Muay Thai girl fights for orphan children in the Philippines

The author with a special needs child from Bahay ni San Jose Home for God's Special Children orphanage  in Tarlac City

The author with a special needs child from Bahay ni San Jose Home for God’s Special Children orphanage in Tarlac City

By Maya Rowencak

My mom is Filipino, and my father is Ukrainian, but I grew up American.

When I was little, I would say my favorite food was Thai — to my mom’s disappointment. I was thrilled to get to visit Thailand when I was 9 and have been naturally drawn to Thai culture. I loved the golden temples, bright colors and exotic food. I always wanted to go back but never got the chance to.

Today, most people are surprised to find out I train in Muay Thai (kickboxing) almost every day. I don’t care for other martial arts, but Muay Thai fits me perfectly. I like the customs and traditions. Laugh all you want, but I love the colors and even the gloves. Most importantly, I like to kick and punch hard and feel like a superhero!

But, I didn’t always do Muay Thai. I only started because of something that happened in my life recently. I never really gave it much thought until a few days ago, when I was watching some videos from my trip to a little village in the Philippines.

“I like Kobe Bryant,” answers Renz. Basketball is his favorite sport.

“My favorite character is Naruto,” says Jonel, who is wearing a Batman t-shirt.

The children at this little village love the iconic American and Japanese heroes, even though they are thousands of miles away. And even though some of their heroes are imaginary, they capture the children’s hearts and lift their spirits.

My mother’s name is Maria Milagros Cruz Rowencak, or just “mom.” Just like any relationship, it wasn’t always perfect. I loved her as much as any daughter can. But, I went through a quarter-life crisis where I felt many of my expectations fell apart.

First, I gave up music and piano, my childhood passions. Then I worked two to three jobs, chasing after a dream I eventually decided was never going to happen. I developed personal issues — a lack of direction, resentment and disappointment. I would often take it out on her. But it wasn’t her fault. She could see I became cynical from living the rat race in a fast-paced city of ambitious people. Still, she gave me nothing but love.

In 2007, she passed away suddenly — so suddenly I didn’t really comprehend it. I was in denial for the first three months, but I would have moments when I would remember she was really gone. She was my support. She helped me make decisions. She encouraged me. Everything I am today is because of her. My independence, my intelligence and my love of travel. Most importantly, my capacity to love unconditionally. I got that all from her.

When I lost all of that suddenly, I felt empty. I felt like I was in the air and I had no safety net. After she died, I felt like I became an orphan.

One evening during the summer of 2008, I was riding the New York subway and saw a little girl who was yawning and was cranky. So I gave her a piece of gum and made silly faces at her. She immediately forgot she was in a bad mood and was hungry.

It was at that “Aha!” moment, when I decided to spend Christmas with children who didn’t have a family. I wanted to show children they had value, just like how my mother treated me.

I remembered the children in Thailand. It is estimated that there are 30,000 to 40,000 prostitutes under 18 years of age. Thailand’s Health System Research Institute estimates children in prostitution make up 40 percent of all prostitutes in Thailand.

My heart wanted to visit orphanages in Thailand but my gut said no. At that time, there was political turmoil in Bangkok. Booking a ticket six months in advance was too risky. I also didn’t want to spend two weeks with children who didn’t understand any English. I was frustrated.

Then one day, I received a call from an old friend of my mother. She mentioned that a Filipino priest was coming to visit in two weeks. “Oh that’s funny, I was thinking about going to the Philippines and visiting orphanages. What a coincidence!” I said.

When I met him for lunch, he said, “I know of a little orphanage in Bulacan, Philippines. I spent a year there. You will like it.”

The very next day, I bought my plane ticket to the Philippines. Not long after, I found myself at a little orphanage called Bethlehem House of Bread.

Maya's Hope ‘superstars’ at San Martin de Porres Home for Children in Bulacan

Maya’s Hope ‘superstars’ at San Martin de Porres Home for Children in Bulacan

Maya Rowencak founded Maya’s Hope with a mission to help children in extreme poverty. The charity sponsors 82 kids in Bulacan. Maya’s Hope sends 100 percent of each sponsor’s contribution directly to each child. On June 11, Maya’s Hope will have a fundraising at New York’s Mercedes Club by showing the film, “Buffalo Girls,” an intimate look into the lives of two very young, professional Muay Thai fighters. If you can’t make it to the screening but would like to make a donation, please go to this page.

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