Meet Sue Toomey, Executive Director of HandsOn Hong Kong
Meet Sue Toomey, Executive Director of HandsOn Hong Kong
Founded in 2007, HandsOn Hong Kong was launched to mobilize and empower the community to meet pressing social needs in Hong Kong via volunteer services. The charity operates a number of programs and is an integral part of the Hong Kong community connecting non-profit and corporate partners and volunteers with disadvantaged children and youth, isolated elderly, ethnic minority students, under-resourced families, refugees and people with disabilities.
The organization has been a long-standing charity partner of Retykle, allocating preloved clothing that is not accepted for resale on our platform, to those most in need as well as monetary donations through our seller donations, charity closets and other donation initiatives.
With the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the work HandsOn Hong Kong carries out has never been more important in servicing the needs of our community. We are lucky to be able to sit down with Sue Toomey, Executive Director of Hong Kong to find out more about the charity, its mission and Hong Kong’s most pressing social and environmental issues.
Please tell us a little more about yourself
I’m originally from the US and have been living with my family in Asia for the past 23 years. My husband and I first spent seven years in India where we had our son and then moved to Hong Kong where we’ve raised him for the past nearly 16 years. Like so many others who come to Hong Kong, I feel so fortunate to have had such incredible experiences and meet the most interesting people along the way. This truly is a special place and will always be for my family.
What led you to join HandsOn Hong Kong?
I had worked in the corporate sector for most of my career and in my previous job at The Economist, I had the pleasure of leading several projects that addressed sustainability or social issues. I knew that for my next role, I wanted to focus my time and energy entirely on social impact. Several nonprofit roles were introduced to me, but it wasn’t until I learned about the HandsOn position becoming available that I got really excited. There is something about helping others to find their passion and empowering them to make a difference that really speaks to me.
Years ago, I was a volunteer at Chicago Cares, one of HandsOn’s global affiliates. When I later moved to Hong Kong from India, I thought about starting my own chapter as I struggled to find easily accessible volunteering opportunities. A month or so later, I read about the launch of HandsOn and thought, ‘well, someone beat me to it’ and that someone was Shaun Bernier, our founder. When we met years later regarding the Executive Director role, I felt it was such a serendipitous, full-circle moment.
What does a typical day look like for you?
These days, without a morning commute or regular schedule, I think I try extra hard to create a sense of routine. Getting outdoors for a walk is my favorite way to start the day as it clears the mind and enables me to focus on the priorities for the day. Our team at HandsOn also works hard to stay connected, even when we’re operating remotely. We have regular check-ins to discuss both the work at hand and one another’s well-being. Calls throughout the day often include speaking to nonprofit partners to understand the challenges they’re facing and determine how best volunteers can help. We also conduct ‘lunch and learn’ sessions with companies, schools, universities, and business associations to help people learn about Hong Kong’s social needs and empower them to support in any way they can–by volunteering their time, providing financial support, or just sharing our calendar.
Given the nature of our work, being responsive to the needs of the community, we often must adapt our plans to the evolving situation. It can be frustrating at times, but it’s important that we are providing meaningful support and engaging volunteers in the most relevant ways possible. There is typically also time in the day for related activities such as speaking with other HandsOn affiliates or local nonprofit leaders to find productive ways to advance the work of the sector. After work is family dinner time where we come together to catch up on the day. A silver lining of the pandemic has been greater consistency with family dinners.
What are the most pressing social problems Hong Kong is currently facing?
The most pressing social problems in Hong Kong at the moment are related to access to affordable food, fall-out from job losses and increased pressure on everyone’s mental well-being. The rising food prices caused by supply chain issues and panic buying means that food is scarce, and people are having to pay more for fresh produce and other food items to feed their families. We’ve seen more new households turning to food banks or charities for support than ever before. Hong Kong now has 1.65 million people living in poverty–that means that nearly 22% of people are barely surviving on HKD4,400 per month or less. Just think about trying to pay for your housing, food, transportation and more on that amount. Throughout the pandemic, two in three low-income households experienced someone losing a job, furthering their financial burden.
We’ve also seen how much the health crisis and events of the past two years have taken a toll on Hongkongers’ mental health. Even before the pandemic, 50% of elderly residents reported feeling lonely. Hong Kong youth are mentally stressed with continued social distancing from friends, extended time on screens, and a reported less than 24 minutes of outdoor activities per day.
What are they ways that volunteers can get involved? Are there opportunities for kids to volunteer?
For volunteers prepared to help in person, we are running care package delivery programs that have people dropping necessity packs directly on the doorstep of a low-income household or distributing food and hygiene items to people experiencing homelessness. We also have volunteers refurbishing home appliances and computers to support home learning.
We understand the real concerns around being with others at this time so we have also developed several virtual service activities where volunteers can support and provide care safely from home. These include online homework help for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, English storytelling to children with hearing impairments and caring phone calls to isolated elderly.
For children, we recommend involving them in making caring cards that can be inserted in the care package deliveries. These help to remind people that they haven’t been forgotten by the rest of the community. Families can also take part in a ‘citizen scientist’ project that supports a project on marine trash detection–just taking photos of items while walking on a beach and uploading them afterwards.
All programs can be found on the HandsOn calendar, click here.
How do you recommend families to introduce social inequalities and needs within the community to their young children?
I believe the best approach for parents is to first be a role model of someone who cares for others, and it can start close to home. Children who see their parents reaching out to family members or friends who need support are shown that it’s a priority. As they get older, parents can engage their children in conversations about some of the challenges that people in the community face and invite them to participate in service programs. Studies have shown that young people who volunteer grow up to be adults who are more civically engaged and more generous with their philanthropic giving. Helping to empower children to see their own abilities to make a positive difference at any age is key.
How important are environmental organizations to Hands On Hong Kong? Any that you would like to highlight that are making an impact in our community?
HandsOn runs 200+ service activities on our calendar each month and more than 20% of them support environmental conservation programs and organizations–so the answer is ‘very important’. It’s ironic that people in Hong Kong are going hungry while thousands of tons of food are ending up in landfills. Due to COVID, we now also need to worry about more than six million face masks being disposed of daily. Thankfully there are some incredibly dedicated organizations focused on educating people about the issues and equipping them with the knowledge and tools to take action. There are too many to include, so I’ll mention just a few close partners here:
- Crossroads - connects resources with people who need them through collection and redistribution
- Feeding Hong Kong - tackles both hunger and food waste by rescuing discarded food
- Food Angel - rescues discarded food and prepares meals
- Plastic Free Seas - educates people on the issue of plastic pollution and helps them act
- Redress - reducing waste in fashion through clothing collection and redistribution
How do you incorporate sustainability practices into your daily life?
Incorporating sustainable practices into daily life is all about making choices. Whether it’s bringing your own shopping bags, selecting produce that’s not wrapped in plastic, or being mindful of how much and which items you purchase to not waste food, these are all choices. The same goes for decisions around clothing–purchase fast fashion or invest in long-lasting pieces? Discard used items or donate and give them a second life? This is why I have so much respect for the work of Retykle, reducing waste and empowering people to make sustainable choices.