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Come and See: Ballet in the Slums

Rising from the slums of Manila, this ballet troupe of orphans and impoverished children shines God’s light.


You can picture the kids in your ministry who break your heart. That’s because you know who they are. You know their stories, their home lives. But regardless of circumstances, God’s relentless love shines on them through you.

Let me inspire you through a truly beautiful story of transformation. It shows what love can do when adults care. From piles of putrid garbage to sparkling mirrors of ballet studios, God pursued these kids with relentless affection. Because that’s what he does.

Come to the Philippines

The country’s tourism tagline says, “It’s more fun in the Philippines.”

It is fun in the Philippines when the diamond-turquoise ocean sparkles on white sandy beaches lined with swaying palm trees.

It’s fun when quirky monkeys swing from limb to limb, showing off like playful preschoolers.

But it’s not fun if you’re someone like Jessa or the thousands of street kids grow- ing up in the slums of Manila.

First, Jessa’s Story

We toured Philippine Christian Fellowship (PCF), an elementary school bursting with bubbly, beaming children eagerly waving at us, the American oddities strolling their halls. I paused in the stairwell to glance out a concrete window overlooking the river where heaps of garbage covered the shanty neighborhood.

It’s here in the shanty neighborhood someone discovered Jessa’s extraordinary talent. Jessa could dance.

Her graceful skills as a ballerina eventually landed her with Ballet Manila, a renowned professional ballet company.

Jessa’s Neighborhood

Jessa took us to her neighborhood. The sights, sounds, and smells of the slum are overpowering. A light rain drizzled like tears as we trudged through the slime, slop, and sludge. The slippery gray mud emitted the stench of rotting garbage. For generations, Jessa’s family has made its living here as garbage scavengers.

Weathered women squatted around garbage bags bulging with empty water bottles. They peeled off the labels so they could sell
the plastic bottles again. A naked 2-year-old darted by. Men, women, teenagers, and children slogged past like zombies in a real-but-not-real movie.

We made our way up the rickety slat-board steps to Jessa’s second-story home. The size of a minivan, it housed her family of six.

It’s here, all huddled on the edge of a bed, that we interviewed Jessa. Amazingly articulate, she told us her Cinderella story.

Her brother and parents smiled proudly. As she told her story, I couldn’t help but notice the yellow-weathered newspaper clippings taped to the wall, hanging like gold medals that told of Jessa’s many dance achievements.

Jessa’s New Home

After we bade the family farewell, we traveled to Jessa’s new “home,” where she and her mother stay while Jessa pursues her ballet.

We went from grime and stench to pristine mirrors reflecting a lush jungle garden as we entered a stunningly beautiful open-air ballet studio. Classical music replaced the sounds of hammers pounding trashed computers for parts to sell.

Jessa emerged like a beautiful butterfly. She gracefully balanced on her toes and leaped through the air, flying with the other dancers in her ballet troupe.

Jessa’s story has a happy ending because a loving adult plucked Jessa from hopelessness and gave her possibilities. A loving adult noticed something magical in her. A loving adult rescued her from living in the dump as a trash scavenger and saw her as a beautiful ballerina.

You, too, can notice kids. You can rescue kids. God loves to partner with you to express his love to children. As author William Paul Young says, “There’s nothing so lost he can’t find it…God pursues us with relentless affection. Because that’s what love does.”

“He will redeem them from oppression and violence, for their lives are precious to him” (Psalm 72:14).

Meet the Orphans of Tuloy

More than 11 million people cram metro Manila. Here, thousands and thousands of children are destitute, destined for a life of crime, drugs, prostitution, or worse. It’s amid this darkness that we met three adults whose hearts broke for these kids.

Father Rocky, a beloved priest, created Tuloy, which is a shelter and school for more than 200 street kids and orphans, a worldwide ministry connected with Don Bosco Ministries.

Cherish Garcia founded and directs Academy One, a music and dance studio for the kids in ballet.

Andy Maluche, an artist and photographer, is capturing on film the story of rugged street kids who’ve transformed into graceful ballet dancers.

On a mission of confidence, hope, and dream-giving, these caring adults have made a tremendous difference with hundreds
of children in the Philippines. Through them, boys and girls alike have discovered the gift of ballet.

Tour of Tuloy

These three compassionate collaborators took us to the gated orphanage. They arranged for our tour of Tuloy, a beautiful campus of dormitories, classrooms, a church, and a gym: a stark contrast from the slum right across the street.

To my delight, the leaders assigned children to give us the tour. What a treat!

Three kind girls guided me. The first words out of their mouths:

“Hi, I’m Kimberly. I’m abandoned.”

“Hi, I’m Mary Grace. I’m an orphan.”

“Hi, I’m Elizabeth. I’m poor.”

I’d never heard such direct and proud ownership of one’s past. It took me off guard but taught me a lesson of how many of us aren’t as swift to say where we come from. I liked these girls’ refreshing honesty. For in that, they not only own their past but also own the hopeful future God has placed before them.

They bubbled over about how much they love ballet. I sensed this graceful dance form gave them purpose. Photographer Andy told us, “It’s therapeutic for them. They gain self-confidence and discipline. They love discipline because they know what it’s like without discipline, and they don’t want anything to do with that anymore.”

He recalled one orphan who was so afraid that he wouldn’t speak and hid in a cabinet when practice first started. Now that shy child is a transformed, proud teenager.

Cherish, the teacher at the dance studio, says, “These kids are fearless. I tell them to jump, and they ask, ‘how high?’ ”

Father Rocky smiles and says, “Children naturally love to play, sing, dance, and shout.” Nothing brings him more joy than seeing these children transformed.

God’s Relentless Love

My sweet tour guides walked close to me, held my hands, shielded me with an umbrella when it started to sprinkle. They showed such grace and compassion.

Loving adults transformed them through a loving, disciplined home environment—and ballet.

One of the girls said while demonstrating, “When I dance in ballet, I feel like I’m flying!”

After immersing myself in these kids’ world, I felt like I was flying, too. God’s relentless affection grabbed hold of my heart through these precious kids just the way he’s grabbed hold of their lives.

JOANI SCHULTZ is the Chief Creative Officer of Group, a speaker, and the co-author of Why Nobody Wants to Be Around Christians Anymore. (group.com)

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Come and See: Ballet in the Slums

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