The street child with a heart of gold
Filipino Cechell Altea Oftedal grew up on the streets of Manila and knows how tough life can be. Now she wants to help others in need."When I was little, I thought it was quite normal to beg and search for food in garbage," says Cechell.
She came into the world under the poorest of circumstances and did not have a home. Her mother had to move to Hong Kong to work as an au pair when Cechell was only 8 months old. Cechell remained in the Philippines with her father who was unemployed as well as an alcoholic and a drug addict, and was unable to take care of the young girl. They lived in sheds made of cardboard and plastic, and the father was often absent due to his own problems.
- There was a lot of arguing and fighting among the adults, but I learned not to get too scared by it — I just sort of tuned it all out."I was a happy and energetic child, and did not think so much about how bad off we really were. I played with other poor children. We ran around the streets and took on small jobs like selling cigarettes and cheap slippers and sandals - and we begged for money and searched for food that people threw in the garbage.
"We were so happy if we found some food, and would eat and then continue to play. Children are incredibly resilient. As long as we had friends to be with, we felt we were fine. We saw that other people had money, ate at restaurants and bought nice clothes and things; it was a world beyond our own lives, but we thought this was unattainable for us.
It may sound a little odd, but I have pretty good memories of my childhood.
CHAOS AND SUBSTANCE ABUSEThe adults to which she related were friends and acquaintances of her father. It was an environment characterised by a lot of chaos, substance abuse and failure to care for children.
"There was a lot of arguing and fighting among the adults, but I learned not to get too scared by it — I just tuned it all out. But I was a little worried that my father would die, since I sometimes saw him with a heroin syringe in his arm and he would become distant and poorly.
Cechell’s mother realised that the father could not take care of his daughter and one day the grandmother came and picked Cechell up. Her father realised that it was best that the grandmother took over Cechell’s care.
My grandmother meant everything to me. She gave me a home, clothed me and helped me in every way possible. I miss her very much now that I live in Norway, but fortunately we can talk to each other on the phone as often as we can. She holds a huge place in my heart.
RESOURCEFUL AND OPTIMISTICCechell has not yet turned 30, but she has experienced more than most of us do in a lifetime. She was only 8 months old when her mother had to find a job in Hong Kong. Cechell’s parents were never married and her mother got pregnant when she was only 17 years old. After many years in Hong Kong, she met a Norwegian man, got married and moved to Norway. Then she was finally able to pick up her young daughter, who, at that time, lived with her grandmother in the Philippines.
"I had not seen my mother since I was a baby. When I arrived in Norway I was 14 years old and that was a very big change. The reunion with my mother, a new father, a new school, a new city, a new country, a new language. It was a huge transition, but I got along alright. I made friends at school, but also experienced a good deal of bullying.
It is never easy to be different among children and adolescents. Cechell felt this in the form of ugly comments about her clothes and appearance. She was good at school and got good marks, but she was bullied too. Even as an adult, she has experienced unpleasant, racist incidences. But the resourceful and optimistic girl never lost her courage.
"I feel lucky to live in this beautiful country and to have opportunities for education and work. I can be incredibly hurt when somebody hurls bad comments at me and tries to get to me because I have a different background and I look Asian, but I quickly bounce back; I never let myself break.
"But everyday racism and discrimination are something we must take seriously. I kept the surname Oftedal even though my mother and my step father got divorced after a few years. I thought it would be easier to get a job with a Norwegian surname. It should not be that way, but I have experienced racism both at work and in everyday life.
- I am realistic enough to understand that not everyone can live like we do here in Norway, but I am also stubborn enough to never give up.
HEARTS4KIDSCechell works hard to achieve the goals she sets for herself. And she is talented and knowledgeable, which is apparent when talking to her. Her background as a child from the streets of the big city of Manila have made her strong-willed, and maybe she is more aware of the most important values in life than most of us. A few years ago, she started working as an assistant at Bik Bok, and has now climbed the ladder and become the manager of a Bik Bok store in Kristiansand. She is interested in clothes, but above all, she is most interested in helping other people. That is why she started the relief organisation Hearts4Kids Philippines five years ago. Hearts4Kids Philippines collects money, clothes and toys to help street children in the slums of Manila where Cechell herself comes from. Hearts4Kids is an internationally-recognised organisation.
"Hearts4Kids Philippines is my baby, and I'm going to work with it for the rest of my life. People can visit our website hearts4kids.no and see what we are working on. We need all the support we can get. A small contribution from those of us living in Norway can make a big difference to poor children in the Philippines. For example, just NOK 100 can cover schooling for one child for an entire year. All contributions are valuable.
“DREAMLAND”Cechell has received a lot of recognition for the work she does with Hearts4Kids. She has been interviewed in mainstream media and written articles in newspapers; even a documentary about her has been made called "Dreamland".
"But the best thing of all was to travel back to Manila and to the streets where I grew up. It was so touching to meet old friends again after all these years. We held each other and cried for joy, talking about the old days and everything we did when we were young. But it was also sad to see new generations are growing up on the street.
I am realistic enough to understand that not everyone can live like we do here in Norway, but I am also stubborn enough to never give up. I want to work and do everything I can to help others have a better life. My father has been able to get his life more under control over the years, and now he helps me a lot with Hearts4Kids; he organises quite a bit down there.
Norway is my home now, and I do not see myself going back to the Philippines to live. I have a job, a boyfriend and a life in Norway, and feel that I can make the most from living here and working with Hearts4Kids. But I am as much Filipino as Norwegian, and it is always nice and a little emotional to go back there. The smell of a large, warm Asian city, the people, the food, the culture and the way of life ... you never forget such things.