remind you that talent matters; numbers don’t count!

I was thinking they were trying to make the story of Efren like the story of Charice, talent vs tally. When will they ever learn? Looking at it a little differently, Phil Bolsta says that “Charice’s first big break came on Little Big Star” (charicepempengcoph.multiply.com). Phil, you must mean Charice’s first big heart-break. (See my “Pinoy Cinderella. 1: Sky falls on Little Big Star Charice,” pinoycinderella.blogspot.com). That contest, instead of selection, they made it an election. Counting votes instead of criteria.

So, I did not want anyone to do a Charice, so I didn't give my vote to Efren or didn't do anything closely resembling a click of the mouse. She doesn't know me, but I think Charice would have been pleased.

I'm glad to find out, after all I said and did, that the story of the choosing of Efren differs from that of the choosing of Charice in that, from 9,000 contenders from more than 100 countries (tvnatinto.blogspot.com), the top ten CNN heroes were selected by an eminent CNN Blue Ribbon Panel that included Colin Powell, Whoopi Goldberg, Ted Turner, Shakira, Rosanna Rosado, Mariane Pearl, Malaak Compton-Rock, and Sir Elton John (inboxrobot.com). For many are called, but only a few are chosen to choose.

I must congratulate CNN and its Blue Ribbon Panel. Still, I think that the winning formula for CNN Hero of the Year should have been this:

Total Score = 90% of the panel's vote (for heroism) + 10% of the text votes (for inspiration). A formula for a different kind of genius.

And I'm sure Efren would have been pleased.

On its 3rd year, the media event CNN Hero of the Year this year registered a record number of 2.75 million online votes. Efren won $100,000 as a gift for the work his DTC volunteers love to do (spot.ph). It pays to love your work. That was on top of the $25,000 each of the 10 CNN Heroes got (ph.news.yahoo.com). It pays to be a hero.

I just didn't relish the idea that a candidate for an award for heroism would campaign for online votes. In any case, that a Filipino won is a tribute to Efren “Kuya Ef” Peñaflorida Jr's genius - to me, he who has the heart to help despite the hurt is a genius.

I love what Efren told his audience of about 3,000 at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood in Los Angeles, his brief acceptance speech delivered in a strong, clear voice if choked with emotion, with a happy face, and with Mariah Carey singing in the background "A Hero Lies In You" (I chanced on the YouTube embed by reynaelena.com) (my transcription):

Our planet is filled with heroes, young and old, rich and poor, men, women of different colors, shapes and sizes. We are one great tapestry.

Each person has a hidden hero within. You just have to look inside you, and search it in your heart, and be the hero to the next one in need.

So, to each and every person inside this theatre, and (to) those who are watching at home, the hero in you is waiting to be unleashed.

Serve. Serve well. Serve others above yourself. And be happy to serve.

As I always tell my co-volunteers, the Dynamic Teen Company and Club 8586 Incorporated, 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. Mabuhay!

Club 8586 had nominated Efren for the CNN Heroes award. Thank you CNN, and thank you Club 8586.

Did you notice Efren said planet? We are not alone. We are never alone. We need to change the whole planet. We need to change all of us. A climate change of behavior is what we need to move this country forward, to move the world forward.

Efren is talking from experience. A paradigm shift was what he had when he was a young boy. Bullied and beaten enough by kid-gangers, he wanted revenge. "I wanted to settle scores with the bullies," he says (Jose, caviteforum.com). "But I realized I could turn a bad experience into something positive." That's using your head. In contrast, in the Philippine mass media and in the streets, for a thousand days, because some boys can't be Boy Scouts and simply be preparing instead of be despairing, those boys have been vociferously calling for burning the house to get rid of a mouse. That's using your mouth.

They talk their talk, they walk their walk. Those boys never heard of charity? Efren grew up in Caridad, Cavite City (filipino.biz.ph). Caridad, Spanish for charity. In those years, he lived a life of one deserving charity, in the slums, selling corn on the streets, exposed to “drugs, violence and hopelessness.” But he had pluck, so he survived intact.

Efren became a member of Club 8586, a youth club in Cavite. His pastor mentor saw the good inside him and encouraged him to do something good for others and help stop the gang wars and frat feuds in their midst - and to save his own soul. His mentor inspired him to change his perspective (asianjournal.com). DTC joined the Club in volunteer work and outreach programs for prisoners. "For I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink. I was hungry, and you gave me to eat. I was a prisoner and you visited me." As a result, he says, “Our eyes were opened to reality, how kids who aren’t properly guided grow up to be criminals rotting in jail cells or ending up at the cemetery.”

Then at 16, in 1997, with his mentor's advice he started the DTC as a friendship club at the Cavite National High School, to lure students away from grim gangs and frazzled frats. “Gang members are groomed in the slums as early as 9 years old,” he says (edition.cnn.com). From firsthand, he knew that trouble is the hobgoblin of idle minds.

Starting with only 20 volunteers, the DTC now has 2,000 members (ph.news.yahoo.com). The volunteers teach English, Math and Science (thepoc.net). The DTC now do Balik Eskwela (Back to School), an annual event when they distribute free school supplies to poor children; they also hold medical missions in Cavite. They raise funds for their own work by making and selling crafts, and collecting and selling old newspapers and bottles (spot.ph) to recycle (edition.cnn.com).

With their carts as classrooms, they recreate for children 2 to 14 years old a school setting in odd locations such as a cemetery and garbage dump (edition.cnn.com). Ah, that's metaphor come alive: as a teacher, I love it! Art imitating life.

Now 28, Efren has been through Purgatory. In high school, gang acts were rampant; the gangs terrorized the students, vandalized the school and inducted members by forcing them to rape young girls, he says (edition.cnn.com). When he was in fourth year high school, the bullies started throwing rocks at those who refused to join their gangs (asianjournal.com). He refused to be corrupted. He remembers a confrontation with a gang leader who wanted him to become one of them. He did not. He was 16; after that, he had the insight to “divert teenagers like us to be productive” instead of destructive. Through the DTC, Efren has since been mentoring former gang members, addicts and dropouts, “seeing potential where others see problems.”

Personally, I know doing good is hard; doing bad is easy. It happens to the best! From hopelessness to hope back to hopelessness, the DTC volunteers themselves had their own epiphanies. In fact, there was a time when “We came to a point where we almost gave up,” Efren says of the DTC (asianjournal.com). It was his Club 8586 mentor who kept encouraging him: “Why would you be ashamed of doing something you know is right?”

We all need some mentoring and some sponsoring. With the help of Club 8586, Efren had finished high school; with the help of World Vision, he had gone on and finished college (caviteforum.com). He has an Associate Diploma in Computer Technology from San Sebastian College and a Bachelor’s degree in Education from the Cavite State University (spot.ph). Like me, a teacher.

My hero!

"What I'm doing is paying it forward," Efren Peñaflorida tells Anderson Cooper (ac360.blogs.cnn.com) on 6 October BC (Before CNN). Without friends, without sponsors, and without mentors:

Without them, I probably wouldn't be the person I am today. They supported my educational needs. They also gave me more than an education. They helped me start DTC and give other kids just like me an education too.

He had the idea of documenting his group "at work" one Saturday and uploaded that video on YouTube (asianjournal.com). That’s when things started to change for much better. The video caught the world’s attention, and Oprah’s Angel Network featured it in its website. In December 2008, CNN got wind of Efren and his group and got in touch with them, even suggesting that they submit their story for the CNN Hero of the Year award. As they say, the rest is history.

That proves that history repeats itself - it celebrates heroes when it discovers them. And it repeats the discovery of 2 other Pinoys, Charice and Arnel Pineda via YouTube. I'm glad that even if many Pinoys don't discover other Pinoys in their hearts, they are being discovered on YouTube.

It’s not original, Efren says of their approach. But he is the one who has given it the prestige that it deserves. Looking at it all with the eyes of a teacher (and a Civil Service eligibility, Professional Level), with Efren's Hero of the Year award, I see a revolution in education: No more classrooms! It is a sad reality that we have turned those 4 walls into a deified place. 4 walls do a prison make. Mr Secretary of Education Jesli Lapus, get me out of here!

We don't need the classroom to teach well. We just need teachers who teach well no matter where they are who they are. We have to teach the learner, but first of all the teacher.

Think of the implications to Philippine education - no more 4-walled classrooms, hard seats and stiff-necked teachers! No walls to build. No more boring classes in the ordinary sense. “If there’s one thing Efren has taught us, it’s that sometimes we need to think out of the box (or out of the classroom) to make great things possible” (Bangon Pinoy, circles.globe.com.ph). I think so too.

Perhaps all education should be out in the country. And all lessons out of the box. Here's one of those learning situations:

Efren is the first Filipino to be nominated to the award, and the first Filipino to win the top prize, breaking the record twice. That was incredible! Did you watch the replay of the announcement and speech at the Kodak Theatre? I did. When his name was announced as the CNN Hero of the Year, cheers erupted from the audience. Applause. As he rose to receive the honor, the audience stood up in ovation. A bear hug from his seatmate, a firm handshake from somebody else.

Prolonged applause. Next scene, near the stage, he stooped to pick up something that had fallen off. It was a tiny Philippine flag. He then proceeded to the stage as he stuck back the flag into his CNN trophy as one of the 10 CNN Heroes. (Now read his short acceptance speech again.) What did the falling of the Philippine flag mean? To me, it signified only one thing:

We need more heroes to put this country back together again!

So, here’s a Special Request from this Chaster: Somebody please ask little girl Charice to make a big recording of "A Hero Lies In You" in honor of Efren Peñaflorida and his volunteers. In honor of us all.

Notice how Efren delivers his little speech? Remember, he’s a teacher. He has memorized the text. Nevertheless, it’s a well-crafted acceptance speech, and he delivers well. He’s not only a good teacher; he’s a good writer too. You can’t be a good speaker if you’re not a good writer first of all.

And he has the heart. Is he the spirit of volunteerism? Yes. Volunteerism for education. Education is key, he believes. He started his Pushcart Revolution (my term) and brought them to poor children “to bring education … as an alternative to gang membership” (ph.news.yahoo.com). An alternative to ignorance.

The DTC started with him as the first volunteer. Since 1997, some 10,000 volunteers have taught more than 1,500 street children. The program is K4: Kariton Klasrum, Klinik at Kantin (thenewstoday.info). I translate that as C4: Classroom in a Cart, Clinic and Canteen. An easy story to tell, even a delight.

But first, he had to become fruitful before he could multiply. That wasn’t easy. He had to conquer his hopelessness himself, believe in God, first of all believe in himself. You see hope neither in the corn ears you sell, nor in a cart you push, nor in the books you share - rather, you see it in yourself. But you can be blind.

We should all start the change from within,” Efren says (asianjournal.com). “All of us, we should open our minds and hearts to accommodate the needs of the less fortunate and release the hero within. We are all capable of contributing to our community and to our country.” Are you having fun yet?

In 2007, his group launched the “We Are The Change” campaign “to inspire people to be the catalyst for change - in what they want to see in their home, community and the world we live in. For they believe that real change happens when we begin to touch one soul and change one heart at a time” (dynamicteencompany.org). The first heart you have to touch? Yours.

His name is from the Spanish Efren (Efrain), meaning fruitful; Peñaflorida from peña rock, florida flowery. So I say, “He is the rock that flowered and became fruitful,” transformed from a rock to a handsome place. This is the slum boy who saw no hope in the slums, but was otherwise inspired and took the journey out, and has been convincing others to take the first step out in a thousand-mile journey. It wasn’t easy for him; it isn’t easy now - but where’s the challenge if it were?

Efren says he will continue those weekly (Saturday) lessons and “hopes that it will encourage other people to lend time to help others in need” (goodnewspilipinas.com). To help others before, during and after need.

And lest we forget, or ignore, or fail to recognize, Efren "Kuya Ef" Peñaflorida Jr reminded us all on 24 October, a month before the CNN Heroes award (tvnatinto.blogspot.com):

This is not about me. If the people vote for me, they are actually voting for the poor kids DTC is teaching and the dedicated volunteers behind this work.

In fact, it's not about them either. It's about us.

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