Saturday, September 21, 2013

Believe in Children

THIS IS A REPUBLISH FROM May 23 2010, DUE TO SOME COMPLICATIONS IN THE ORIGINAL POST. I would also like to dedicate this to my dad (Thathi), who has taught me so much more about Autism and its effects on peoples lives.

This is a tribute to all the members of the Aut' & About Barnardos team and the participating young people, based in the borough of Tower Hamlets, East London. I miss working as a project worker alongside each and every one of you doing the wonderful things you do every week.

I always wonder about who all our young people are growing up to be? Who is talking and improving the development of their speech? Who has become better behaved or naughtier? Who has put on weight or slimmed down?! Who has moved on from the scheme and who has joined? A year and 8 months of working within this amazing and inspiring group gave me an opportunity to fuel my own personal passion to work within the charity sector. To represent a voice for the vulnerable amongst us. You all serve the group with a true belief in children, and continue with your hard efforts because of your own visions and abilities to change these individuals' lives. I hope that one day once I have returned to London, I will be back in Bethnal Green at a ridiculous time of a Saturday morning walking into the Spark Centre to begin another day's work with you all.

The Aut' & About Scheme has been running for twelve years. Without the backbone of this hearty team's own determination to provide a service for the participating young people, as well as their parents and families, this scheme would have crumbled soon after its start due to the high pressures it faces on a weekly basis.

The scheme caters to young people that suffer from severe Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Being one of the few schemes in the region available for the extreme severities of ASD, some of their current service users have already sadly been the victims of negative discrimination, in the form of rejection from other schemes and schools, mainly due to the lack of understanding and knowledge. The Barnardos Aut' & About Scheme has become a pillar of support in these users' lives, providing an essential service, not only to the users' themselves, but also to their families.

The team is structured into two age groups, 'Juniors' (8 to 12 years old), and 'Seniors' (13 to 19 years old), with a maximum of ten young people per session. The project workers are assigned to the young person on a 1:1 or 2:1 basis to ensure that each child gets the full attention and care necessary.

When I first started working with the Barnardos team in April 2008, I felt quite assured that I was mentally and physically prepared for what was to come. With my record of voluntary work and experience with individuals suffering from various forms of disabilities, I assumed that I would be an easy fit. Very soon into my role I realised that this couldn't have been further from the truth. 

The first major hurdle I had to overcome was gaining the trust of these young people. For months I was clearly still considered the outsider, which was understandable considering that most of the other Project Workers had been with the scheme for at least ten years. They had literally seen these children grow into their adolescence. Continual bad behaviour and lack of listening was enough of an indication that I needed to back down and let the children take lead of my acceptance into the group. After a few months of patience and perseverance, I had proven my place. During one of our sessions, while sitting at the cinema watching a film, two of the young people sitting on either side of me shifted their bodies, leaning against me, and inter-wound their arms with mine. This is the moment I have been waiting for, I thought, as they both clung tightly to my arms, while I watched the animation of the film dancing around the surface of their excited, gleaming eyes.

In most cases disability is not something bestowed to individuals by choice. It influences one's family life, social life and personal welfare, as well as having a tremendous effect on other people that may be involved in the individual's life. We as a human race take our perfectly healthy bodies and orderly minds for granted, every single day! What if we were able to walk a day in the shoes of a person with a disability? Would it change our perspectives on our own daily insecurities and hang ups? I give myself this reality check every time I find my mind wondering into idol thoughts. My time with Barnardos as an organisation, with the team I worked within, and with the young people we catered to was one of the best moments of my career history. I appreciate the gift the children gave me. An opportunity to look through the eyes of another and see how society and environment can be so starkly altered, all simply depending on what kind of a body you were born into.

Appreciate the people around you and smile at the good things in your lives. You will truly understand the preciousness of these small wonders if and when they cease to exist.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

My name is.... Mr Bean, Stefanie, Lebron James, A.

It's raining and pouring in Hong Kong. Our Sunday hike organised by SK and Janet was cancelled due to unfavourable weather conditions. Instead the event was taken indoors, which although disappointing, resulted in an even more interesting day. We met at the Sai Wan Ho MTR station promptly at 10:45am. Huddled together shielding ourselves from the spitting, gloomy rain we headed to the Youth Outreach Centre located a few streets away.

At the top of a large set of concrete steps, leading off a small side street, you will find a large building tucked away from the rest of society. What appears to have been an old block of a typical HK style apartment building, is now a renovated youth hangout for both male and female members of Hong Kong's youth. 

Once through the main doors you are met with an impressively structured basketball court of a generous size. It's floors look polished to perfection and it's walls are a burst of colour, adorning graffiti style art work wall to wall. The whole room is gleaming with hope and inspiration. We are told that the basketball court has multiple uses, being transformed into a live gig venue for local musician bands at least once a week. The gig nights are a popular interest of many young people from various areas, gathering to listen to the music whilst socialising amongst similar minds, sharing backgrounds and experiences. Just within the first few minutes of stepping into the establishment I realised how well catered this particular centre was to it's youth. The staff have listened well.

This centre also provides an overnight shelter service for young people who feel they are not able to return to their home environments. Two sections separate females and males, housing up to twenty guests at a time for a maximum period of 8 weeks. Sadly, the centre must enforce this 8 week limited stay due to its cramped accommodations and stretched funding issues, with main monetary contributions coming in from public donations and collections. Only a few guests with special cases are allowed to stay for a couple of months at a time depending on overall capacity and resource. It is a strained service but thanks to the dedication of the staff the best is made of the resources at hand.

Today we are visiting the male section of the youth centre. By appearances it is kept very tidy and well organised with the perfect balance of homeliness, visible by the neatly stacked computer games, books and magazines piled around the living room area. As we walk through we can hear the noisy crowd of youth guests on the lower ground catching up with each other and comparing stories. A total of 14 guests have gathered at the centre this morning all curious about the prospects of the day. The staff at the centre have already informed us that the male guests hardly receive visitors or volunteers. So today's organised activity is somewhat of a novelty to most of these young men.

We start our event by sitting together in a big circle, having the 10 volunteers intertwined within the crowd. We all introduce ourselves by playing a name memory game which breaks the ice and gets the laughter flowing. Afterwards, the group break off into two teams to compete against each other during various other games. Everyone is laughing, smiling, and talking to each other. Some conversations have separated off into pairs or small groups.

Very soon after a few chats with some of the guests, it becomes apparent that trust and human contact are two very fragile concepts amongst these young men. Although each are at different stages of confronting their hardships they share one common feature - once you scrape past the layers that have built up over time, underneath all that skin is the same child.

What I am amazed to learn about is the youth centre's outreach team, who travel out every evening of every day seeking out young members of the youth that appear to be displaced or homeless. I learn that the most common places that the young homeless are found are in parks, playgrounds and generally dark corners of an urban city. With Hong Kong known for it's vertical concrete jungle-like character, I can imagine that there are plenty of hiding places for someone to intentionally get lost in. This incredible outreach team bring back willing guests to the youth centre and offer services of shelter, advocacy, and counselling. They push their own limits to reach out to as many needing souls.

When you step into this place there is a very raw but comforting vibe in the air. The walls whisper countless experiences of violence, anger, and sadness. But they also echo a myriad of success stories. Weakness, fear, and silence has been turned around in this very building, helping many members of the youth realise their own self value and purpose.

Growing up in a stable environment is a challenge in it self. Growing up in an unstable and uncertain environment must be to some a nightmare. Let's remind ourselves every once in a while of this forgotten truth.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Championing "One Hong Kong"

An article I ghostwrote for the Hong Kong Discovery Magazine - Discovery Hong Kong Vol 61 (all photographs are my own).

Championing "One Hong Kong"

Sunday, the 10th day of the 10th month, 2010. The largely anticipated Unison Hikathon event had finally arrived, alive and kicking, and full of steam! The weather had let up, breaking the last few days of rain with crisp morning dew and early day sun, to the delight of the 200 plus people gathered at the Nam Chung section of the Pat Sin Leng Country Park. Everyone had their own story for why they were present, besides their common goal to fundraise and support the valuable equal-rights advocacy work of the organiser group, Hong Kong Unison.

There was a captivating vibe in the air. The crowds of bodies were represented in all colours, genders and ages. St Johns Ambulance and the Hong Kong VR2HAM radio teams were also boldly present sharing their support and services. As participants continued to arrive in the busloads, the registration desk was buzzing, with people using any possible flat surface that was free to fill out their enrollment forms. With a huge number of unexpected walk-in registrations on the day, the total number of hikers was in the hundreds. The energy was ecstatic, as the hikers prepared themselves, giving hugs and handshakes of support to each other.

Jeff Andrews and Radio 2 RTHK presenter Alex Lee were bursting with pride as they initiated the opening ceremony. Joined by other guests of honour and Unison ambassadors Lam Woon-Kwong (chairman of the Hong Kong Equal Opportunities Commission), Emily Lau Wai-Hing (Legislative Councillor), Stephen Fisher (ex-director of the Hong Kong Social Welfare Department), Hung Chung Yam (former representative of the National Hong Kong Cycling Team), Roger and Henry Chung (The Chimes Gospel Band), Emily Kwan (Artist), and Brian Burrell (Artist), the stage was filled with as powerful of a presence as you could get.

“I support Unison because they are so vocal and open-minded,” said Lam Woon-Kwong. “We are the world, we are the people! So I support them,” added Emily Kwan. “I support Unison because I support racial equality,” stated Emily Lau. Brian Burrell delivered a strong and warm welcome speech in Chinese, expressing his support. Looking into the crowds you could see the emotion on people's faces, overwhelmed with happiness and some with tears, bursting into applause and cheering. Michael Jackson’s popular anthem, “We Are The World,” was sung in two versions of English and Chinese, bringing everyone together in a sea of arms and hands up in the air, swaying in a multi-directional rhythm. The singing reached fever pitch, whipping the hikers into an even more excitable frenzy. With the cutting of a brown and yellow striped ribbon, the proud colours of Hong Kong Unison, the ceremony came to an end, with the hikers energised and revving to go.

And so it started. Announcements were made in three languages English, Cantonese, and Urdu. And off they went! Some people running, and others starting a fast-paced walk down the two out of three official hiking trails of the race. The more experienced hikers and runners took the “Challenge 12.5 K” trail and the more casual hikers choice to trek down the “Scenic 6 K” trail. Unfortunately, due to the previous days of harsh weather, the “Extreme 18.5 K” trail had to be cancelled, much to the disappointment of the seasoned athletes. The three Delia Memorial Schools (Primary, Broadway, and Hip Wo) and the Islamic Kasim Tuet Memorial Secondary School had a number of teams in attendance, taking both trails. 30-minutete “Children's Hike” had also been mapped out for the younger participants who were eager to make their own individual contributions to the event.

First to return was the younger hikers, huffing and puffing with many stories to tell. They were welcomed back to the main site with various games and activities to keep them occupied while the rest of the hikers were still in the race. The first Challenge 12.5 K runner, Lin Cheuk Fung appeared at the finishing line, clocking up an astounding race time of a mere 1 hr 45 minutes, winning first place. 2nd place for the same trail was taken by Ryan Lacarne finishing in an equally impressive time of 2 hrs 10 minutes. 

Steadily more hikers started trickling in, welcomed by volunteers at the main site, inviting them to fruit and drinks. A gentle hum started picking up again, as the hikers were re-cooperate and sharing their experiences of the trail. As I was walking around giving congratulations to the people strewn around the main site, leaning up against trees, on rocks and laying out on the grass, I came across 12-year-old Harmandeep and her two best friends. They were too excited to take rest and were instead busily working their way through the ethnic minority costume stall, trying on different outfits. From different participating schools of Delia Memorial, they were really happy to talk, telling me how they were having the time of their lives. “It was a hard hike but we helped each other through it. I slipped and fell 20 times!” says an excited Harmandeep. A group of teenage boys aged 15-17 years old, all from the Hip Wo Delia Memorial school, were sitting together close by recovering. I went to sit with them and get their thoughts on the event. “It was fun," one of them said, "and it's nice to go with friends. We all wanted to hike in support of Unison”. 

A young lady called Roshni was amongst the helpful volunteers, providing mehndi hand and arm tattoos for the hard working participants of the event. Currently a diploma student in Travel and Tourism, she was volunteering for the day with her classmate. I sat with her for a while, watching her make a beautiful design on a young girl's palm, and she spoke to me about how happy she was to be taking part in such a monumental event in Hong Kong. “This is an important event, not only to support the great work of Unison, but also to spread awareness about the very real issues here in Hong Kong. I also love being able to meet new people from different cultures. It has been a great day”, she said with a smile on her face.

A selection of South Indian snacks was served for lunch, relished by everyone there. Not only were new friends being made, but a whole new community was being brought together.

What a day it had been and an amazing event to witness. Hong Kong Unison and its volunteers not only delivered a successful day but also an important message to the society of Hong Kong as a whole. For a few hours on a Sunday of October 2010, every person present at the Nam Chung trail site were able to achieve a sense of unification. There were no differences between each other that day. And "One Hong Kong" was certainly achieved. 

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Hiking through the Wilderness with Zheng Sheng Students

Despite only having a few hours sleep (due to Friday night running around the streets of HK) I wake up without a single snooze alarm, jumping out of bed, ready to punch my day in the face! Feeling super excited to be hiking in the Tai Tam Reservoir area - also known as a part of Wilson's trail - with a group of selected Zheng Sheng students. We have an early morning meet at 8:50 am at the Cheung Chau Pier on HK Island, so I rush out of my flat and meet them at 9 (I am not a morning person).

After everyone was accounted for (eleven male students, two Zheng Sheng teachers, and ten volunteers) we broke of into smaller groups to take taxi's to the starting location of our hike. Alongside three volunteers we had two students in our taxi. After the initial shy introductions more friendly conversation started, about the dread of being awake at an early hour on Saturday morning. The boys found it funny that we considered this time to be "early" as they usually wake up at a standard 5:30 - 6 am every morning. Due to the lack of Water Heating systems at the school, they shower in icy cold water throughout all seasons of the year. Hearing this, Robin William's character Adrian Cronauer's famous movie quote "Goooood Morning Vietnaaaaam!", from the 1987 film sharing the same title came to mind; cold showers every morning is a definite reminder of being alive.

The hiking expedition re-grouped at the site, and we all headed to the picnic/ BBQ area to get better acquainted. We started playing a few group activity games led by one of the volunteers, to break the ice. Arranging ourselves into a line according to birthday and month... in silence, grouping ourselves into strongly agree to strongly disagree categories about certain topics or statements, with finally circling up and playing a game involving memorising all the names of the people present. With 23 people present, and lots of Chinese and Nepalese names, we were definitely laughing our heads off by the time we reached the last person of the group. 

The students standard of English was impressive and made me feel shameful for only having learnt a few words and phrases of Cantonese in the two months I have been here in HK.

We were having a great start to the morning, so set off. The hiking trail is roughly 6 K, elevating 450 metres (Hiking difficulty level 3). SK, our hike leader warns us that this is not a trail for the faint hearted and that there is an alternative shorter trail which is also available to willing hikers. Everyone shouts out that they want the challenge of the harder route, and so we start feeling energised and motivated to beat this trail. The initial climb seems to be the most difficult, but we reach the highest point with ease and stop to soak in the scenery.

The weather was perfect as the sun had still not peaked giving us a light and breezy mood to work with. The trail was tricky and trippy at parts but the setting gave us much opportunity to share our own experiences and stories, allowing us to enjoy the personal challenges of the hike but also to learn and discover about each other.

Along the way at different stages of our three hour hike I was able to learn more personal accounts of the students experiences. The Zheng Sheng College was initially set up in 1985 as a drug addiction treatment centre, and is located on the Chi Ma Wan Peninsula, Lantau Island (1). It currently houses about 100 males and 30 females, both groups kept strictly separate from each other, all arriving from backgrounds of serious drug abuse, Triad involvement (Chinese criminal organisations having an equivalence to the Sicilian Mafia), or petty crime. The existing age group of male students are between the ages 13 to 24 years old, although the youngest student to be admitted to the school so far has been 8 years old (2). Aside of daily study and revision the boarders are promoted to participate in vocational subjects such as Photography and Videography, encouraged by the principal of the school, whom had allowed some of the students to borrow camera equipment for this hiking trip. The college requires a minimum of a two year stay as a boarder to qualify as a student. The group of male pupils on the hike with us were all from mixed backgrounds of varying ethnicity from local to mainland Chinese and Nepalese, between the ages of 16 to 19 years old. They were selected to participate in this event due to their previously observed patterns of good behaviour. This is their first ever leisurely hiking trip. 

We continued on through the muddy, rocky and jagged terrain. On the second half of the hike I got chatting to the two teachers that had joined our expedition. They had both worked at the school for over two to three years, explaining that a teaching position at the Zheng Sheng College also takes on various other roles aside of formal education. They are required to spend night shifts, socialising and relaxing with the students introducing life education which the school highly encourages as a extra curricular activity. Most of these young men arrived at the College with dark pasts, living lonely or controlled lives. Many of them were forced to surpass their childhood, maturing at very young ages. To actually benefit from the facilities offered by Zheng Sheng both the students and the staff must gain levels of trust and form certain bonds with each other. Drug rehabilitation is hell on Earth for adults. It must be the most frightening place for a child.

The pupils of the School are forbidden from use of mobile phones, as they are required to make a real alteration of their lives, starting by cutting off past ties. Reading or looking at Newspapers and Magazines is another activity which is banned due to the pre-pubescent students finding even an innocent picture of a pretty girl or boy to have a pornographic or erotic context. This is again a very important isolation stage during drug abuse recovery. Addiction is a very powerful tool and will strive to find any sort of a substituting matter to guarantee its survival, thus to solve the root of the problem the addictive nature must be eradicated completely.

We hit the final stages of our journey. Everyone was rubbing their stomach's thinking about the feast that was awaiting us back at the picnic site. We all felt a certain euphoria for having completed the trail together.

Bon apetit; the picnic feast was received very well! The teachers explained that the students rarely got chances to eat junk food, so they loved their post-hike meal full of glorious snacks, sweets, and junk goodness.

It has been a great day, not only thoroughly enjoyable but also a complete eye opening experience. 6 K in distance, 450 m in elevation, and 3 hours later we left each other with a peaceful knowledge that life doesn't always throw you what you necessarily want, but every experience is valuable, and never impossible to learn from and conquer.

20th Feb' 2010


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Ruff and Ready

A piece of my environment opened up today... yet again. And I stepped through with enthusiasm. Four days ago I got an invite to the media committee meeting for the Million Women Rise Organisation. I had been silently hoping and waiting on this phone call for well over a year. Today was the day and aside of this inspirational evening spent with five other strong individual women, a mini miracle occured. All the way to and from the meeting I couldn't stop writing. The pen flows again and I feel relief. I've missed it.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Slightly Overdue!

But better late than never. This is a first time project for me so I'm feeling optimistic about the possibilities. The future will be bright :)

So anyway, lets cut to the good stuff. Most of you know about my recent trip to my beautiful hometown island Sri Lanka.

"The Pearl of the Indian Ocean", nothing less. I had two sole purposes for my visit. Firstly, to see my grandad (Seeya) and family, which was amazing. My only wish is that we lived closer to each other. Secondly, to visit and work within a few orphanages based across the island.

I kept a daily journal with notes and pictures which I will be presenting here to give you a taste of how life changing my trip was.

A thirst for knowledge.

Budget Expenditure.

£700 was raised in total by all you wonderful people. You all know who you are and we managed to do this within a week and a half. 11 DAYS! 

£700 at the rate of Rs.210 exchange rate worked out to be a lot of rupees.
So here’s what the money was spent on:


Hikkaduwa, Balapitiya, Ambalangoda Tsunami Trust –
  • 36 Vouchers @ Rs.1,000 each for the 36 children from Hikkaduwa and Balapitiya areas.
  • 16 Vouchers @ Rs.1,000 each for the 16 children from Ambalangoda area.
  • 3 Vouchers @2,000 each for specialised sports shoes for 3 children.
  • Rs.10,000 for the children’s utilities for dancing and tsunami talent group.
  • Rs.6,000 for 6 months tuition fees for young girl from Sooriya Wewa for her last A Level examination.

  • Thusitha Bookshop (PVT) LTD – Rs.9,925 for necessary stationary.
  • Lak Sathosa Food Store – Rs.21,335 for food and household provisions.
  • Electricity Bills and Transportation Costs – Rs.36, 800.
  • Wasanthi – Rs.1,000. Wasanthi is a volunteer at the orphanage, and was a resident their when she was a child.

  • Food Dane: Breakfast meal for all girls in the home – Rs.1,500.

  • Food Dane: Dinner meal for all girls in the home – Rs.2,250.

  • Excess of Rs.250 added towards more food costs.