By Mark Pere Madrona, VERA Files
Romeo Berard II of Winnipeg, Canada may only be 16, but he already has a life mission --- i.e., to make sure that every Filipino child will be able to go to school.
Berard is currently embarking on a five-month tour of the Philippines and other Asian countries to raise awareness for his education campaign. The other countries listed in his itinerary are South Korea, Vietnam, China, Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
He said his parents were at first skeptical of his idea. "They told me that if I could get a job and prove my maturity, they would allow me to go."
With that challenge in mind, Berard worked part-time for an international Internet streaming company. This he did even while studying at the University of Winnipeg's high school program.
After working for five months, he was able to save enough money to push through with his original plan.
Interviewed in Quezon City recently, Berard said being surrounded by older people (he is an only son) throughout his life made him more mature.
Interested in history and world affairs, Berard plans to take up political science before pursuing a law degree. He considers himself liberal politically although he lists former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a conservative, as one of his life inspirations.
Berard said having Filipino friends from his hometown sparked his interest in the Philippines, adding that he has "never met a happier race!"
"I have always admired the Philippines," he explained, making particular mention of the Filipinos' hospitality. "I have read a lot about its culture, history, politics, and geography."
A few weeks before Berard began his five-month sojourn to Asia, he established The Shining Leaders Foundation (TSLF), a charity organization that aims to address the issues facing children in the developing world, with emphasis on education.
The foundation intends to put up at least one education facility per year in such countries, beginning with the Philippines. TSLF plans to enlist the help of private companies, schools, government officials, non-government organizations, and ordinary people.
"We are going to accept contributions from anyone, regardless of religious or political affiliation," Berard said. "If the person's intention is to help, why not?"
TSLF will soon have a website, and Berard plans to have it officially registered once he returns to Canada by September.
Berard has toured a number of provinces to speak to government officials, school leaders, and other community stakeholders about his project. Among those he spoke to were Senator Aquilino Pimentel III and Governor Arthur Defensor of Iloilo. Maasin, Iloilo Mayor Mariano Malones for his part pledged to match 50 percent of whatever money Berard's group can raise for his constituency. Berard left for Vietnam last June 7.
What Berard considers as the highest point of his Philippine visit is his three-hour meeting with former first lady and now Ilocos Norte Rep. Imelda Marcos last May 17. Berard said he had long wanted to meet Marcos because she can "rally Filipinos to help each other out."
"Mrs. Marcos is an absolutely genuine person," Berard said, recalling that the ex-first lady commended him for what he is doing. "She told me, 'You are on the right track with your life.'"
He described the Ilocos Norte solon as "amazing and 'very affectionate."
Berard's efforts have not gone unnoticed in his country. Before leaving for the Philippines, he met Lloyd Axworthy, current president of the University of Winnipeg. Axworthy expressed his support for the TSLF.
Axworthy served as the Canadian foreign minister from 1996 to 2000. He was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for his contributions in the global effort to ban landmines.
Berard's work was featured last April in a late night newscast aired in Canada's CTV Television Network and in an article published last May 30 in The Uniter, a newspaper in Winnipeg.
Despite the publicity, Berard reiterated that his efforts are not meant for personal gain, explaining: "Helping makes me happy. I don't want credit."
Berard left the country with an unfulfilled goal --- which is to meet President Benigno Aquino III "to know (from him) what the government is doing for the youth's welfare."
He sees himself travelling to more countries in the next 10 years to do more humanitarian work.
"I want to look back one day and see that we have really made a difference in these countries," he continued. "We have only one life. We should make use of that life."
Indeed, he is one teenager who knows that being young is not a hindrance to do great things for the world.