She heard the cries of children, some as young as five, as they were arrested by the police. She saw their little, brown hands reaching through the bars of the jail cells as they begged her to get them out. She smelled the stench of dirty bodies, some stricken with sexually transmitted diseases. She remembered the stories they had shared with her in the parks and on the streets of the red-light district.
Why were they arrested? For being victims! They were victims of pedophiles, pimps, and johns in the red light district of Manila, those seeking sexual fulfillment. Sol felt sorrow for their plight, anger for the injustice, pity, disgust, so many emotions.
How could this be? In her hometown, the capital of the Philippines, how could it be that children were exploited daily and were then arrested for the crime of being sold to satisfy the desires of adults? Why were the victimizers not being arrested? How could the abusers go free? She had so many questions and few answers.
Captivated and motivated
You might wonder how Sol Balbero, a college graduate from a good Christian home, a single lady employed as an auditor with World Vision came to be in a jail in the red-light district of Manila in the middle of the night?
Sol learned that World Vision had to close a drop-in center for children in the red-light district because of lack of funds. A coworker challenged her to go see what conditions were like for the street children in Manila. So she and two other ladies went to meet with children.
They went to a park where they started playing with children. As the day went on, the children began to open up and share their stories of how they survived on the streets. Sol and the other ladies were touched, horrified, challenged. Concerned, they spent the night in the park with the children. As the children slept, the ladies stayed awake, watching over them. They stood between these precious little ones and the people who were coming to victimize them.
For the next six months, Sol worked her job, prayed, and went to help the children in her spare time. She didn’t know how to work with children, but after six months she quit her job and began trusting the Lord to meet her needs as she ministered to the children of the streets full-time. She felt the Lord telling her to do what the scriptures in Matthew and Isaiah commanded about letting the children come to Him. She went back to school to be trained in social work so she could better help the kids.
Sol began to enlist the help of friends to pay for the medicines the children needed to get well. She saw hospitals give free exams and tests to the children. The Red Cross also donated medicines. But she needed more—the children needed more.
She rented a small house in the red-light district as a drop-in center for the children. There they could be children again: singing, hearing stories of Jesus and others from the Bible, playing, doing crafts, being fed, and feeling loved.
More was needed
Soon it became apparent that the children needed to escape the environment of the red-light district. Sol rented a house in another part of Manila. Later, much later, she purchased a coffee plantation where the boys could live and work. They opened a coffee house staffed by the rescued kids, training to work and learning to support themselves. The ministry team grew to include nurses, social workers, teachers, psychologists, and house parents. Every area of need was met. They had many success stories.
But Sol did not stop there. She understood that the attitude of the police toward the children was wrong and needed to be changed. So she began a Bible study in one police station. She met with the chief of police for Manila. She partnered with the International Justice Mission. Did anything change? Yes!
Because of her persistence, every police station in the Philippines now has a social worker on duty, so when children are brought in for sex trafficking, they are treated differently. The children are helped and the true criminals are being arrested. The people who have preyed on the street children are being prosecuted and jailed. She also works with IJM to help the children they have rescued continue to heal.
Sol shared about the case of one girl; we will call her Mona. She was raped by her biological father when she was very young. IJM intervened and had her father arrested. She had to testify in court when she was only seven years of age. When Mona expressed fear at having to testify, Sol prayed with her and encouraged her to testify to stop her father.
Sol reminded her that he would not stop without intervention. She reminded Mona that she could save other girls from his abuse. So Mona testified. He is now in jail, and Mona is finishing up her degree in social work. She plays the flute and dances at church. She is on the Dean’s List.
A Japanese family has sponsored her. Through them Mona has learned Japanese and is able to translate when Japanese sponsors visit the children they support. She is very shy but works in the ministry’s coffee shop when she doesn’t have classes. Sol shared that Mona has been a role model and an example to other girls they are trying to help. Sharing her story of testifying and getting justice has encouraged others to look beyond their fear to how they can help.
You might wonder what this one woman can do to help with the great number of vulnerable street children of the red-light district of Manila, which is estimated to be between 50,000 and 75,000 children. Well, Sol estimates that she has helped between 15,000 to 18,000 children over the last 30 years. For each one rescued, it is enough. Each child that she has helped is a life changed. When one woman stands up to injustice, a life is changed from despair and hopelessness to hope, healing, and productivity.