Operation: Back to School
In the 1970s, Fr Tritz, SJ encountered children who stopped going to school because of poverty. This encouraged him to establish the Educational Research and Development Assistance (ERDA) Foundation in 1974. Fr Tritz through ERDA began the Operation: Back to School Campaign that has brought back to school Filipino children who were dropping out or who were about to drop out of their studies because of poverty (i.e. lack of resources even for food). At 101 years old, Fr. Tritz is presently the oldest living Jesuit in the Philippines. ERDA also celebrated its 41st founding anniversary in 2015. For 41 years, Fr. Tritz and ERDA’s Operation Back to School has assisted more than 800,000 children in their education. Operation Back to School continues to reach out to children because there are still many families who could not afford the basic educational needs (food, school supplies, transportation) of the children even if Basic Education in the Philippines is “free.”
The objectives of the Operation Back to School have been: 1. To bring back to school the children who dropped out of formal school 2. To retain the children who were about to drop out in formal school 3. To organize and train the children for them to realize their right to education and responsibilities 4. To organize and train the parents for them to participate in sustaining their children’s education 5. To reach out to more out-of-school children and youth through alternative modes of education, i.e. alternative learning program instead of formal school education, mobile schools.
HOW THE OBJECTIVES WERE ACHIEVED
During the Martial Law in the Philippines, it was difficult for foreign religious like Fr Tritz to reach out. Fr. Tritz decided to give up his French citizenship in the 1970s so he could help more Filipino children. Sixty years (60) old is the retirement age for Filipinos. At 60 years old, he founded the ERDA Foundation where the Operation Back to School was born. During his few visits in Europe, he would talk to even strangers (for example, his co-passengers in trains) to campaign for the education of the Filipino children. While Fr. Tritz was doing his social marketing, his ERDA Team developed an assessment tool that would select child beneficiaries from poor to the very poor families. The ERDA Social Workers have also been coordinating with parents and schools to facilitate the enrolment of the children. The Social Workers have also been organizing and training the children and parents (i.e. leadership training for children and parents, livelihood trainings for youth and parents).
Operation Back to School (1) established Preschool Centers even before the passage of the Kindergarten Law in the Philippines; (2) has provided the children with ERDA bags with school supplies and uniform that made the children excited and happy in going to school; (3) has been giving equal opportunities to children regardless of their academic grades; (4) has organized children so that they would continue studying and advocate the right to education to their fellow children; (5) has organized parents who would sustain the education of their children and protect the children from any harm or abuse; (6) has an alternative learning program for out-of-school youth (8) has mobile schools that have been reaching out to children in remote areas.
More than 800,000 beneficiaries have already been assisted by Fr Tritz and ERDA’s Operation Back to School. The ERDA preschool graduates have easily adjusted when they enter elementary schools. ERDA Elementary or High school students have been invited by government and non-government organizations or initiated to talk about child rights, children’s issues and welfare to their fellow children and adults. Those who have completed their education or training are now leading productive lives. Operation Back to School has developed the following beneficiaries: An Architect, promoting green architecture, is now donating to ERDA. A Social Worker also works for streetchildren. An Industrial Engineer works for a leading hospital in the country. Another Engineer works for a leading construction firm. Many are teachers and employees at banks, real estate, and other companies. They gathered in a recent Homecoming of former ERDA beneficiaries, and donated to ERDA’s project for streetchildren.
Filipinos from the provinces or from the rural areas have kept on migrating to Metro Manila or to the other major cities in the country. Hence, even if ERDA’s Operation Back to School has been existing in Manila specifically in Tondo since the height of the Smokey Mountain of garbage in the 1980s, the campaign continues for the migrants or their children. The ERDA Operation Back to School has also been brave in bringing back to school the children living on the streets, children in hazardous forms of child labor (scavenging, working in sugarcane plantations), and children who had conflict with the law despite limited resources and supporters especially for children on the streets and who had conflict with the law. Although ERDA has a set of long-time benefactors, most of them are from Europe and the younger generation of Filipinos are not familiar with Fr. Tritz anymore. Thus, there have been efforts to remind them how “cool” and forward-thinking Fr. Tritz’s vision has been.
When ERDA celebrated Fr. Tritz’s 101st birthday on Sept. 19, 2015, ERDA reminded the people about the lessons that Fr. Tritz has been striving to impart – Love and Educate the Children, Work with Efficiency and Passion, Sustain Friends and Partners, Believe that God will Provide. There are people who think that ERDA should go straight in tutoring the children to improve their reading, writing and arithmetic skills. But ERDA’s Operation Back to School has been steadfast in providing school supplies first because these has given joy to the children since tutorials and trainings have always followed the distribution of school supplies. The ERDA staff also work beyond the call of duty. They go to work during weekends or holidays because the children are not in school during these days. These are the perfect time for trainings and monitoring. To maintain the trust of benefactors, ERDA has been audited by a firm with very good reputation. Inspired by Fr. Tritz, ERDA is service with a smile.