Ready to be devoured: The tumpeng and a chocolate birthday cake sit on a table before the students of Sekolah Merah Putih during the school’s ninth anniversary celebration. (JP/Gordon LaForge)
The chocolate birthday cake never stood a chance. Portioned and placed in the middle of the joglo (a traditional Javanese gazebo) floor, little hands swooped it up in seconds, capping off an Independence Day event that brought together rock stars, social visionaries and disadvantaged schoolchildren.
The 68th anniversary of the nation was also the ninth anniversary of Sekolah Merah Putih, a privately funded school that provides free education for needy children. Nestled on a quiet, verdant block in Lebak Bulus, South Jakarta, Merah Putih enrolls 200 students in grades one through 12, plus a vocational high school nursing program.
Around 100 of the students — several wearing freshly pressed red-and-white school uniforms, also free — gathered with teachers and stakeholders beneath the 600-year-old carved wood ceiling of the joglo, listening to founding director Yuni Subali speak.
A lawyer and notary who has spent more than 40 years helping underprivileged children, Yuni opened Merah Putih nearly a decade ago to further her vision — that every child in Indonesia could go to school.
Yuni funded the construction and continues to finance most of Merah Putih’s operational expenses — which total nearly Rp 380 million (US$34,000) per year — out of her own pocket.
After commending the children and teachers for their commitment, Yuni spoke about her belief that education was not only key for economic development, but also for unifying humanity: “Here we can learn that there are no differences in race, religion or skin color. We are all one family under God.”
Yuni’s vision was shared by Musikimia, an alt-rock group created by former members of the multi-platinum band Padi.
Having met Musikimia frontman Fadly Arifuddin five years ago when he was the lead vocalist of Padi, Yuni invited the band to the anniversary celebration. The date was also the group’s one-year birthday, as scribbled in icing on the soon-to-be eviscerated cake.
Yuni Subali: The founder of Sekolah Merah Putih stands with one of her students and holds her piece of the birthday tumpeng. (JP/Gordon LaForge)
To a boisterous rendition of “Happy Birthday”, the band members used one knife to cut the tumpeng a traditional Javanese yellow rice pyramid, which, like the rest of the food and drink, had been donated — and Fadly served the top piece to Yuni. He salaamed, reflecting a humility unbefitting a rock star who’s sold millions of albums, played to stadium crowds and collaborated with national and international icons such Iwan Fals and Maher Zain.
“He’s really just a down-to-earth farmer at heart,” said Fadly’s wife and high school sweetheart, Aulia.
As a father, Fadly has made supporting kids a part of his career. Together, he and Musikimia bassist Rindra produced a bestselling educational children’s album in 2012, with songs that encouraged reading, diligence in school and good manners. The track “Sahabat Selamanya” (Friends Forever) became a hit in Indonesia and Malaysia and helped cool flaring public tempers after Malaysian fishing boats were caught illegally trolling in Indonesian waters off Kalimantan.
“It’s a pleasure to do work for children,” Fadly said. “I believe education is absolutely the key for success.”
Musikimia played “Sahabat Selamanya” and two other songs, as many older children sang along.
Even after the music ended and the go-ahead was given to devour the cake, the schoolchildren showed civility and respect.
As night fell, many thanked Yuni or teachers and went home for the final two days of vacation before the start of the new term.
For a few children, going home meant staying. Mayang, 16, is the oldest of four siblings who were orphaned when their parents died within months of each other four years ago. With no other family to look after them, Mayang and her younger brothers and sister were taken care of by neighbors. Diko, the youngest, was only three years old. None of them went to school.
“There were families who said they would adopt us, but they’d only take one or two of us,” she said. “We didn’t want to be separated.”
Eventually, the neighborhood head (RT) found out about Sekolah Merah Putih and talked to Yuni, who agreed to adopt all four children.
They’re now part of the family, living on campus with Yuni and her husband and two grandchildren.
“We feel very lucky and grateful,” Mayang said.
She is enrolled in Merah Putih’s nursing training program and wants to start working immediately after she graduates. The school is a feeder for a hospital in Central Jakarta, though some graduates choose to matriculate at universities to continue studying nursing or medicine.
To study at Merah Putih, each student must have a letter from the RT confirming he or she is incapable, i.e., the child’s parents — or parent, as is often the case — lack a steady income and can’t afford the modest fees or opportunity costs associated with schooling.
Unlike in public schools, each elementary, middle and high school grade at Merah Putih has one homeroom teacher who covers every subject. Yuni, who has taken pedagogy workshops in the US and elsewhere, trains the teachers herself. With 15 teachers for 200 students, class size is favorable.
In recent years, Merah Putih has attracted more stakeholders, including former and current government officials, indicating growing support for humanitarian schools.
Also an honored guest at the anniversary celebration, Rina Novita helps run a family foundation that provides full-ride scholarships to National Pasim University in Bandung for 20 orphan high school graduates each year. In addition to following a normal degree track, they take courses in specific job skills, English and character building.
“The goal is for them to get good jobs, become leaders and help develop Indonesia,” Rina said, adding that every graduate last year found employment.
During a graduate’s first 10 years in the workforce, he or she must pay 10 percent of their annual income back into the foundation, thus guaranteeing the sustainability of the program.
Like Yuni, she sees education as the path for ensuring that the underprivileged in society also get a piece of the cake.