How do you change the world? Ying Wa College student Sunny Lam Chun-ngai believes all it takes is a simple equation: knowledge plus action. He does his best to learn about and understand disadvantaged groups in Hong Kong, but he also makes sure to put that knowledge to good use.
The 17-year-old 2017 Student of the Year (SOTY) Community Contributor winner has been involved in volunteer work for the past six years. He began in Form One with visits to the elderly and supporting services that provide health care.
But he wanted to get involved in something where he could make a long-term commitment, get to know the people he was working with and, hopefully, see progress being made.
He started working once a month organising activities for people with mental disabilities, and ended up keeping the role for three years.
“It had a huge impact on me … I began to recognise that many disadvantaged groups are misunderstood because people judge or label them before trying to [get to] know them,” Sunny said.
Most people’s impressions of those with mental disabilities came from ignorance, rather than real experience, he added.
Both Sunny’s home and school are in Sham Shui Po, an area of the city where homelessness is particularly prevalent. It wasn’t long until he had reached out to that community as well.
That started with an interschool local service project, where students prepared meals and ate with the homeless, and then spent the night outside to experience what it was like to be homeless for a night.
In the year since then, Sunny has volunteered once a week with the Hong Kong Young Women’s Christian Association. While he mostly sits and chats with the people there, he also prepares home-made food, and helps to organise workshops for those recovering from addiction.
“It is very different from participating in random volunteer opportunities where you only get to meet people once,” explained Sunny. “[It has allowed me to] form a very close bond with the homeless people.”
Some of the homeless people are ex-convicts, who would share their life stories and warn Sunny and the other volunteers against going down the wrong path. Sunny sees them as friends; he finds himself thinking about them a lot, especially if the weather is bad.
Sunny’s compassion has proven infectious. A number of his friends and family have joined him in his efforts after seeing his posts on social media.
“I didn’t think some of my acquaintances would actively reach out to me and ask if they could join me on my homeless visits. Some have even become regular volunteers,” he said, genuinely excited by the change he has enacted.
But homelessness is a complicated issue, he added. “It reflects a mixture of problems the group is facing, such as insufficient housing, drug abuse, as well as mental illness.”
While many Hongkongers get to enjoy the privileges of living in a wealthy city, Sunny hopes that as a society, we can become more aware of those in our city who aren’t as fortunate – many of whom can’t afford shelter or three meals a day.
Apart from visiting the homeless in his neighbourhood, Sunny is now preparing for a one-day experiential outdoor group activity for his peers to learn about the values of community service.
“By sending out the message that everyone has their own weaknesses, we hope to encourage more secondary students to learn more about the different disadvantaged groups in our community, and offer helping hands to them.”
Yet despite his outreach work, Sunny still believes that charity begins at home: “You don’t have to join a volunteer event to help others. You can simply practise it in your daily life.”