Kindness personified. As I sat down with one of our Hospitality and Tourism Management lecturers Grace Chia for an interview, I can see kindness in her eyes and warmth in her broad smile. Thus it comes as no surprise that Grace is the co-founder of a large charitable organisation called Project Happy Feet. We assure you however that this organisation has nothing to do with penguins!
Having started out by providing children in Cambodia with slippers, the organisation now oversees the education of children, the provision of school uniforms and the building of homes. But just how exactly did the organisation get started and why did Grace go out of her way to help children thousands of kilometres away? The answers to these questions and more will be revealed in one of the most inspiring interviews we have ever done.
The foundations of Project happy Feet can be traced to a holiday back in 2007. Grace and a friend, Deborah Chew, had decided to go on a vacation in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Having learnt about charitable organisations needing donations in Siem Reap, Grace called them up and asked if she and her friend could bring any items for them from Singapore. The organisation in Cambodia came up with what seemed like an eccentric request, slippers. Yes slippers.
Grace happily obliged and brought twenty pairs of slippers along with stationeries and sweets for the organisation. What happened next is nothing short of heart wrenching.
“When we were in Siem Reap, the organisation arranged for us to visit some schools. There was a black board which was half broken and worn out. There were no concrete floors and only mud floors. When the teacher asked the class how many students needed footwear, the whole class stood up and we only had twenty pairs of slippers. The kids walked to school barefoot and shoes were not a priority for them. This was the condition that we were faced with” remarked Grace as she recounted her first trip to Cambodia. The happiness the children got when they received footwear led to the organisation being named Project Happy Feet.
Upon returning to Singapore, Grace and her friend Deborah Chew felt that they could do so much more for the children of Siem Reap. Determined to make a difference for the children, Grace, armed with donations from numerous individuals, returned to Cambodia a year later with 800 pairs of slippers. Back home however, there was a more pressing concern that needed to be addressed. Handling donations from other individuals, there was a need for transparency and as such Grace and her friend decided to formalise their operations into a full-fledged charitable organisation.
Their path to becoming an official charitable organisation however was fraught with difficulties. Having no prior experience at running an organisation, Grace and her friends were at a lost as to how to proceed. Fortunately, there were seminars from organisations such as the National Philanthropy Centre which gave pointers on how individuals could set up charitable organisations. It also helped that at the core of the organisation, there was a group of twenty closely knit volunteers. “We all socialised regularly and the group was like another family” remarked Grace as she told us more about the twenty volunteers that form the backbone of the organisation to this very day.
Having a strong desire to help the needy, the group overcame the obstacles that came their way and Project Happy Feet was born in 2009. As an organisation run entirely by volunteers, 100 per cent of its earnings from fund raisers were donated to charities.
Following its creation, the organisation started fund raising initiatives such as the Project Happy Feet Slipper race. The Slipper race involves participants taking part in a non-competitive walk over three kilometres in yes you guessed it, slippers. The aim of the event is to put participants in the shoes of the children of Cambodia who have to walk similar distances in slippers just to get to school. Other initiatives organised by them also included the filled with love project. Filled with love involved a partnership with hotels where chefs prepared meals for some 200 hundred needy children during the Christmas season. It’s worth noting that the organisation has raised some 300,000 dollars for the needy to date.
As part of running charitable events in Singapore, the law requires organisers to ensure that 80 per cent of the revenue accrued is spent on local charities. As a result, only twenty per cent of the revenue could be spent on overseas charities like the ones Grace had sponsored in Cambodia. “As funds were limited, we did not want to spread our resources thinly and only supported This Life Cambodia which was based in Siem Reap. The organisation was run 90 per cent run by locals and worked with rural communities. We worked towards a self-sustainability model where we would support the organisation in building initiatives in a village for a certain period. Afterwards, they will be left on their own to carry on the work and we will proceed to continue this model in another village” recounted Grace when asked more about her fund raising initiatives in Cambodia.
Having had to go well out of her way to help so many children, just why exactly does she do it? “Because I can and we all have comfortable lives and are in a position to give back to the community” replies a determined Grace. In closing, we ask her of her best memories in running The Happy Feet Project. “Each time we take on a project we learn about ourselves and our growth as people. I am just really appreciative to have such good volunteers and the opportunity to do good” replies Grace.
Talk about a day where we are proud to be part of the TP family. Grace just made that pride soar and we will definitely be there in our pair of slippers for the Slipper Race come 2014.
This interview has left us nothing short of inspired and grateful that there are kind Samaritans like Grace amongst us. If you guys want to help Grace in her fund raising initiatives please visit www.projecthappyfeet.org.