Crossing The River Of Life

MANILA, Philippines - To a group of helpless prostituted young men, non-government organization worker and 2011 Asia Society 21 fellow John Piermont Montilla has become their idol, big brother, and mentor. Everybody, including notorious gang leaders, listens intently to John and follows every word he says.

Yet, John does not use food, force, nor money on them. He neither scolds, lectures nor condemns these kids for their misdeeds. His counseling sessions are nothing but quiet, where participants reflect on their lives and plan their future through their own set of goals and aspirations.

Unlike government social workers, John is welcomed with open arms by these unfortunate young people not for his stature or the benefit that they can get from him, but because he used to be one of them. Apart from being able to truly empathize with them, John's own life journey has been providing a beacon of hope to these children who also dream of one day living a changed life.


Until now whenever John recalls his childhood that was marred by violence, he couldn't help but be emotional about it. The son of a haciendero in Negros Occidental, John was sexually and physically abused as a child. When he was old enough to realize that he was being exploited, he left home and found temporary solace among the street dwellers of Bacolod. At 12, John found himself engaging in drug trade and sex work. At that time, John says it was the only way he knew how to survive.

"Naglayas ako to have a new direction in life. I wanted to prove to my family that I could live alone. But along the way, I got involved in sex work and drugs and even lost faith in God. Tumatakbo ako pero hindi ko alam kung ano yung tinatakbuhan ko. Then there came a point when I imagined myself getting caught for stealing and rotting in jail. Hindi ko nagustuhan 'yung scenario na 'yun, ayaw kong mapunta sa wala ang buhay ko. Doon ako napa-isip. Sinabi ko sa ibang kasamahan ko, gusto ko mag-aral, gusto ko makatapos at makatulong sa tao," recalls the 35-year-old John, now a consultant for NGOs and several programs of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).
After that awakening, John went back to school through the help of his aunt. He took a one-year course as a seaman and worked at the Negros Navigation Company.

John decided to study again and took up B.S. Biological Sciences at the West Visayas State University. To support his studies, he worked at night as a house parent at the school's hotel and tried to make ends meet with a Php10 per hour salary. But it wasn't enough. Just like his tragic past which continues to haunt him, John once again fell into the trap of an exploitative homosexual teacher at the school.

While that incident was very unfortunate, John now sees the experience as a vital part of his life's journey.

"There are many hindrances to people who want to pursue their dreams and aspirations. But I think I was really made to endure those experiences so that when I return to my community matibay na ako at maipapakita ko na sa kanila na mayroong pag-asa," he reasons.

Later on, John was able to secure DSWD and NGO scholarships and these helped him last until graduation.


John's advocacy to help prostituted boys and young men germinated from the time he volunteered at the DSWD's Pagasa Youth Association of the Philippines. His task then was to organize call boys and out-of-school youths and convince them to go back to school. Eventually, he became a sought-after adviser and facilitator of DSWD training programs due to his effective approach.

John felt he needed to continue and sustain the significant changes that were occurring in the lives of the children he has been helping so he formed his own NGO called the Kabataang Gabay sa Positibong Pamumuhay (KGPP). Its goal is to provide training through peer counseling for a positive lifestyle formation.

KGPP also hopes to develop emergent leaders by making them see the beauty in their painful experiences and help them achieve their life aspirations.

John thinks the best way to help these young sex workers is to provide them with a voice, to prevent them from getting infected with HIV and AIDS, and to empower them by developing their strengths.

"Noon hindi maganda ang tingin ng simbahan at ibang tao sa amin, kasi we support safe sex. For me, this should be the first intervention, teach them to survive and be protected from HIV and AIDS. We don't tell them na mali ginagawa nila. We don't want to be the cause na mawalan ng self esteem yung mga bata. That's not the way to counsel because it will do more harm than good," explains John of KGPP which won the Ten Accomplished Youth Organizations Award in 2003 and 2008.

Instead, John created self-assessment art programs and tools like the SALT (Stimulate, Support, Appreciate, Learn, and Transfer Knowledge) Dialogue and the River- of-Life chart that provides a map or direction of where the people are and where they would like to go.

Fortunately, his innovative programs worked well for his members at KGPP which now has grown to 500. John has likewise helped transform 20 persons in 10 years. They are now part of a new organization called Peers' Enabling Each Other's Recovery Social Network. These people have gone back to school, took skills courses at TESDA, and are now entrepreneurs. Most importantly, they have become peer educators and a strong support group to the new members of KGPP.

John's River-of-Life diagram, on the other hand, has earned him local and international attention and acclaim. The self-assessment tool has been adopted by the Philippine NGOs and is now being used by counselors and social hygiene clinics for people in prostitution and injecting drug users.

In July, the River-of-Life toolkit will be presented at the International AIDS Conference in Washington.
Apart from receiving the International Award for Global Youth Leaders from the International Youth Foundation in Baltimore, Maryland, and for being chosen as Asia Society 21 fellow in 2011, John has also been invited to speak in various international conferences in Washington, Mexico and Vietnam.
For John, the awards and prestige may be nice rewards but these are not really what he's after. It's the chance to inspire, reach out and touch more kindhearted people to help others who've been in the dark.

Through these efforts, John hopes to someday build a school for these young people in difficult circumstances - a school that will help them cross to the other side of the river where the future is bright, and where they can become the best that they can be.

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