Casting Our Nets into the Sky

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The first logo I designed for Abot Tala two years ago had this latin adage: Ad Astra Per Aspera meaning “to the stars through difficulties.”  Through hardships to the stars.  That’s exactly what we are all going through. We have these lofty dreams and ours was a vision for freedom for young people to direct their education and life path with the help and guidance of mentors. We’re still reaching for those bright things in the infinite dark sky and we are still going through rough, rougher and roughest waters, the roughest of which may be this period of uncertainty and waiting.

We refuse to believe that this is the end. Instead we forge on, hoping against hope that stars can be held in the palm of our hands until we throw them back out into the night, only to catch them again and again. They may slip through the holes of our net but these are never impossibilities.

Eight years ago, it was discovered that I was pregnant and had cancer at the same time. Against all odds, despite having chemotherapy while pregnant, my baby was born healthy. He is now 7 years old, a naughty, creative, hyperactive, smart, joyful, malambing boy. This picture makes me think of the dreams we have that are seemingly impossible, that make us want to give up but I remember clearly not wanting to give up this baby. Why is it easy for us to give up other dreams especially if it is our personal dream? I think the dream we can’t give up on, the dream that keeps us going despite the hardships and difficulties are the dreams for our children.  For those who don’t have biological children, it may be something else, a legacy that we hope continues past our physical time on earth.

Abot Tala is like my child but there are times when I want to give up.  I can never do that with my real children.  I know of parents who have given up on their children and children who have given up on their parents.  The tragedy is heartbreaking and I can never imagine it happening to me but it has happened to people close to me.

So what is this business of giving up or wanting to give up on a dream?  When circumstances force us to fold up, do we fold up or fight to keep open?  There will be people who will always be on the side of encouragement and there will be the naysayers who think it’s losing battle.  However, you don’t hear this only outside; the voices are right inside your head swinging like a pendulum or a hatchet about to cut either the rope that holds you captive or slice your body in half.

Since Abot Tala is for teens ages 12 to 18, it is where my own kids could go to should they wish to in the future.  They are only 7 and 10 now so it won’t be after a few more years till they’re eligible to join.  We don’t know if Abot Tala would still be alive by then because we don’t even know if we’ll be able to survive this crippling debacle.

In August last year, we opened Abot Tala Junior which ran for two months before closing it down since it was a threat to the sustainability of the original center for teens.  The program for younger kids ages 7 to 11 was much more complex and we did not have the space nor the staff fit for it.  It was a crushing blow to realize we had to close shop so quickly but it was a painful amputation that had to be done.

The center chugged along while never meeting our target numbers but we all believed it was only a matter of time and we’d reach the tipping point.  Most people may favor the traditional school system but there were outliers, out-of-the-box thinkers and families  who needed this option for their teens.  To counter our bloody red FS, we came up with a fundraising program that we were about to launch when, COVID reared it’s blood-thirsty head.  A crown of thorns descended on a few that soon exploded exponentially.

We were in the process of  starting a fundraiser with the country’s premiere auction house, Leon Gallery.  The country’s equivalent of Sotheby’s was generous enough to support Abot Tala but then who would think about auctioning art work or antiques now unless the funds go to our frontliners in the medical field?  Who would think of sponsoring teens who need an alternative to school, who need an option to following a rigid curriculum when all schools have closed down?

We sit with uncertainty as long and as peaceful as we can because there is little choice but to ride this out.  Abot Tala is offering summer classes but apart from that, we wait with bated breath and sinking budget.

Another thing I was looking forward to is a fragment of another dream.  My 10 year old son, Joshua and I are avid fans of Shark Tank and it’s been my dream to pitch on that popular U.S. TV Program of 11 seasons.  Tinky, one of our Abot Tala board of trustees messaged me about John Aguilar, host and producer of the Filipino version of Shark Tank.  Thanks to serendipity, I ended up attending a talk for start-ups where John and his wife, Monica talked about their experiences and stories as an entrepreneurial couple.  I was able to ambush John after and gave an instant elevator pitch about Abot Tala.

I submitted the online application form and requirements some weeks before the lockdown and a few weeks into the quarantine, got word that Abot Tala is invited to do an online pre-pitch when things go back to normal.  Nobody knows when that will be.

The biggest challenge for me to take on in Abot Tala is approaching people I know for help and support.  It’s easier for me to approach total strangers so I kept attending event after event and now, the possibility of appearing on the Final Pitch gives me that boost to go on with a potential resolution in the horizon.  Imagine if we get a big investor who believes in what Abot Tala stands for and offers full support.

It seems naive to expect a miracle.  A miraculous save.  A rescue swooping from the sky.  A superhero with cape waving in the wind.

But there is too, the preparation for when a miracle should occur.

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And not to forget, the other miracle in my life: Joshua who was born when I was 38 and my family was thinking I’d never marry nor have kids.  Proof miracles do happen.  They can even happen every day, often undetected.

The Pie that Broke the Camel

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Donna, my friend from China called me up last night via WeChat.   She said she had a dream about me and in that dream, I was very tired.  I was exhausted making pie all by myself to the point that I was not there for my kids.

It was exactly what is happening with me now.  Even with the COVID and community quarantine, I have a full workload that keeps me up late at night and waking up very early in the morning, I get up, open my laptop and start the engine full throttle.

I’ve been trying to stop like a drug addict who knows it’s bad for me, bad for my family but I got into the habit too deep to stop.  I’ve been telling people I work with that I have to take a break and they tell me, yes, you need to rest, you need respite but the next day, it’s the same.  I do all the work online and offline, it’s on my mind like an indelible stamp.

What is this that has occupied my mind like a beerus?   I think I’ve had this beerus all my life.  I get obsessed with something and it possesses me like a demon.  Oh, I’ve learned to let go and I have struck a somewhat healthy balance every now and then because I have a variety of interests and outlets.

Maybe that’s why it’s harder this time.  This quarantine has isolated me as it has all of us, but in my case, I can still do one type of work but don’t have the other pre-occupations like meeting with friends that I could juggle it with.  The usual day for me is juggling all these balls of responsibilities and hobbies, but now we have a lot less balls to juggle because we need to restrict our movements.  However, that’s not even the sad waterloo.  My weakness as a parent is — it’s easier for me to focus on my work than my kids especially when it’s a choice between finishing something with a deadline – made-up or real.

Why am I this way?  Why can’t I just stop and release myself from this stranglehold?

I realized I desperately need a win.  I still desperately want to succeed at something because I am standing on heaps upon heaps of failures.  The endeavor I started last year is on the brink of collapse and it may not live to see the light past COVID.  If this quarantine continues indefinitely and eat up not just one or two months, we’ll be forced to close shop.  This may be true for small and medium businesses and start-ups with no buffer, no deep pocket, no strong foundation.  Like a house of cards, what we built up can fall like somebody blew it with a gust of air from his lungs.

On the other hand, the endeavor I am involved now for about a month has a deadline on May 2.  I can work myself up to a tizzy from now till then knowing there is a foreseeable goal and defined future.  I can lead and push it to the finish line.  Of course, if our group wins, that’s a whole new ballgame.  If our group loses, it’s not a total loss because we just switch to Plan B or C.

Why must I be so desperate to win and to succeed?  Staring at all the failures right in front of my face — recent and historical — makes me grasp for straws, makes me fall for illusions.  I am neither my failure nor my success.  Everyone should operate on the assumption that everything is temporary as each and every one of us is on this earth passing through, so these pre-occupations that capture us shouldn’t kill us.  Winning and success can motivate us but it should not control us.  It is not our true purpose.

Our true purpose may be and should be more apparent with this lockdown but here I am still not recognizing it, still grasping for straws.   I cannot stop when I should.  Probably, there should be a Workaholics Anonymous for us reaching for the unattainable when everything we need is right here, right now and nowhere in the past and future.

I’ve stood at the edge of the abyss many times and I have chosen many times to jump knowing that I will be safe and I will be saved because that all-knowing power in the universe got my back.  I can jump off the edge again and again and make the landing, soft or hard.  I close my eyes and it turns out that it’s the next ledge and not all that high as I feared.

Meanwhile, I do need a rest and a break. When I return, the work will still be there whatever form or shape it takes.  But my kids are only 10 and 7 once.

Why is it easier for me to ignore my kids and tell them, “Later, let me finish this,” when I know I should not, when I know what is the right thing to do?  It may be built into my genetic make-up.  I come from a long line of workaholics – family members who cannot stop to get off the hamster wheel to greet a daughter whom she has not seen for a week because she is busy with a phone call or having a staff meeting.  If others ignore us, why do we choose to ignore those we should not just because we hurt ourselves from being ignored by others?   We must be made of stronger stuff than that, because when you think about it, we are actually never ever ignored.  We are cared for by someone divine each and every second of the day, for eternity.  And so should we.  When somebody presents themselves to us who needs our full attention, we should give them our undivided attention.

It’s easy for me to operate with a divided mind.  I’ve been wanting to be more mindful with paltry results.  I have to thank my friend, Donna who called me up with such urgency all the way from China — for giving me a powerful reminder that I can use to bring myself back – that image of sacrificing family time for a silly pumpkin pie.

Everything is pie that can keep me from my true purpose.  Pie is like a low-hanging fruit, easier to pick so easier to think it’s what should be picked.  Like junk food and not exercising  and other things that keep me blind and deaf.

I’d still eat Cheetos, though.

Photos from our family quarantine area in Subic.  We haven’t been able to bike around anymore. The playgrounds have been closed and the area where we can walk is limited but grateful for every step out in the sunshine, grateful for the trees and sky.  We can still dig a hole in the backyard to bury food waste and I’ve never seen Jason so happy doing DIY projects at home.

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This just in from my Dad in response to my blog today:

“There are no losers in life. There are only movers and those who never tried to become different and to improve mankind.”

Born for Snow

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When Joshua tried skiing, his body couldn’t get used to the new motions he had to master.  When Jimmy tried snowboarding, he couldn’t quite get the hang of it.  But switch them up and get them into their element, there’s no stopping them.  They could go on and on.  I’d be dead tired and they’d still be at it:  Joshua on the snowboard and Jimmy on skis.  Jason and the boys can already conquer the slopes together since their levels go beyond decent.

Me?  I’m forever a beginner on the slopes but I’m in it for the views.  I can’t get out of the paranoid V stance and transition into consistent parallels although I’ve had moments when I nearly got it only to be foiled by the fear of the steep, steep slope — the kind where you arrive and not see anything but a line between you and the sky.  It’s a drop that stops me in my tracks.  After getting stuck several times, after botched attempts at skiing through a clump of trees, after whimpering for help, after wishing life was a Matrix movie CGI and I could lift myself up with magic ease, after countless attempts to put on my skis at wrong angles, after feeling sorry for myself watching everyone including small kids whiz by, I realized next time, I should take lessons from a professional.

It’s like a metaphor for a start-up enterprise when you feel you’ve lost confidence and doubts paralyze you, when the challenge feels too overwhelming at times, when chutzpah dissipates due to historical and current insecurities.  You can’t get up and people pass you by oblivious you need their help.  At this point or before you reach that point, you have to seek out other people’s support and expertise to guide you out of muddled thinking and ineffective action.

My kids: they’re another story.  Every parent’s dream is for their children to surpass them, to soar through greater heights.  They’ve done that on the snow and hopefully carry it on wherever they choose to go.

We went to two different places to ski because Niseko was too expensive so we cut up the Hokkaido trip into two parts and hit Sapporo first.  Niseko is too painful on the pocket that we could only afford 7-Eleven meals but by that time, we had become more adept at saving money in Japan.  For instance, layering t-shirts works as well as a rented ski jacket.  This doesn’t take away from the magic of the adventure, the beauty of snow on trees and marshmallow delicious on the ground and rooftops.   We extend and stretch ourselves to find versions of ourselves that we befriend again.

I would probably never ski like these guys below but these photos from free magazines in Niseko motivate me to improve enough to conquer my fear of the near-vertical.

Ah!  To be fearless in that sport and in life!  How does one get there?

Goodness Overdose

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You can never have an overdose of goodness and on February 1 and 2, that’s what everyone had exactly at the Leading with Heart Global Women’s Summit at Palma House in Poblacion, Makati with speakers coming from the Philippines and abroad rocking the stage generously with their stories, learnings, movement, song and laughter.  Each one shared their struggles in life that led them to find their purpose and run away with it.  Maybe we need that overdose of goodness for days when things don’t work out.  Maybe we need that extra-strong reminder because sometimes it’s easy to forget.

I’ve always dreamed of attending TED Talk and this is the closest to that experience without flying off to a far-away country.  Each speaker was given only 15 minutes so it was one intense sharing after another.  There were those who spoke forcefully and those who spoke calmly but whatever the style of delivery, it was their heart that they laid bare for everyone in a setting more intimate than usual in a building aptly named Holism Center.

Beng Puyat, President of the Filipina Women’s Network shared her leadership journey of empathy and kindness.  Jillian Goff asked us if we ever feel less than a woman if we don’t live up to expectations.  “You are enough just as you are,” she said and, “Your performance doesn’t determine your value.”  I missed the talk of Messy Bessy founder, Krie Lopez but fellow speaker, Marie Balangue’s take away from her session is that leadership is a choice.  Clarissa Delgado from Teach for the Philippines presented statistics throughout history that convinces us how urgent action is needed in education.  Decked and accessorized in sunflower, Rhodora Fresnedi talked about her Sunshine Farm of sunflowers in Tiaong, Quezon where the farmers and workers are people with disabilities.  Her advocacy of inclusivity and spreading joy gave birth to a love story that blossomed in the farm.  Rica Buenaflor was a stay-at-home mom who found her way from distributing slippers to putting Bicol cuisine on the map, elevating the pili nut to world class status, creating laing longganisa and other products plus restaurants that celebrated the region.  Author and publisher, Bing Carion is a happiness guru who seeks to infect everyone with her winning attitude.

Georgette Medel calls herself the Soul Igniter who followed her passion for personal development believing each one of us is a spark waiting to be ignited.  Three key words are: Intention, Attention and No Tension (letting go of expectations).  When we are in a place of calm, synchronicities appear so we need to come back to that center into ourselves, regardless of the chaos.  Joei Villarama (Ahem!  Who dat?) showed how she has been pushing for her circles of Ikigai to meet and how her seemingly wayward path has led her to starting Abot Tala, an alternative to mainstream school.    Media personality Lexi Testa posed a challenging question:  How do we sell Malala Yousafzai to girls who usually look up to the Kardashians?  She talked about the imposter syndrome, how we feel like imposters. Get over it and think we are already a masterpiece and a work in progress at the same time.

Decked in beautiful Filipiniana, Cora Manimbo drove home the point of caring for our culture and promoting who we are as Filipinos through the way we dress.  When she was 7 years old, Marie Balengue knew exactly what she wanted and asked for it: land.  She worked for it and wove her way to being an perennial volunteer.  Majella Villaroman is fighting for the cause of mental health and well-being because years ago, her sister was shot in a New York subway.  Majella successfully lobbied for the passing of the mental health parity law and used the pain of losing her sister to continually raise awareness in the area of mental health.   I’ll let this slide introduce the amazing Ginggay Hontiveros-Malvar.

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Oryspa founder, Sherill Quintana proudly proclaims the Filipino brand CAN!  From a hobby, she built a business, connecting the dots while caring for 4 kids and 128 employees, pirating her husband from the World Bank. Sherill made spa products from rice, saying, “My journey is beyond myself,” so we need to capacitate ourselves and choose significance over success.  It’s continuous learning so you can then give back to others.  World Robot Olympiad ambassador, Mylene Abiva advocates for more children getting into STEM.  In developing countries, more boys and girls actually want to become scientists but are not given the opportunity.   Somewhere in between these talks, Kate Moynihan had us all dancing with wild abandon to “Love is Still the Answer” and “Sexual Healing.”

And that, was just the first day.  On the second day . . . .

Tammy Severino, co-founder of SevBerg Global, organizer of this event, told us something that rang true for me: being an entrepreneur is doing 80 hours of work to avoid working in an office for 40 hours.  The upside is, since you own your time, you can choose not to miss what you don’t want to miss from your kids’ growing-up-years.  Balance is like the four legs of the chair where if one of the four legs representing family, career, community and self are not equal, you don’t feel comfortable so you need to re-calibrate.  Robert Sigler, CEO of the Global Trust Group advised that your role is to strengthen yourself from within.  It takes courage to be a trailblazer so surround yourself with leaders.  Entreprenologist and conversation change-maker, Pauline Omps says the future is ours to create – women leading with heart and men who value them.  She encouraged everyone to get into magical conversations where we get into a space of not judging other people.  We need a little magic to make the unbelievable believable.  CEO of Fliqs Media and serial entrepreneur, Rex Wong wishes to empower women entrepreneurs and influences.

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Author Christina Hoag delivered a powerful story about her own experience in an abusive relationship and how writing was cathartic.  She ended up writing a young adult novel, Girl on the Brink, taking what was a painful part of her life as an opportunity for growth.  I was hanging onto every word of her story since she weaved it with such literary grace and beauty. Sometimes good things fall apart so that they can be put back together.

Christoff Weihman burst into the room with such high energy with his tagalog with a twang.  Ten years ago he lived in Manila and even starred in a movie called My Sitsiritsit with Andrew E.  It’s all energy and we are a part of each other’s story.  Why is it easier to say “You have greatness within you” than “I have greatness within me?”  Baka kasi tayo magmukhang mayabang.  Counter this with: My gift is not for me. It’s for me to give away. Seems to be more men on the second day than the first and the next one up was Joshua K. Blair, who with his creative team at BrandThumb developed and crafted appreSHEation to show insane gratitude for the women in our lives who are not appreciated enough.  Conviction of the heart is all about consistency of daily, year round, decades long action because they believe “She is Everything.”

When I heard Edna Chua’s unassuming talk, something inside me said, I want to be healed by this woman. She is one of the founders of the Holism Center, the home of alternative wellness right next to Rockwell, a safe space for healers who do energy work. Edna has cured somebody with lymphatic cancer by recognizing that all she needed was to speak her truth.  Portia Gantioque of Trend Micro is a security expert who wants to prove that IT which usually requires hard skills and designed for men is equally a territory for women.  She aspires to close the gap and shift gender norms, ultimately seeing us not through the lens of gender but purely for our strengths as human beings.  Rachel Jamiro quit a high-powered job as a prosecutor in the Office of the Ombudsman handling high-profile cases to be a stay-at-home mom since she didn’t want to be handing out her family “leftovers.”  She discovered her life purpose is not her career but instead she should find a career that meets her purpose. She felt lonely and cut off from friends feeling there must be something more than changing diapers.  Eventually, she found a community of mom entrepreneurs and grew a home-based business herself.  The community is not just where women want to sell but where they share life, truth and laughter.  “Show up and be vulnerable; share our messy parts.”

Purpose finds Michelle Baretto, brand strategist who believes design can change the world and impact people’s lives.  She sees herself as a multipier helping organizations with a cause like Mano Amiga to take off and fly.  Self-love is the solution, Lia Bernardo believes and shakes us by asking, “What if you are not broken?  What if you don’t need fixing?  What if our only obligation is liking who we are?”   Kevin Goff is the grand nephew of Hatti McDaniel who famously played “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind for which she won the first Oscar for a black entertainer.  A sustainable farming practitioner, Karla Delgado has a Seed School in her Kai Farm in Cavite that teaches age-old seed saving techniques to anyone who is interested.

We all stepped out to the balcony with Mawi de Ocampo demonstrating movements with a bamboo wand.  They had bamboo sticks for each one of us so we could stretch our bodies against the blue sky and skyscrapers.  For me, Vaughn Payne delivered the sucker punch of the day because he asked: after listening to all these, what do we do tomorrow?  There are three roadblocks that will throw us off track: 1) comparison, 2) worrying about what other people think, and 3) yourself.  What story are we telling ourselves that we find believing even if it’s not true?  Similarly, Elaine Kahn echoes that we are like that elephant that was trained from a young age not to venture out because it’s tied to a tree.  Even as the small elephant grows to be big and powerful enough to uproot the tree, it is still immobilized due to its conditioning.

Tina Lebron recounted her journey from reluctant healer to being the founder of the Healing House and how she was led along the path by a dear friend and fellow healer who had passed away.   Hindy Weber fell out of love with the fashion industry and that was a blessing for organic farming where she landed eventually.  Michelle Aventajado took over Best Buddies when her friend left the Philippines. Michelle thought it would only take an hour a day from her busy working-mom schedule but the responsibility was more than that.  Best Buddies is a global volunteer movement that nurtures one-to-one friendships, employment and leadership opportunities for people with intellectual and development disabilities.  Because Michelle’s youngest daughter was born with Down’s syndrome, Michelle took the cause to heart and made it her mission.

In a nutshell and a mouthful, that’s the two days of Leading with Heart.   Each speaker found their unique purpose and answered the call with a resounding, unequivocal yes.  These two days were a call to simply be audacious, bodacious and ultimately, contagious!   It’s a cry for self-care, stepping up to the plate, running away with your dream no matter how crazy it seems, even if the deck gets stacked against you.

If you noticed, I took down more notes on the second day compared to the first day.  It’s because I typed on my phone on the first day and wrote in my notebook on the second.  So next time, I should go old style.

One day and two days after the summit, I wake up early in the morning with a louder, bolder voice inside me telling me what I need to do.  The tone is more urgent and with deeper clarity than before.  I wonder how long this will last and hope it sustains itself.

A big shout-out of thanks and undying gratitude to the organizers who made this overload of blessings possible!

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Leaving you with the lyrics by Jason Mraz:

The question is why, why are we here?
To say our hello’s and goodbye’s and then disappear
This beautiful life, what is it for?
To learn how to master peace or master war
There’s only one answer that matters
Even if your heart has been shattered
Whatever you want, whatever you are after
Love is still the answer
Love is still the answer
Love, love, love, love
Love, love, love
We all make mistakes, no, we’re not perfect yet
Maybe God made us all from an accident
And the question that sits on everyone’s lips
Is why should we pick ourselves up and start over again
There’s only one answer that matters
Even if your heart has been shattered
Whatever you want, whatever you are after
Love is still the answer
Love is still the answer
Love, love, love, love
Love, love,…
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They Don’t Build Playgrounds Like this Anymore

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It may be a throwback to the seventies — the design aesthetics and all, and it might be a tad unkempt, but one thing is for certain, they don’t build playgrounds like this big and this well-thought-off and not picked from a catalog of plastic products.  Instead, a designer took pride in conceptualizing each and every detail and government funds were poured into this piece of social goodness.  Sadly, our government doesn’t go into much playground building anymore.   They leave it up to the private sector because it’s probably more sustainable that way with commercial activities paying for maintenance cost, but the private sector is not providing much either.  Still, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the generous playgrounds we dream of could come true?  Wishful thinking till I’m blue in the face, but perhaps someday.

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Junior is Here!

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We thought it would take another year before we could open Abot Tala for younger kids.  It took us more than a year (14 months) to give birth to Abot Tala for teens so we surmised we needed time for the junior’s gestation period.  However, circumstances conspired to bring us to where we are now: ready to open the doors of Abot Tala for children 6 to 11 years old!

We ran a two-week experiment last June to see if the kids and teens could co-exist in one place and we concluded that if we had a much bigger space, it could be done.  But since the space for teens was limited as it was, a separate area for kids was necessary.  We also had to quickly assemble a team like Avengers and it was no easy feat.  Things eluded us.  There were moments when we thought this dream was impossible to pull off this year and we could just wait till next year or when the universe grants us the consenting environment.   Surprisingly, it did and tomorrow, August 12, we expand the age group and the physical space.

Abot Tala for teens promotes self-directed learning while Abot Tala for the kids is interest-led.  Activities cater to all multiple intelligences and learning styles.  The teacher follows the interests of the children while giving ample importance to basic academic skills.

Just like Abot Tala for Teens, Abot Tala Junior is not a school.  The children who join us are either homeschooling already or intend to homeschool.  Abot Tala Junior is an alternative to mainstream school.  If the children want to transition to regular school or go to university in the future, they can opt to take the PEP Test at DepEd and/or get a homeschool provider.

Families can choose whether their kids attend Abot Tala Junior once, twice, thrice or four times a week.  There are no grades, report cards or certificates.  Every two or three months, there will be a presentation of the children’s works.  To learn more about this program, visit https://abottala.com/junior/

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