Q&A With Shaun Bernier, Founder of HandsOn

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By Lau  /  May 12, 2016

US-born Shaun Bernier is the brains behind HandsOn Hong Kong, a charity with over 13,000 volunteers that provides opportunities to help the poor, children, the elderly, the disabled and immigrants.

Before moving to Hong Kong in 2007, Bernier worked in New York and Washington DC with a focus on creating change through the legislative system through initiatives benefitting low-income children and families. Eventaully she moved to Hong Kong with her husband and set up HandsOn Hong Kong. Bernier is, in a nutshell, Superwoman. Here, we talk about her charity, inspirations and favourite things in Hong Kong. 

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First of all, can you tell us more about your background?
I have spent my entire career in public service, with a particular focus on impacting social change through various means from grassroots advocacy to crafting social policy to volunteerism. I held positions in NGOs and think tanks in Washington, DC, that enabled me to influence policy decisions from the “outside”, and later, held positions with elected officials in DC and New York City, which allowed me to make an impact from the “inside”, so to speak.

Moving to Hong Kong in 2007 has been an amazing journey! Professionally, I wanted to do something more entrepreneurial and at the “grassroots” level. This lead to me starting HandsOn Hong Kong. Today, we are a team of eight full-time staff who are extremely passionate about our mission – to impact social change through volunteer services – and more than 13,000 volunteers.

How do you balance work and family life?
I am a work-in-progress when it comes to balancing it all! Finding the right balance takes time and with my children still being relatively young (three and five respectively), it can be a struggle. I think it’s a very personal issue and I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer. Being in Hong Kong both helps and hinders my own balance. It’s an easy city to live in as a foreigner and help is very affordable, compared to my home country. However, Hong Kong never stops. There’s lots of pressure for face time and work-life-balance doesn’t really exist for the average person in our city.

In my situation, I put a lot of thought and effort into scheduling everything, from work to kids’ activities to my own personal time. I love my family more than anything and I always try to put them first, but I also know I’m a better parent and partner having my own life and career.

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What inspired you to starts HandsOn? 
 The levels of poverty in HK among children, working families, and the elderly are shocking and simply unacceptable. Twenty percent of our city’s children live in poverty. Forty-five percent of our elderly live in poverty – one of the highest poverty rates in the developed world. My feeling is that change starts with one person and one simple act. Volunteering is one of the best ways – and easiest – to make an impact. Any of our volunteers can tell you first hand what a powerful impact volunteering has not just on the community, but on you.

What do you think is the most important thing about volunteering?
Volunteering is the best way to have a direct impact on a cause you care about. In this day and age, we are so focused on how fast we can achieve something, the quantity of impact, rather than quality. Volunteering will open your eyes to the issues around you and will undoubtedly convince you that each of us possesses the power to make an impact on our community.

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What’s the most pressing social issue you’ve come across at HandsOn?
Much of our work is related to addressing poverty. It is unacceptable that in a city like ours with so much wealth that so many people are suffering. One in five children in Hong Kong lives in poverty, and approximately 45 percent of our city’s elderly lives in poverty. Many more families are struggling to make ends meet. As a parent living in HK, I believe the environment is another pressing issue we cannot afford to ignore.

We also have many projects that address environmental issues from tree planting to beach cleans to recycling soap. We also have the Fashion For Good initiative, which enables us to ‘recycle’ used clothing or overruns from designers. This has been a great way for us to help our charity partners by receive clothing they need for their beneficiaries or selling it to raise funding for HandsOn. 

What is the biggest expense that funds raised for HandsOn Hong Kong goes to?
Our volunteer programs. Donations to HandsOn Hong Kong help cover the cost of providing our service free of charge to the community and our NGO partners. We organize 100-plus volunteer activities each month. Our dedicated team of trained social workers and program experts work tirelessly to develop volunteer programs with our partners that address pressing social issues.

How can our readers get involved?
I would encourage anyone interested in helping raise funds for HandsOn Hong Kong to talk to their company about working with HandsOn Hong Kong on their corporate volunteer program. Additionally, there may be an opportunity to suggest your company make a donation to HandsOn Hong Kong or include us a beneficiary of a fundraising event.

Can you recommend 3-5 reputable organisations that work with orphans/children you know that are truly making an impact with their cause that volunteers can participate in?
We work with a number of charities that are making an impact on the lives of children in Hong Kong, including Chung King Mansion Service Centre where our volunteers provide homework help to children of refugee and asylum seekers; Li Sing School where our volunteers also provide tutoring services to disadvantaged youth; and BGCA where our volunteers provide English learning classes through various outings and themes. More details about these and other programs and NGOs we work with are available on our web site.

 

What are your top three family activities in Hong Kong?

  • The Peak Tram. Our apartment is right next to one of the Peak Tram stops. The kids love riding it and spending time at Mount Austin Park running around.
  • Botanical Gardens – we live near here and it’s great to let the kids run around by the fountain on the grass or explore around the pond in the garden.
  • The Pulse – I find the beach exhausting with our kids, but the Pulse makes it more manageable. The food options there are great and I love the open space. It’s easy to let the kids run around freely and enjoy the playground, beach or scooters, all in one place.

Top 5 favourite movie or books that inspire you?

These days I spend more time reading children’s books than anything else! One of my kids’ favorites is The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. A close friend from grad school gave me a lovely cloth copy when my first child was born. I could barely read it to her without crying when she was a toddler! It continues to serve as a reminder each time I read it how fast our children grow up, but also that they will always be our children who we would do anything for.

I am generally drawn to and inspired by literature from the past than current reads. Some of my favorites also have strong female characters I find inspiring, including Jane Eyre and Anna Karenina. The Portrait of Dorian Gray is also another favourite of mine and the wit of Oscar Wilde is unrivalled.

 

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