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Best way to fight back against bullies

By Efren Peñaflorida, Special to CNN
  • Efren Peñaflorida: I was bullied as a child in the Philippines
  • He says he wanted to strike back against the gangs bullying him
  • A mentor convinced him education, not revenge, was the answer
  • Peñaflorida's work has saved hundreds from lives of despair

Editor's note: Efren Peñaflorida, the CNN Hero of the Year for 2009, was honored for creating "pushcart classrooms," carts stocked with books, chalkboards and other supplies, that bring education to poor children in the Philippines. Since 1997, he and more than 12,000 teenage volunteers have taught basic reading and writing skills to more than 1,800 children living on the streets. Watch "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute" on Thanksgiving night at 8.ET/5 PT on CNN/U.S. The show airs on CNN International on Thursday, November 25, at 8 p.m. ET and Friday, November 26, at 5 a.m. ET, 1100/2200 Berlin and 0900/1800 Hong Kong.

(CNN) -- As a child, I thought growing up in a slum near a dumpsite in the Philippines was as normal a life as an ordinary kid can have -- until I mingled with people from different social classes.

The feeling of being unwanted tore my heart out, and I grew to feel so sorry for myself. I was looked down upon and discriminated against because of my appearance in cheap secondhand clothes and old shoes.

I wore the same pair of shoes for more than 10 years, lining the sole with a plastic bag so the water wouldn't seep into my feet. Because of the way I looked, I was often bullied by gang members verbally and at times physically, with others hitting and shoving me. I felt different, powerless and socially isolated.

Watch a preview of the 2010 CNN Heroes All-Star Tribute

I was then focused on one thing: revenge! I kept those feelings to myself and it consumed me little by little, until my heart grew cold and I wanted to give up everything.

I almost quit school because I was afraid. I thought of joining a gang to strike back at the bullies. I was lost, troubled and crying my heart out but nobody heard, no one seemed to care. I got so lost that I couldn't even find my way back to peace and happiness until God answered the desire of my heart.

CNN Heroes: An all-star tribute
  • Philippines
  • Gangs
  • Bullying
  • Social Issues

I was 13 when I met a man who became my friend, mentor, teacher and somewhat like a father. He helped me pick up the broken pieces of my life, which eventually healed my broken spirit. That mentor guided me and helped me change my perspective about a lot of things.

He taught me that the quality of life is more dependent on our perspective than our circumstances, that the value of being is more dependent on our character than on our achievements -- and that the worth of our existence is more dependent on how we live life than on how long we survive.

My mentor taught me that if I struck back with revenge against those who harmed and threatened me, it would just worsen my situation.

So he introduced me to several volunteer activities, from distributing sandwiches to prisoners to building houses for less fortunate families to working in youth empowerment programs. I felt good about what I did, especially when people appreciated those small efforts.

During those moments, I discovered my responsibility to other people and I slowly developed a heart that has a desire to help and reach out to those who are being bullied and discriminated against.

My mentor encouraged me to think of a positive way to get back at those who bullied and put me down, not by violence but by competition. At 16, he helped me and my friends create Dynamic Teen Company as an alternative club for students on campus and in communities, a way to stop bullies and school gangsters from victimizing and terrorizing more students.

Our main purpose is the exact opposite of that of the bullies and gang groups -- to care, show love and acceptance by making a small yet significant difference in school, in our family, toward our friends and the people around us, and to use our time, skills, talents, strength and energy in more productive activities.

Our goal was to show that that there is strength in numbers and that goodness should triumph over wrongdoing.

Our crusade against the acts of bullies and gang groups has reached the slums and depressed areas in our town, where many kids are groomed and trained as early as 9 years old to become a gangster.

We were able to save children from this fate and help them become an asset to build a better community. We put an emphasis on using education and faith to help every child to have a better and decent life. This has become our mission.

There are plenty of kids all over the world who are going through the same things as I did. And, even though we may feel helpless sometimes, there are a lot of things we and others can do to help stop bullying and gang violence.

The role of adults, parents and mentors makes a big difference in combating this issue. Children must be loved, protected and given proper guidance. Good old family values should be strengthened. Education and learning is not the sole responsibility of the school, but a concern of the family and society as well.

Love for learning will open new doors of opportunities to everyone. We should remember that all adults are in some ways teachers to children who watch us and copy our beliefs, acts and lifestyle.

We want to create an environment where children can express themselves in a conduct that is loving, accepting and respecting of others, so that they may grow up to be assets and not liabilities to society.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Efren Peñaflorida.