From its establishment in 2008, the purely student-led organisation has raised tens of thousands of dollars, constructed facilities, and provided education for their less advantaged counterparts.
Justin Lee first came up with the idea for uSmile at age 13, after being deeply moved by a documentary about children in rural China. From that moment, Lee knew he had to act.
“Empathy and shock [turned] into an eagerness to contribute to society,” says Lee, now 17. “I felt I could create a charity with a vision of ending global poverty.”
The then 13-year-olds initially found it difficult to be taken seriously. “When we approached members of staff, we were often met with looks of scepticism,” recalls Irving Teng, uSmile’s current team leader. “Even now as young adults, we sometimes still struggle to gain the trust of authority figures from schools we want to help.”
Justin and his twin brother Austin teaching at FFTS
Despite the challenges, uSmile has proven the cynics wrong, leaping from strength to strength. The group began with organising fundraising events for Oxfam Education, but soon sought a more hands-on approach.
In 2011, the uSmile team voluntarily led a three-week English programme at Fresh Fish Trader’s School (FFTS), a local institute for financially disadvantaged students.
“It definitely gave a sense of realism to the nature of volunteer work,” Lee reflects. “It was tough, because few of us had any teaching experience. As much as it was an educational experience for [the FFTS students], it was also educational for us.”
The current team of ten 17-year-old students have even impacted disadvantaged students on a global scale. In March this year, uSmile led a sponsored knitting marathon, during which 103 students participated to knit blankets for 24 hours. The blankets were donated to underprivileged students in southern Africa, while the HK$25,607 raised went into building a basketball court for students in Sibao Primary School, Guangzhou.
“The children no longer risked injuring themselves on a dirt pitch,” explains Teng. “The gratitude of the community was extremely inspiring to us. It showed that our combined efforts uplifted the entire village’s sense of community.”
Students enjoying their new basketball court
The goodwill which uSmile brings to others is in alignment with its “ethos of positivity”, as Lee puts it. However, the charity’s future is uncertain.
The founding team has been separated since 2012. Some, including Lee, have left the charity and now study at Li Po Chen United World College. The remaining members will leave uSmile upon graduation next year.
The fund’s fate will depend on younger Sha Tin College students. Applications for next year’s members are currently under consideration.
Teng adds a final word of advice, not only to the future uSmile team, but also to fellow teens: “If you actually care about something, donating money won't be enough for you. Look at the skills you have, look at what you care about, and find a way to apply them.”