Archive for April, 2014

The Man behind the Soup Kitchen, Part 2

by on Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

After Benjie’s mother hands her an apple, a little girl touches the back of his mother’s hand to her forehead as a gesture of respect. The sign in the back reads, :”Free food for the hungry, free drink for the thirsty.”

If you go to the corner of Examiner Street and Quezon Ave in Quezon City, and you go on a weekend night, look for the parking lot of the Bank of Commerce where Benjie sets up his soup kitchen. The turnout varies. I’ve seen a low of maybe forty and a high of maybe a hundred and fifty people waiting patiently or helping to set up by bringing stuff from Benjie’s house nearby. They get a full meal. something to drink and a dessert. The people are orderly, friendly and grateful. When I stop by there to bring a dessert or take pictures I always happier when I leave than when I came.  

Benjie’s story

Benjie with one of the soup kitchen children

In 2012 when I was walking home from my job at the call center I saw two kids eating fried chicken from the dumpster. I thought to myself that if I just felt sorry for them and went on, that would be the end of it. Pity them and go on. I decided to set up a soup kitchen. I started it with my younger daughter and my niece. We set up a small table on the street corner and twelve people showed up. We served scrambled eggs and rice. It grew into a larger activity because people supported me, and I operated three times every week. So that’s about it.

What about your friendship with the squatters?

Okay, you’re talking about the squatters in Makati. First, I have a friend who’s influential, not because he’s rich but because he has many friends. He’s a policeman who did dirty work for the Marcos government and the Cory transition. He was supplying me with drugs, but he was giving them to me for free. His sons were also policemen, and they were saying, “Dad, we’re not in the business of giving that boy drugs.” Actually, he was not selling drugs but just giving them to me. He was about thirty or forty years my senior. He brought me to his friends. Most of them were from a poor neighborhood. I think they were his assets. In solving crimes they need those kinds of people.

Oh, you mean informers.

Yes. When I went to the policeman’s safe house, I met a man from the forest of Montalban. We became friends. Through him I later met Jose, the guy you met from Makati. So that was the beginning of the friendship. I was his friend because he was a friend of my friend. During the times I was quite well off, I brought them clothes, food or building materials.

This was before your father got sick.

Yes. The people we met were from the boondocks. The guy from Makati and I, we’d bring them to basketball games. Poor people really appreciate that. They never thought that one day they’d be watching live professional basketball games ( PBA)  inside the Areneta Coliseum. We had four or five people, but I also had friends guarding the gates. I could bring in five, ten people at a time without paying. They knew I was bringing in people from the poor. Sometimes rebels from the New People’s Army, not because they were rebels but because I knew they are from the mountains. They appreciated it because they’d been so isolated in the mountains. They didn’t know what a mall looked liked. They’d had no opportunity to watch basketball games.

I also have friends who are military rebel soldiers. During Cory’s time there were rebellions, as you can see on the internet about the Reformed Armed Forces Movement [which was instrumental in the destabilization of presidencies of Ferdinand Marcos and Cory Aquino.] After the failed coup attempt against Corazon Aquino, they were holed up in the Amoranto Sports Complex in Quezon City. They had no food. One of them was my friend, so I brought them food.

Eventually these rebel soldiers left. Some of them are now in government, while others are in prison. They are among my connections because I fed them. So the reason I have no qualms when my children go out, besides the protection of my higher power, is I think no one would dare put a hand on my children because I have friends all over. I have friends from heaven and friends from hell. I’m connected with military right-wing soldiers and leftist rebels. When we were still rich, when I had birthday parties, the guests would be rebel soldiers, soldiers, communist rebels and then ex-convicts and policemen. They would all be sitting at the same table, drinking. They won’t be arguing. They would just be celebrating because it was my birthday. It was just like I was a safe pass. I brought policemen to the rebel-infested mountains for a holiday. It was okay. I brought communist rebels down here to enjoy the city. It was okay. That was me way back then. It seems improbable, but I was able to do that. One of my friends told you I let my children stay with them in the squatters’ area for two and a half days.

Benjie opens a box of goodies from abroad

Explain why you decided to do that.

It was in the early 1990s. We were still financially well-off. I was in the early stages of my marriage. I had two young children, probably age four and five, and I noticed they seemed to be aloof with poor people. There was prejudice. I also saw that with my wife. I’m not saying they were bad, but they’d always been in a rich environment with rich people. I thought they were beginning to think they were better than the poor.

It’s certainly a very common failing.

Yes. They didn’t know I had friends with the poor—or at least how deep my friendships were. So I told my wife and that we were going on vacation and they should pack up their things for two days and two nights. They were happy to do as I said. Then I brought them to Makati to this depressed area. I left them with those people for two and a half days. They had to experience it firsthand. If I’d been there they would have been clinging to me and asking me to ask people to do things for them. So they had to experience firsthand drinking coffee that’s so weak it looks like tea. They were able to share a room the size of our bathroom with six or seven people. So it turned out good for me and for them. They began to appreciate that it’s better to see poor people as just the same as rich people. These people are really appreciative. They don’t ask for anything. Most of the time, it’s the poor who are more charitable, more kind. They will give you everything they have. So that was probably the start of my family’s relationship with the poor.

Now my two older children are grown up, when they go to Makati these people are very fond of my kids. One is an engineer and one is working with Philippine Airlines. I think my wife and I raised them properly because we taught them how to love, which I think is very rare now that people are being taught to love themselves. I taught my family to love others. So that’s it.

Why don’t you talk a little bit about the soup kitchen?

Girls at the soup kitchen

I started the soup kitchen on May 5, 2012. During one of the typhoons, I think it was 2011, a northern part of Luzon in Bulacan was under water. I saw that in the news. They really needed relief goods like fresh water and food that was already cooked. I didn’t buy mineral water because it was too expensive. I took empty soft drink bottles and filled them with boiled water. I’m not rich but I wanted to help. My younger daughter and I cooked some noodles and packed them up. Then we brought the stuff to Bulacan with the help of some soldiers who were there to keep discipline. So that was the first major act of charity.

When I got home my Facebook friends asked about it. They asked me to post some pictures. So I did. They saw the pictures and asked when I was going back because they wanted to make donations. I told them I’d go back if they sent some money. They sent about 10,000 pesos, and I went back with rice and canned goods. After that other people said if I needed help they’d send some.

Then sometime in April 2012, when I saw those kids eating  from a dumpster, I decided to start a soup kitchen. First it was once a week. I had money left over, so I made it three times a week. Now that it’s three times a week there’s money coming from friends, but we can’t rely on that forever. Some will break off, some will need money themselves, and some may lose trust in me. For whatever reasons there won’t be regular supporters. Right now it’s not more than four or five people, and they don’t give enough to maintain a soup kitchen three times a week. I’m not complaining. I’ll do my best to maintain it. I’m thankful. Because I’m not soliciting from anybody, most of the time I have to use my own finances. But it’s okay. After all, it was my pledge to God.

I was also able to bring school supplies to three or four public schools. For the almost two years the soup kitchen has been running, I was able to give about 200-400 slippers and school supplies. I went to Montalban, so far that we had to walk for an hour just to bring school supplies.

This work is very supportive of my spirit although it’s very taxing to my finances. But it’s okay. I’m still surviving. I’m not doing this because I want to show off but because of my pledge, which came from gratitude to my higher power. And I’m grateful for my family.

Now why don’t you talk some about the interaction between you and the people who come to the soup kitchen?

Guys goofing off after dinner

In setting up a soup kitchen, you really have to be patient. You really have to be more than a psychologist. All of these people are outcasts. Most of them have personal and behavioral problems, probably because they’re outcasts. Maybe 70% of the people I feed have families, but they’re sleeping on the streets because they can’t get along with them. All I can do now is feed them. I also tried to give them an opportunity to earn money, but they have a different outlook in life. Very seldom do I see a sense of responsibility. They just want dole-outs. So I make it a point not to give them money.

Some people tell me that feeding them just keeps them asking me for food. It’s like I’m encouraging them to be beggars. Well, I just want to feed them. Some of them also go to our house when there’s no feeding. They come to our house, knock at our gate, and if I have extra food I cook for them. Food is for everyone.

I’ve heard that in other soup kitchens there’s a big free-for-all and everybody grabbing food. Can you explain what you do to keep discipline and make people stand in line with nobody eating until after the prayer?

Waiting for dinner

To instill discipline in street people you really have to be tough inside. That’s was the first thing I had to consider before I set it up. Some of these people are convicts. Some have broken the law but haven’t been caught yet. The law they follow is the law of the streets, survival of the fittest. During the first month I had to psych them out. I had to show I’m the alpha male but not belittle them. I knew I had to instill discipline.

You know I stood in front of a classroom for 37 years, right?

(Laugh) Eventually they learned. It might seem I was exerting control for my own ego, but I was doing it for them. Otherwise it would have been impossible. Every now and then, new people come, like someone who just got out of jail and wants to show off. I have to show them that I’m willing to rough it up with them, but with my higher power I’m able to control them. In other soup kitchens, once the food is laid out people just lunge at the food, breaking the table and sending the food flying all over. But I made a point of saying that without discipline I’d put a stop to it. I made it clear that actually they’re not following my orders. “If you think of it this way I am your slave. I cook for you. I wash the dishes for you. I do the marketing for you. What I’m asking of you is that you help me keep this orderly.”

So that’s it. There’s been only one fight, and that was because of another incident. This was before food was served, and I was able to separate them. They probably saw that I wasn’t joking and that I could enforce what I said.

Thomas’s family home and business on wheels

I think I’ve seen quite a bit of affection between you and the people who are fed in the soup kitchen.

Yes, well, I think that has to be automatic. Without affection no one would do this for so long. If I had the viewpoint of someone who is well-off, I might be aloof. I might think a peso given to another is a peso taken away from my own. But I love these people.

Your family is still in the meat business, right?

Yes, but the business is so small it only pays for our employee. When my wife and I took it over we made it a point not to deal with anyone asking for a commission under the table. We only have two clients, Chili’s and Texas Grill. Business with them is clean. In the Philippines there’s always corruption. Money talks. In Marcos’s time the important thing was not what you knew but who you knew. Now it’s what you give them. Even if you’re the devil, if you give them money they’ll make you a saint.


The Man behind the Soup Kitchen, Part 1

by on Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

Benjie on his way

If you go to the corner of Examiner Street and Quezon Ave in Quezon City, and you go on a weekend night, look for the parking lot of the Bank of Commerce where Benjie sets up his soup kitchen. The turnout varies. I’ve seen a low of maybe forty and a high of maybe a hundred and fifty people waiting patiently or helping to set up by bringing stuff from Benjie’s house nearby. They get a full meal. something to drink and a dessert. The people are orderly, friendly and grateful. When I stop by there to bring a dessert or take pictures I always happier when I leave than when I came.  

Benjie’s story

I went to kindergarten at a Dominican school within walking distance of our home. Most of my friends were from the have-nots. When I brought them home, my mom didn’t approve. I remember thinking, I don’t care if they’re poor. They’re my friends. So probably that was the start of my love affair with the poor.

On my sixth birthday my parents and my godmother came to my school with things for the class to eat. The nun told me to stand in front of the class. She asked me, “Who is the person you love the most?” I thought if I said either one of my parents, the other one would get jealous. They both would be if be if I said my godmother. The nun asked me to write the answer on the board. So I wrote, “God.” Later the nun called my dad and said, “Mr. Abad, let’s help each other. I think your son is bright.”

In the second grade I had a nun who was quite strict. The class was supposed to memorize the Apostles’ Creed, which was probably 60 or 70 words. She called on me first. How could I have memorized that prayer in five minutes? When she called me up to recite, I just stared at her and smiled. She was irritated, so at lunchtime she wouldn’t let me eat my lunch. I was okay with that. The problem was I was eating my lunch at home, and my father saw me and asked why I hadn’t eaten it earlier. When I told him the story he got very angry.

We weren’t rich, but my dad was influential. He was friends with Ferdinand Marcos, who was the current president. So he went to the school and threatened to go to the Department of Education to get it closed down. He said, “This is child abuse. You shouldn’t prevent my son from eating his lunch.” They’d given me a low grade for poor conduct, but my dad was so angry they fixed up the grades. I transferred to the primary school at the University of Santo Thomas, partially because my mom was a dressmaker with a client who was a teacher at UST. I had to make some adjustments, but that incident caused me to treat my own children in a non-dictatorial way.

At UST I was quite a good student. I was given awards and medals, but my parents were never there because they were always busy. My mother had a dressmaking shop, and my father ran errands for her, like buying fabric at the market or making deliveries. In the early 1970s, about the time I graduated from primary school, the ready-to-wear business was introduced to the Philippines, and people were buying their clothes from department stores instead of having them made. My family was really struggling. I remember hearing that I was very sick and my dad begged his sister for money for my hospitalization.

Mom’s business was failing, so she started buying meat from the market and delivering it to restaurants. Most of her siblings were also in that business. I remember overhearing a phone call—either I was standing beside my mom or I was naughty and picked up the extension. The man on the other end said, “Is this Mrs. Abad?” She said yes. “I believe you’re in the meat business.” “Yes, but we just supply meat to one or two restaurants.” He said, “I’m with Silahas International hotel and Philippine Village.” These establishments were owned by the Enriques, friends of Marcos. “Would you like to be our meat supplier?” She said, “We don’t have the money to supply you with the volume you want.” “Okay, for the first three or four months, we’ll pay you cash. Once you have enough capital, you can provide us with terms and give us a month or two to pay.”

My mom was dumbfounded. In hindsight, all of these hotels—like the Manila hotels, the Peninsula, Rustan’s supermarket, Manila Hilton, 80% of the hotels and businesses, as well as Makati Sports Club, Metropolitan Sports Club, Green Valley, Valley Verde, Quezon City Sports Club, Alabang Country Club—all of them are run by Marcos cronies. Ferdinand Marcos was the current president, and my dad had been his campaign manager during his 1965 presidential campaign, when he won against the incumbent, Macapagal. Dad worked with former Sen. Ernie Maceda, who was I think also campaign manager then. At that time Manila had been pro-Macapagal, especially in the district of Sampaloc in Manila. President Marcos addressed my dad as the old vanguard of Sampaloc. Marcos won there by a landslide. The two other gentlemen who campaigned with my dad got high government positions, Sen. Maceda and I think Administrator Llanes of MWSS. I still have the letter Marcos wrote my dad offering him a high position.

Dad just went on with his life. So probably Marcos told these guys that he owed my dad a debt of gratitude and they should look out for him and give him the opportunity to be successful as well. When I was young the village officials—that’s the barangay captains—would sometimes come to our place, a small apartment in a poor neighborhood near the University of Santo Tomas. We had just four rooms because we were renting out two rooms to students at the university.

The barangay officials said, “Mr. Abad, we were in Malacañang [the presidential palace] yesterday.” That was 1973-74, during martial law, when Marcos gave 10,000 pesos to the barangay head just for showing up at the meeting. [This was such a common practice that it was mentioned in my Tagalog language textbook, a relic of the 1960s.] At that time it was a lot, maybe worth 300,000 to 500,000 now. The kagawads, the council members, got 5,000 each. The meetings were at the Hero’s Hall in Malacañang. The officials said, “President Marcos is quite angry. He’s looking for you.” “Why?” “Because there’s two bags of money for you every time your name is called, and you’re not there.” Paper bags of money had been piling up for him.

It was just like giving bones to a loyal dog. My dad told them, “I helped Marcos, but not because I wanted something in return. I helped Marcos because I believed in him and because he was an Ilocano just like me.”

When I was in my twenties I finally worked this out from my childhood memories. As a teenager I was quite a rebel. I used to take my dad’s letter from Marcos and his 45-caliber and bring them with me to parties. This was during martial law. Carrying a gun was a capital offense. Every time I was apprehended by the police, I just showed them the letter, and I was let off. My dad had no idea I was using his influence. He was very angry when he found out. It was all just for the hang of it, just a teenager’s bravado. I had a gun. But I didn’t point it at anyone. I didn’t abuse anyone.

During that time I was making friends with the poor, like the ones we visited, who’ve been my friends for twenty years now. []

When we were living in that small apartment, I was raising homing pigeons on the rooftop. I loved those pigeons. But apparently they were wrecking havoc on the neighbor, who was a lawyer. So this guy went to the police headquarters and filed a complaint against my dad. The policeman came to our house and said, “Mr. Abad, please come down to the station. You’ve got some explaining to do.” My dad obliged. We had this dilapidated car, a late 60s Opel Cadet station wagon we used it to deliver meat. At the police station the lawyer and the officials were smirking, like, “Now we’ve got you.” They questioned my dad, and he gave them something, I think the letter from Marcos. They took it inside the commander’s office. When the officer returned, he was pale and he saluted and said, “Sir, Why didn’t you tell us who you were?” “I shouldn’t have to do that. I didn’t do anything wrong. You invited me here.” The lawyer was quite shocked at being upstaged in this scene. The policemen never came back.

My dad is also an alcoholic. When he woke up in the morning he downed shots of whiskey or rum. During martial law—even now—a minor was not allowed to buy liquor. But the liquor store owner sold to me because he wouldn’t get arrested. My dad was that influential. As obedient child I never went because I was afraid of my dad. I wanted to obey. Because of his alcoholism, arguments between my parents were frequent. I remember watching television, and they were walking in front of me because the apartment was so small. On one of those occasions I just stood up and said, “If you won’t stop this, why don’t you separate?” They stopped.

I was playing in the streets with kids who were really poor. They didn’t even have slippers [flip-flops]. That’s why even now when I see people without slippers I give them some. I brought my friends home with me. My mom was angry because the bed was dirty from people jumping on it.

In high school I really wanted to impress my parents and do them proud. The first year I got good grades, and I thought finally they would appreciate my efforts. But they didn’t. So after I was sent to a higher section in second year, it started a spiraling downward. Most of my energy then went to just passing. My grades went from the higher 80s to 75 or 76. In my third or fourth year the class advisor said, “I think you’re intelligent. So why are your grades just barely passing?” I said, “Ma’am, that’s harder. I don’t have any failing grades. All my grades are just passing, 76, 75. 77. It’s hard to hit an exact score.”

At the end of high school there was a national college entrance examination. I think it was from seven in the morning to one in the afternoon, with an hour for each subject. But my grandfather had just died, and that was the day of his funeral, which was a long way away. So I asked the proctor. “Can I just take the exam all at once and leave?” Luckily, he agreed. So I took it in an hour and a half or two hours and left. A week later I was called the principal’s office. They showed me my grades and the exam, which was 99+. Only the class salutatorian had a grade that high. They said, Mr. Abad, is this true?” I said, “Why, do you think I cheated? That was such an easy exam.” They said, “You’re just bragging.” “No, I’m not. If you want me to take it over, I’ll do it in two hours.” My teachers teased me by asking how I managed to cheat. Since we were seated in alphabetical order, I was right in front. I said I didn’t have to cheat. That was one of my proud moments because I knew I had something others didn’t. I was an under-achiever because of the lack of support. What was the sense of having all these awards if my family didn’t appreciate it?

After the offer to supply meat to the hotel, our finances improved. In 1982 we moved to an affluent neighborhood in Quezon City near the house of the current president. I was sixteen and in my first year at the university. Now I had everything I wanted, I did everything a son shouldn’t do. I drank a lot, I took drugs, I gambled, I womanized. I did crazy things, but abusing people was never one of them. And taking advantage of the poor was never one of them. I don’t know, my heart is always with the poor people. I have made so many friends among the poor that now they’re my children’s friends.

I went to college at the University of Santo Tomas to the College of Commerce. I was just an ordinary student. I was full of bravado. I wanted to show off. I was always the leader in my group, and I always had a need to tangle with authority, like getting into discussions with teachers. I wasn’t able to finish my college studies, but I had the distinction of attending for nine years without getting kicked out. Supposedly if you do five years without finishing a four-year course you will be kicked out. One semester when I dropped all my classes the dean asked me to come to his office. “We have to kick you out because you dropped all your subjects.” I told them there were personal reasons. He asked me to bring my parents the next day so he could talk with them. I said, “Sir, I’m not in high school anymore. You don’t have to talk with my parents. You can talk with me. I’ve been in your university since I was in elementary school. All I want is to finish my studies here.” “Okay, come back tomorrow.” I went back and he said, “Okay, Mr. Abad, even if it takes you twenty years, you can finish your studies here because you have been here so long. So that’s the sad story of the college education I wasn’t able to finish. I didn’t finish three minor class requirements: Spanish, a computer class, military and physical education.  I shouldn’t have obeyed my parents when they said I should take up commerce because we were in business.  My first choice would have been Astronomy.

So now we went from being poor to being quite rich. We had three cars, we had a big house, and there were parties at all of my parents’ birthdays. We had all of these fair weather friends. I wasn’t able to make the transition. I never enjoyed moving with the socialites. I thought all my dad wanted was to prove to his relatives that he was now successful. I only went to the family parties if they were at our house. Most of my godparents were Marcos cronies just like those who owned the hotels. I was not able to integrate with the socialites. I still spent my time with the poor. I brought food, and if they needed some I brought sheets of galvanized iron to fix their houses. When the squatters’ colony was razed by fire—the one in Makati that we visited—I brought about 60 sheets.

So I became an addict. But I didn’t put a stain on our name, and I never abused anyone. Probably my addiction was hardest on my parents and my wife. I used drugs from my first year of college, when I was sixteen, until I was thirty-four. In high school I did everything within the rules, but in college I had adventures.

In 1987 I married this girl who is still my wife and I hope will be until I die. I’m quite lucky that she didn’t leave me. I have three kids with her and one with another girl. My wife was able to shrug it off. Now I’m clean and sober. My gambling is not that bad. Once in a while I buy a lottery ticket. I used to go to casinos and squander lots of money from my mom and my dad. I had to settle down. I have to be grateful because I have a good wife and good children.

In 1982 my parents went from being poor to being rich, and then the reversal came. I was released from rehab on June 21, 2000.  I’d been there for six months. When I went home I learned my dad had suffered a stroke. That was the start of the downward spiral. He had three strokes within a span of three or four years. With the last one he was disabled. He lost his balance. He couldn’t eat with his mouth. He had tubes all over him. And the expense for medical care, including medicines and nurses, was so high it was just like getting robbed.

Health insurance was one of the things my parents had overlooked. Probably they thought their savings would be enough, not knowing that my dad would be bed-ridden for four years. The expense was enormous. We were forced to sell our “big house” and set up a small one. That was okay with me. I wasn’t born rich, so the transition was not hard for me. Life is too short to waste on whether you’re rich to poor. It’s okay. At least I know we took good care of my dad. The proceeds from the sale of our house were used up, and I was forced to go to work.

I hadn’t worked during my first 33 or 34 years. I just looked after the family business. If you’re the son of the owner it may seem like you’re working, but I wasn’t. I made deliveries and collections, but I didn’t do any paperwork. I didn’t talk with clients. But after Dad got sick I worked at a call center for I think three and a half to four years. It was fun. I was able to prove to my wife and my family and my friends that I could work efficiently because I had several recognitions for my efforts. For me it was a challenge to talk with Americans eight hours a day. I thought they thought I was an American. The problem was it was very hard to work every night and sleep during the day. The first two years I worked in ICT, a call center in Mandaluyong City, with the General Motors account. So I was talking with Americans about their vehicles, their loans, their titles, their plates—what have you. That was for two and a half years, usually from eight in the evening to four in the morning or from ten to seven. It varied. Sometimes it was one in the morning until night. It was quite taxing to the body.

When my dad died I told myself, okay, I did my part. I just want to relax. A year later one of my supervisors called me and said, “I’m with another company. If you join us you’ll be promoted in six months. Well, I went. Unfortunately, it seemed like every time it looked like I was going to be successful something happened. I finally resigned. Now my job is maintaining a soup kitchen.

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