After his graduation from kindergarten in Batangas, Clem Onal started getting nagging headaches. His parents brought him to a community hospital where he was diagnosed with urinary tract infection. Over time, his condition worsened until he suffered a stroke. A CT scan revealed a brain tumor. The doctor in the provincial hospital told him he had one month to live. That was in 2010.
Nonetheless, Clemente and Melody Onal brought their son to the National Children’s Hospital where they were told that there was hope for Clem. The family has been staying for over a year at Child Haus, a temporary shelter for underprivileged parents and their children who are undergoing medical treatment in Manila.
During an impromptu program at the Child Haus, Clemente held Clem, 8, in his arms as he went onstage. He said Clem, who was stricken with hydrocephalus, needed to undergo six more chemotherapy sessions. Celebrity hairdresser and philanthropist Ricky Reyes asked Clemente, “Does he need a sponsor?”
A barong-clad representative from Hotel InterContinental then handed a check for P24,000 and quietly asked if Child Haus needed further assistance.
The immediate aid wasn’t the only reason that Reyes, the main benefactor of Child Haus, was in a celebratory mood. He announced to the staff and residents that Child Haus will move to a permanent home on Sept. 21 in Pinyahan, Quezon City, donated by Hans Sy, president of SM Prime Holdings. It is a seven-room, ’70s-style bungalow that can accommodate 100 child patients and their guardians. Sy bought and refurbished the property with his own money.
In an SMS message to Reyes, Hans said, “Your kindness is contagious. I saw it in you. That’s why I feel like sharing my blessings with you.”
Munting Paraiso (Little Paradise)
The new house is a boon after Reyes’ years of philanthropic endeavor.
It all began in the late ’90s when Inquirer editor in chief Letty Magsanoc brought him to the Cancer Institute at the Philippine General Hospital. He organized a program, “Look Good, Feel Good,” to help woman cancer patients fight depression. He taught them ways to wear a bandana over their balding heads and apply blushers and lipstick.
One day at PGH as he climbed down the stairs, Reyes saw a child crouching in pain after chemotherapy. Children screaming and crying were a common sight in the hospital. Acting on his “motherly” instincts, Reyes requested the Cancer Institute to provide him a room, which he then converted into play area called Munting Paraiso. He furnished it with toys and a TV set and hired a psychologist and a nurse to mentally prepare the children for their sessions.
Likewise, the Ricky Reyes Foundation subsidized the medication and medical supplies of some 400 young cancer patients every year.
On his frequent visits to the Cancer Institute, he also noticed that people slept on the corridor or the yard outside PGH. He learned that they were outpatients from the provinces who had no place to stay while waiting for their next procedures.
Reyes sought the help of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO), which provided a building behind its office at the Quezon Institute compound. The PCSO also gave a monthly P100,000 grant.
In 2003, the place became known as Child Haus—the acronym for Center for Health Improvement and Life Development, which has been working with government hospitals in referring patients to Child Haus. The children’s cases range from retinoblastoma (cancer of the retina) to cleft faces. Acute lymphotic leukemia is the most common ailment.
Initially, Reyes thought that a basic need had been provided. However, he observed that the parents still had no money for food.
So, through the years, Child Haus has evolved into a real home where the residents receive balanced meals of rice, vegetables and fish, designed by a nutritionists. The place has been running on the spirit of volunteerism.
Mothers cook for the residents. Teachers from Miriam College teach academic lessons. The parents of the children keep the premises clean.
Reyes subsidizes half of the cost of the lab tests, medications and supplies. “The parents should get the counterpart. I don’t believe in doleouts. If you just give, they will be parasites,” he says.
Notice of ejection
After seven years of rent-free operation, the Child Haus received a notice of ejection from the PCSO. The agency was moving to Manila, and the Child Haus building was deemed condemned. Although the ejection caused a stir in the media, the PCSO didn’t offer a new place and stopped giving its monthly grant.
Amid the uncertainty, Reyes discovered that Maria Teresa Gana-Bautista, wife of the Quezon City mayor, had been a silent but generous patron. He asked her for help. Then, Dr. Rachael del Rosario, an anesthesiologist/pain specialist, replaced pediatric oncologist Dr.Victoria Abesamis, as the project director.
For several months, Reyes looked for homes to rent. Initially, landlords would be pleased to have a prospective celebrity tenant, but upon learning that the house would be occupied by cancer patients, they would refuse him.
Last year, he found a three-story building near Mindanao Avenue that could accommodate 90 people. Although the residents could live comfortably, their health would be at risk when the basement got flooded during heavy rains.
Enter the Sy family
Meanwhile, Reyes had been frequently visiting taipan Henry Sy. It was Sy who gave the beauty entrepreneur his break in all the SM Malls. On one visit, he met Sy’s son, Hans, who saw the media coverage of Child Haus’ ejection.
Reyes asked if BDO, one of Sy’s businesses, had a list of foreclosed properties. He proposed to pay the balance. After a couple of months, Reyes again met Hans who showed him some possible homes for Child Haus.
It took a few months for Hans to call Reyes again. He asked Reyes to meet him at 90 Mapangakit Street in Quezon City. Reyes learned that all the while, Hans had been looking for a house, but the sellers would jack up the price when they learned the buyer was a Sy. The taipan’s scion finally found the perfect location at a good price.
Hans showed him the house, already white-washed and re-tiled. The base shell maintained the original architectural details such as the adobe wall and ornate wrought iron grillwork. The large windows facilitated natural light and ventilation, which was perfect for the patients. Hans said the property was for Child Haus.
When Reyes asked him what his obligation was, Hans handed him the keys. “You take over,” he said.
Reyes hugged him and later sent a text message to thank him. Hans replied, “You’re very welcome, Ricky. That’s the least I could do compared to your kindness.”
The home would be a new beginning for Child Haus. Reyes is proud that since it was formed nine years ago, it has served more than 9,000 patients, only 70 of whom had died.
“This means that their lives were extended because they were able to complete their cycles. The kids stayed with us for as long as 18 months. All through their stay, they were fed. Friends and celebrities like Karylle, Sarah Geronimo and Richard Gutierrez would spend their birthdays there,” he said.
“Because of Letty (Magsanoc), I got this far. God made her the instrument to show me what I could do for cancer patients. Then, here comes an angel in disguise who gave me a lasting home for these children.”
Child Haus’ regular patrons include Food for the Hungry, which gives P50,000 monthly subsidy, and Reyes’ foundation which also support Munting Paraiso. Customers of Ricky Reyes’ salons are not aware that for every haircut or manicure at the salon, a portion goes to Reyes’ advocacy. Occasionally friends donate in cash or kind.
Reyes said at his stage in life, he’s been spending 50 percent of his time on charity. He has sold his 2,300-sq-m property in Valle Verde with its resplendent garden and swimming pool. “I got tired. What’s the use of all these? The most important thing is to do the work for Him.”