How Sunflowers Grow: A Mission among the Street Children
Written by Fr. Geraldo Costa, Director, Sunflower Children's Center   

João was a six-year old boy I met when I was still a seminarian in Nova Iguaçu - Rio de Janeiro ( Brazil ). He was a very aggressive and very independent boy. He would take a 45-minute train ride to go to the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana and beg from tourists. Sometimes, he stayed there overnight. His poor family, and I may say a very unadjusted one, lived in our parish and there was not much to do to help the child to stay in their house.

I met four year-old Goyo in my pastoral ministry among the street children in Mexico City ( Mexico ) during my theology formation. It was there where I came across a group of children who called themselves “Los Moscas” and who became “El Clube”, a center that takes care of children found in the streets. Goyo had left home with his brother because of severe physical punishment that he suffered from his parents and grandparents. He was a cute boy with a strong character, but he would be very jealous when the attention of one staff shifts to other children. I remember the little boy crying for hours in the corner of a street if he did not receive the attention that he liked to have.

Rock and Janjan were two children whom I met in an institution for street children where I lived for two years in Metro Manila ( Philippines ). The first thing I noticed about these two children was their clinging behavior. They followed me like a shadow during the day. Benke was another child living in the same institution. Usually a very calm and sociable child, he could turn himself into a “fighting bull” when he got angry with someone, or he could be quiet or ignore a person with whom he disagreed with for several months.

Marisha was a sexually abused girl I first met in 2000. She, despite her being only seven years old, had attempted suicide and had much difficulty in dealing with other children and adults. In a processing session with her, she drew a sun surrounded by black birds to express her experience of being abused.

The faces of these children and many other faces come to my mind while I think about the beginning of our Sunflower Children's Center in Baguio City ( Philippines ). After working many years with children in need and especially after my experience of living 24 hours a day and seven days a week in an institution for street children, I realized that God was calling me to a particular mission among these children. Indeed, while with them, I noticed a kind of inner wound that could not heal, and all of them seem to be trying their best to be alright, to cope with what they had suffered, only that more often, their coping comes in a very dysfunctional way. Somehow, I noticed that these children need more than just clothes and food. There seems to be something inside them that appears to control their fate and apparent maladaptive behaviors. I still remember Mark, a nine-year-old boy who was already into drugs, who cried while talking about how he played so happily near a big tree in their family house and then suddenly, he shifted the story to his drunkard mother who physically maltreated him. Often, it seems to me that love and hatred co-exist in the heart of these kids. Then, I decided to do something more, thinking that God was calling me through the faces of these children.

By the year 2000, I was taking my masteral degree in Psychology in Saint Louis University , Baguio City . At the same time, I was a volunteer in a government institution for abandoned and neglected children. I was attending one or two children who appeared to have very dysfunctional behaviors. It was then that the idea of establishing a psychotherapeutic center for children in need of special attention started to become more concrete.

In the beginning, I only had a small therapeutic room with some toys that I used to attend to some children, especially those residing in the Center for children-victims of abuse and neglect. Looking for a place, the rector of our cicm -house for retired priests let me use a small space in Home Sweet Home Compound ( Baguio City ). But when the number of children who knocked on our doors increased without measure, the small therapeutic room was not able to accommodate all. We then transferred to a bigger space and the Sunflower Children's Center was founded. It was officially inaugurated as part of the Saint Louis University community in March 2003.

Together with me, a group of fourth year Psychology students helped in providing basic assistance and support to the children coming from the residential centers. Since the beginning, these young people joined the mission in making a difference in the lives of the young ones who seemed to have the slightest glimmer of hope in their life. With these volunteers, I believe that we were able to make a significant mark, small though it may be, in the life of the abandoned and neglected children. Some of my co-volunteers also became therapists after accomplishing their master degree in Psychology and after intensive training in psychotherapeutic interventions for children. At present, some of them are still serving the abandoned and neglected children of Baguio City and nearby regions and who are referred to Sunflower Children's Center by the social welfare department. In addition, they give assistance to the street children of Manila in a three-week summer camp that aims to help the children have a better understanding of their problems and personal issues (see related article on “Sunflowers Bloom in Summer”).

Many people ask why our Center is called Sunflower Children's Center. It is actually very simple – Baguio City is a place surrounded by beautiful sunflowers in the months of December to February. Every Sunday of these months, while on my way to the residential center for abandoned and neglected children where I volunteer, I encounter such beautiful flowers facing the blue skies. During those moments, I would ask God to help me in my task of helping the children to grow and bloom as beautifully as the sunflowers that I gaze upon along the way. This is our hope for all the children who come to Sunflower Children's Center – that they will grow like sunflowers, always facing the bright rays of the sun as they grow in their full potentials. It will always be our hope that children like João, Goyo, Marisha, Janjan and Rock might have a better way to heal with their inner wounds so they could become better and happier children.