Operation Santa Claus: near-death experience inspires Hong Kong campaign against elderly loneliness (SCMP)

  • Top lawyer Tan Poh Lee decided in 2015 to set up Mighty Oaks to help the elderly after emerging unscathed from a car crash in India
  • With Operation Santa Claus support, she is planning to match hundreds of youngsters with the elderly next year to combat loneliness

After cheating death in a New Delhi car accident 10 years ago, Tan Poh Lee decided in 2015 to quit her job as a partner at a multinational law firm and start a non-profit-making organisation in Hong Kong serving the elderly.

Mighty Oaks hopes to next year continue pairing its senior clients with primary school students, a programme it has run over the last five years to combat loneliness among the elderly and bridge the gap between generations.

Project Sparkle plans in 2022 to send hundreds of pupils into care homes and other facilities to engage with the elderly across six to 10 workshops per semester. Activities range from horticulture to dance, crafting bamboo fans to re-enacting Broadway musicals.

“I am a Christian,” Tan said. “So when I came out of the car accident unscathed, I asked God why he has preserved me, and what he would like me to do. That’s when I remembered my father’s teachings of living beyond ourselves and the underserved elderly in our communities.”

Mighty Oaks is one of 18 beneficiaries of Operation Santa Claus (OSC) – an annual fundraising initiative held by the South China Morning Post and public broadcaster RTHK since 1988.

Tan’s organisation plans to match nearly 500 primary school pupils with members of the older generation through HK$813,597 (US$104,536) in funding from the annual charity drive.

“Ninety per cent of the people I speak to support children and young people because they believe that they are the future of our society,” Tan said.

“But the elderly have contributed to our world too, so we’d hate to leave them feeling lonely after retirement. We want to give them purpose and hope, and the best way to do that is through children.”

She said her inspiration for Project Sparkle came from her son’s home-made theatre productions based on books her mother-in-law had read to him.

“I thought of replicating the fun times my son and mother-in-law shared and magnifying that into a community level so we can become catalysts for harmony in families,” she said.

“We chose elderly facilities that are within walking distance from schools because if the kids could walk there, their relationships with the seniors will continue even after our workshops are over.”

Ten-year-old Gianna Ng, of Kau Yan School in Sai Ying Pun, took part two years ago in weekly meet-ups with residents of Chuk Lam Ming Tong Care & Attention Home for The Aged in Pok Fu Lam.

Though the workshops have long ended, she and her family sent hand sanitiser and home-made cards during the Covid-19 pandemic – and frequently recorded videos to cheer up the seniors at the centre.

Ng’s mother, Maggie Wong Siu-har, said the programme had taught her daughter to be more considerate.

“Before, Gianna was always the one who was being taken care of at home. But now she can see things from other people’s perspectives and regards the elderly as friends rather than people requiring care.”

As Mighty Oaks prepares for next year’s launch of Project Sparkle, Tan predicts challenges ahead due to the need of hiring workshop instructors competent in teaching both the elderly and children, as well as recruiting partner schools.

“The programme teaches children soft skills such as communication and the art of persuasion. Kids will have to collaborate with elders one day, so the earlier they learn to work with and respect them, the sooner they can understand the concept of ‘old is gold’,” she said.

“But when we’re fighting against academic pressures and curriculums that highly value grades, asking schools and parents to find time to serve the community is really a challenge.”

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