By Karla Delgado-Yulo
Publisher and Editor in chief Sunday Inquirer Magazine
CALL him a modern-day Santa. Blessed with kind eyes, an easy smile, and even a little paunch, Bernard Pierquin has also got a heart like Old St Nick's.
For the last eight years now, the 49-year-old Frenchman has helped improve the lives of Filipinos through a foundation which encourages the values of self-worth and dignity among the urban and rural poor invarious communities around the country.
On Friday, Pierquin's contributions to the uplifment of the Filipinos were recognized officially when President Estrada presented the Paris-based Association with a 1998 Presidential Award for the Filipinos and Private Organizations Overseas.
Alouette was lauded for its projects in Malibay, Pasay, which include a day-care center for working mothers and their children, and a computer training center for low-income and out-of-school youth.
"After not even two minutes of being in this place, I knew why I had come to the Philippines," said Pierquin, recalling the first time he set foot in the squatter area of the low-income neighborhood in 1990.
Today his mission is even clearer.
"If all the children see around them is people drinking or sitting down and doing nothing, that is the only thing they will know when they become adults," Pierquin told the INQUIRER in an interview on the French-inspired terrace of the daycare center.
"But if you show them there's another way of life, they will choose this kind of life."
That in a nutshell, is what Pierquin and his staff are banking on: that given the opportunity, children will opt to lead productive, successful lives.
Besides providing free health services to the people of Malibay, Alouette sponsors the education of about 200 children in Pasay, Dolores town in Quezon, Pangasinan, Baguio and Mountain Province. It also runs a livelihood program for the weavers in Bontoc.
"Providing education to the children is our most important contribution", said Eden Desping, program director of the Alouette Foundation of the Philippines, the local office of Association Alouette. "We believe that education is the only way for them to recover or change their situation."
Alouette pays for the tuition and other school needs of the students but expects parents to pay for the children's transportation so as not to encourage dependence.
What he did before
Before Alouette, Pierquin was officer in charge of Alaji, a French nongovernment organization specializing in the education of out-of-school delinquents. He also worked as director of a rehabilitation center for drug addicts in France.
In 1990, he came to the Philippines in search of an alternative form of therapy for recovering addicts. Yoga and meditation were already being used at the time, and he came to investigate whether faith healers could provide a new type of therapy.
Disappointed by what he found, he decided to instead pursue his interest in setting a rehab center in the Philippines. He was discouraged by the long search for a location , and was on his way back to France when, by a twist of fate, he was unable to leave the country because of incomplete immigration papers.
Life among the squatters
It was during his extra week here that he chanced upon Malibay, the place that would change his life forever.
Mrs. Lourdes Kalaw, president of the Alouette Foundation of the Philippines, recalled with admiration how he immersed himself and lived among the squatters. The two met in the San Juan de Nepomeceno Parish Church, where they would see each other every day at the 6 a.m. mass.
"I realized it was what I wanted to do." Pierquin explained to the INQUIRER. "To share with the people their everyday life, to know what was going on , to know their problems, because if you don't know you can't do anything."
He admitted, though, that the adjustment was a bit rough.
"If you go to a place like that and you're a foreigner, they expect you to have a lot of money. There are many snatchers, many prostitutes, many killings. Almost every week there is someone who is stabbed. Shabu is a big, big problem."
Chapel of the slums
With funds from the local parish, "so they would feel involved", Pierquin built a chapel in the middle of the squatter area.
"The day we had the blessing of the chapel was really a great day, maybe the best day I spent here in the Philippines," said Pierquin. "That's when I saw people from Malibay going into the squatter area for the first time in their life."
The chapel space was eventually donated to a family in need of shelter.
Pierquin also setup a day-care center inside the squatter area but relocated to a safer place about 200 meters away on Cornejo Street, which is where the foundation is headquartered now.
Making ends meet
Pierquin spends three to five months of the year in France, raising funds and working to pay for his own personal expenses. As he does not get a salary from Alouette, he needs to take on odd jobs to make ends meet. He has worked as a house painter, a hotel receptionist, and even as a warden in a Paris museum.
In France, he is active among the Filipino community, and in fact hosted the Nov. 28 Centennial celebration of Fil-Com, or the Filipino Community Association Assembly in France, which has nine member organizations.
Like a bird
Asked why he chose the Alouette, he explained: "Alouette is a very simple, small , humble bird, like the maya. When it flies, it flies upward, toward heaven. We chose this name because we want to have a very simple foundation for the people to look at what we are doing, so we can set an example of how to have a different life."
What Pierquin likes best about living here is the easygoing attitude toward life.
"In France we are not so used to smiling so much," he said. In the Philippines, they make jokes about everything. For example, the staff do their jobs well, but we are always laughing. In France we are very serious at work, we take it too seriously, not like here."