Zonta Club of Makati and Environs celebrates 27 years of its psychological center

For 27 years, the Zonta Club Makati and Environs, Philippines, has continuously provided psychological intervention, livelihood training, academic support and auxiliary emotional support to thousands of abused girls living in Marillac Hills. This government center offers residential care and rehabilitation for sexually abused/trafficked children as well as children in conflict with the law.

How it began
In 1997, Zontian Joanne Zapanta-Andrada first visited Marillac Hills. A psychiatrist tasked with interviewing some of the new residents asked Joanne to drive her to the institution. There, the Zontian sat in on the entrance interview of one of the new residents, Esmeralda.

Esmeralda came into the room slowly and visibly shaken. One of her eyes was severely damaged, the iris hardly visible. In the next half hour, her story unfolded in whispers and soft sobs. For years, she was molested by her mother's live-in partner. The man would rape and beat her. One day, he took a lamp stand and beat her with it so badly that the incident blinded one of her eyes. Throughout the entire ordeal, her mother remained silent. The message was obvious: for Esmeralda's mother, children were a dime a dozen, but she could never get another man. It was a neighbor who alerted the authorities to Esmeralda's plight, and the offender was now facing charges of rape and child abuse. Unfortunately, Esmeralda's mother chose to stand with her daughter's accuser. She had her share of accusations to hurl at her daughter. In the eyes of her mother, Esmeralda was the one who seduced this innocent man. Esmeralda was the source of all their misfortune. For now, the sole breadwinner of the family had been incarcerated. Esmeralda's mother and siblings would now starve because of Esmeralda's lustful ways. It was all Esmeralda's fault.

It was at that moment that the idea to start a psychological center for sexually abused girls and girls in conflict with the law in Marillac Hills was born. Although decently fed, housed and clothed, the girls sorely lacked the much-needed emotional and mental intervention that is crucial for their healing. Under the leadership of then Club President Georgitta "Beng" Puyat, the club agreed to make the center a long-term program. In 2024, the center would be celebrating its 27th anniversary. Since then, the club has served thousands of girls with stories similar to Esmeralda's. These girls experience what they, empowered adults, would not dare to even dream of in their sleep. These young survivors are mostly under-educated, belong to poor households and are often abandoned by their families. They are threatened and made to feel guilty about their decision to testify against their rapists. All this is on top of having experienced sexual assault.

Some girls who enter Marillac Hills are tagged as "Children in Conflict with the Law." Dysfunctional living environments and poverty force them to live on the street, where they commit various crimes ranging from theft, prostitution, drug pushing and murder to survive.

By providing focused, continuous and holistic support to these girls, the club is answering Zonta International's call to empower women against the ravages of physical and emotional abuse. They are stopping the cycle of violence and building a better world for women and girls.

What the center does
The center's core service is psychological therapy. The two full-time staff members offer both group and individual counseling. They also engaged the community to rally behind the girls. Village residents have volunteered to conduct various classes ranging from yoga, dance and martial arts, thus adding to community participation. Zontian Ada Mabilangan, through her family's Kalaw-Ledesma Foundation, has conducted several healing art classes.

Vision Himpossible Ministries has taught drama, singing and hip hop through the club's coordination. The children have experienced cultural presentations on their field trips to concerts, plays, musicals and ballet performances. On top of all these efforts to heal their hearts and minds, the center does its share to make the perpetrators answerable for their crimes as the club assists in documenting the children's testimonies, which serve as crucial evidence in legal court. As the girls are taken out of their communities, basic education has to be addressed; the center has provided tutoring services in English, math and science to help augment their academic development.

For the girls whose families have abandoned them, thus not having any home to return to, the club has partnered with the Technical Education and Skills Authority (TESDA) to teach them skills such as housekeeping and assist in placing them in hotels for on-the-job training. In addition, the club raises funds to provide for its services, oversees the psychological center staff, creates programs and projects and coordinates with volunteers and partners.

How the center benefits the local community
The center has contributed to the rehabilitation and emotional and psychological healing of thousands of young Filipinas. Many of these girls have been able to live independent, fulfilled lives. The club believes that by being instrumental in their psychological well-being and by providing them with the skills to live independently, they are stopping the cycle of abuse, and in so doing, they are contributing to the betterment not only of the community but of Philippine society as a whole.

Hear the survivors' stories
Below, the club has included the stories of a few of the thousands of girls they have counseled, nurtured, mentored and defended.

Asliah was raped by her mother's husband at a young age. He threatened to kill her and her mother if she divulged his crimes. As typical of many rape cases, her mother chose to side with her partner, leaving Asliah emotionally and psychologically devastated. She has since been brought to Marillac Hills and received counseling from the center. Today, Asliah is pursuing a bachelor's degree in mathematics and works as a tutor at Fresh Hope for Families Philippines.

Carmela Joy Lazaro was one of the club's scholars for TESDA's certification training. She entered the institution as a child in conflict with the law, as she would sell illegal drugs to augment her family's financial situation. Carmela's participation in group therapy helped bring out her talent as an entrepreneur. Upon discharge, she engaged in online selling of food and household essentials. In 2021, she started KEila's Bike Shop Marikina Bodega, where she sells bicycles. Golden Globe Annual Awards have since awarded Carmela Joy's shop for business excellence as Metro Manila's best affordable bicycle supplier.

Zay never knew her biological father, and at the age of 16, Zay's mother was brutally killed by an unknown assailant. Her lack of parental guidance led her to sell drugs. In July 2016, she was court-ordered to stay in Marillac Hills, where she lived for four years. Through the help of the Center, Say was able to calm her inner demons. She was able to finish Grade 12 and, in 2020, was granted a six-month probationary period outside Marillac Hills. With newfound self-confidence, Zay applied and was given work as a nanny in Geneva, Switzerland. Today, Zay works as an au pair and uses her earnings to provide for her siblings in the Philippines.

The club's words
The club has been running the center for 27 years. Throughout this time, the girls who come to the center have been a source of strength and inspiration for the club. These girls exhibit resilience and faith that continues to humble the club. They resemble the national flower of the Philippines, the sampaguita, which appears small and fragile on the outside. However, with their instinctual ability to overcome, their inner potency can fill a room with the most fragrant scents. Approximately 5,000 girls have been helped by the club to date, and they have made a difference in at least 5,000 lives. The club hopes to continue making a difference in the lives of 5,000 more girls, and 5,000 more after that.