FR. Rocky Evangelista, the Champion of Street Children, just completed his 50th anniversary as a priest. But at 77, he has no intention of retiring from his mission anytime soon. His mission: to continue to get children off the streets and back alleys, off the most unholy places, and bring them to a safe place they can call "home."

Today, "home" is located in Tuloysa Don Bosco (Tuloy) in a 4 1/2 hectare compound in Alabang, Muntinlupa City. Thanks to countless generous donors and volunteers, Tuloy now has 10 dormitories, a school and administrative building, technical-vocational skills workshops, a culinary arts center, a center for recreation and the arts, a multi-purpose sports center, an ecological productivity zone (tiered vegetable garden), a chapel, and even a world-class football field.

Tuloy is currently supporting around 800 in-house students. Tuloy also opens its sports facilities to out-of-school children from Muntinlupa and Las Piñas. Tuloy offers a well-roundedcurriculum designed to tap the potential of every child. It's classrooms, training and sports facilities can compare with what the best institutions offer. Fr. Rocky explains: "If you want to get the best out of these children, give them the best service. It redeems their dignity and self-worth and they begin to dream. When they begin to dream, you build their self-confidence. You open new avenues for them."

During his golden anniversary thanksgiving mass last Sunday, (celebrated online because of the lockdown) Father Rocky beamed with pride. "Over a period of 27 years, Tuloy has graduated thousands of former street children, raising them to be God-fearing and valuable citizens. More than 100 kids are now working at Capital One. A lot of culinary graduates are working abroad, a number of them in prestigious restaurants, hotels and luxury liners. Graduates of the performing arts and ballet are now training under the wings of international mentors. In sports, our soccer team has participated in national competitions."

But Fr. Rocky is specially proud of Tuloy graduates who have started to build their own families, and raising their own children in an environment much better than what they were born into. He is proud of those who would have otherwise have become the dregs of society. One graduate typified it best. "Were it not for Tuloy, I would have ended up either in prison or in the cemetery. Now I have a good job, my own home and my own car. I have a loving wife and children whom I plan to raise like Fr. Rocky raised me."

Prophetically, what was to become a lifelong mission started with a dream in June 23, 1993. Fr. Rocky related to CNN Philippines's Mitzi Borromeo what happened. In that dream, Fr. Rocky said he saw himself walking with some street children in a wide open field. They were looking for food and for a place to sleep. As they walked through the empty fields, the kids grew by the thousands and then the surroundings started to turn into a green meadow. Farther in the distance, they saw a brown gate. They rushed to peer through the gate and inside they saw a beautiful village. One of the children said: "It is so beautiful inside, Father. But it is not for us. Because we are poor."

Father Rocky said he woke up crying. His eyes were opened. He felt he was jarred out of his comfort zone. He felt he was being called. On that fateful night, Fr. Rocky said he saw his role in God's grand plan. "It was a call, within a call, to make me more faithful to my vocation."

At the start, he went out from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., searching for children living in the streets, under bridges, inside cemeteries, observing how they fended for themselves. What he saw shocked him and he promised he would not rest until he could give the street children at least a pillow to sleep on.

Fr. Rocky was among the few who had the privilege of finishing his priesthood training in Rome where he was ordained by no less than Pope Paul VI. Fr. Rocky had spent his earlier years either as rector, administrator or principal or president of a Don Bosco school. So the Father Superior was most surprised when Fr. Rocky offered (two weeks after the life-changing dream) to give up his "comfortable" position in order to start a center for street kids. His father, for a while, did not take too kindly to Fr Rocky's decision. The elder Evangelista, formerly ever supportive, thought Fr. Rocky was being demoted. But there was no stopping Fr. Rocky.

Aided by 10 lay volunteers, Fr. Rocky started the Center in Don Bosco, Makati with 12 street-toughened children. The initial problem was one of discipline. The wards were enrolled in a nearby public school. But Fr. Rocky and his volunteers spent most of their time going either to the school principal's office or to the police precinct because the wards have been involved in fights. "At one time, we were averaging 36 incidents a day," exclaimed Fr. Rocky. Fr. Rocky recounted the case of one child he picked up in Divisoria. At the center, the new ward was washed, clothed, fed and given his towel and toilet necessities. The next morning, he was gone, carting away even the belongings of other wards. Father Rocky understood. "These children grew in a tough environment. For them, every adult was either a victim or an exploiter. So it takes time for them to accept what we were doing. Is this for real or am I just being set up?"

Fr. Rocky had to change the outlook and mindset of each ward. "I asked each child the following: Are you poor? Do you accept you are poor? Do you want to do something about your life? Do you have a dream? Are you willing to obey the rules? Once he said 'yes,' I knew I got him." Fr. Rocky's secret in transforming the children is rather simple, although easier said than done. "You build their self-confidence. You open new avenues for them to express themselves. Teach them skills for life. Sports brings fun and teaches them respect, fair play, building friendship and building character." He borrows a lesson learned from his father: "Do ordinary things extra-ordinarily well." The wards soon swelled to 50, then 100, and soon Tuloy had to look for a bigger venue. That's how they got to Alabang. The rest is history.

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