Time In Space: How OneSky’s Fearless Determination Gave Deprived Families A Precious Resource
It is a sad irony that, in times of global upheaval and uncertainty, many of the NGOs that support the most underprivileged in our society can struggle to maintain funding. Nevertheless, in May 2020, the charity OneSky bucked the trend and pressed ahead with the opening of their flagship Hong Kong project, the P. C. Lee OneSky Global Centre for Early Childhood Development. Now, one year since their launch, we caught up with Executive Director, Susanna Lee, to find out how things are going.
It’s perhaps fitting that my first interview with Susanna Lee since her promotion to Executive Director of OneSky’s Global Centre for Early Childhood Development should be online. The social distancing measures that have been in place for much of its period of operation have impacted the organization’s plans for the Centre at a crucial level. Their aim was to provide a safe space in one of our city’s most impoverished areas, Sham Shui Po, where young children and their carers could come together to play and learn, a place where face-to-face interaction was a critical component of the process.
The dream of achieving this ambition in the midst of a global pandemic might seem overly optimistic, but Susanna is nothing if not determined. After a delay of just a few months to allow for the first wave of the government’s strict social restrictions to subside, the official opening went ahead in May last year, and the new Centre immediately got to work providing local families with the support that was suddenly needed more than ever.
Part of the reason that Susanna is so passionate about the project is that she is herself a product of the very community that it serves. “I grew up in Sham Shui Po, near what is now the P.C. Lee OneSky Global Centre for Early Childhood Development,” she recalls. “There was very little around us then, I wish there had been more. I could never have imagined that there would be such a fantastic resource in this area when I was growing up. The concept of Early Childhood Development wasn’t thought about then. But I was lucky because my mother was a teacher, she understood the importance of childhood education. Thanks to her, I was able to reach my full potential. By working on this project and supporting the next generation of Sham Shui Po families, I feel I have come full circle!”
This focus on creating a nurturing and educational environment for young children through teaching their caregivers is the bedrock of what OneSky does. From the beginning of their journey in 1998, their approach has always been to adapt to what is needed in each individual community, rather than trying to impose a “one size fits all” policy.
Susanna cites the organisation’s Village Programme as an example of this, created to help the “left behind” children of migrant worker parents from rural villages in China. “Our Village Programme is actually quite similar to what we are trying to achieve in Hong Kong. Yes, Hong Kong is a rich city, but there is nevertheless a huge gap between the rich and the poor. The necessity to earn a living means many parents work so hard that they rarely see their children, who are left with elderly relatives who themselves had to work so hard in their youth that they never learned parenting skills.”
As well as providing family skills training and community engagement activities, the Global Centre also provides the Sham Shui Po community with something else they simply don’t have access to: space. “We recently had a case where a two-year-old child was unable to walk, simply because during Covid restrictions they were stuck in their tiny flat and there was no space for the child to practice walking. That’s why what we are doing in Hong Kong is so important – we are providing a safe welcoming space that enables a family-friendly set up.”
And what an incredible space it is. Designed by Vicky Chan, founder of Avoid Obvious Architects, it provides 16,000 sq ft of flexible space spread over three stories of an old government school. What was once a warren of small, dingey classrooms has been transformed into a place of space and light. From the Baumhaus playground specifically designed to emulate natural woodland, to the intimate niches where children and their carerscan curl up with a book, to the modern fully-equipped teaching rooms, every space is designed to be warm and welcoming.
OneSky worked closely with Vicky at all stages of the design project. “Our founder, Jenny Bowen, had a very clear vision of what she wanted,” says Susanna. “We purposely stayed away from overly-bright colours because they can be too stimulating and distracting for young children. Hong Kong can be loud, frenetic and brash, and Hong Kong homes are the same; people always coming and going, the TV always on. Here at the centre, we provide a peaceful refuge where children can relax and gain the confidence to explore their own abilities.”
And does the space work as envisaged? “Little faces always light up with amazement when they walk in! Some kids take their time to build up the confidence to explore, others come in and run around immediately. Every child is different. But all of them love it!”
Inevitably, there has been some nervousness among some families with the idea of attending a shared indoor playground during the pandemic. Despite the rigorous hygiene protocols, the idea of their children crawling on the floors and playing with shared toys was seen as too risky for families who had not experienced it. But for those who have visited, the vast majority come back for repeat sessions and give very positive feedback. In fact, the only negative response has been from families who want to visit but unfortunately don’t live in the designated Sham Shui Po area.
“It is so hard to have to say no to people who are in desperate need of the services that we provide. The sad truth is, there simply aren’t enough early childhood learning centres here in Hong Kong, which makes them the resort of the privileged. Yes, there are other NGOs helping with various parts of pre-school childcare, but OneSky is unique in that we put it all together under one roof. This is a worldwide problem. Only 3% of philanthropic funding globally goes to Early Childhood Development. The 0-3 age group particularly is not recognized widely enough as the vital, life-changing development stage that it is.”
OneSky’s determination to increase this recognition is at the heart of what the organisation does. Originally founded to help China’s unwanted orphans, usually baby girls back in the 1990s but often those with disabilities today, their approach has always been to focus on improving the environment the child is in as much as the child itself. This means they have learned how to adapt their assistance to suit the specific problems that each community is experiencing. In the last 20 years, they have transitioned from providing childcare-training to nannies in orphanages to helping the generation of “left behind” children of China’s migrant workers, leaving their rural villages for job opportunities in the cities.
“We have always been about engaging carers and the community to provide the skills and training need to stimulate and educate young children. People assume that parents or adults will automatically know what to do with children, that it is a natural instinct. But it is actually a skill that has to be demonstrated and learned. Children who grow up with no parent figure at home, for whatever reason, will find it hard to know how to care for their own children when the time comes. It’s a vicious circle.”
Susanna is a passionate advocate for the work that OneSky does, and her new role gives her the opportunity to focus on community outreach, building partnerships with other NGOs and government organisations. Despite the success of the Centre, however, it has been an uphill battle to establish the strong sense of community that was anticipated.
“The impact of the pandemic has been huge, of course. There were short windows of time last year when multiple families could come in together and interact, but sadly they were few and far between. Usually, families have had to be separated. We have been adaptable with home activity packs, but when we do have families in, we can see the transformation happening and the potential we have for making a real impact in people’s lives here.”
The last 18 months have been challenging for many organisations, and charities such as OneSky are no different. In 2020, their fundraising events, such as their sponsored family hike and the annual Gala Ball, were cancelled or moved online, dramatically reducing the amount of money raised. “This year, people’s attention and focus is elsewhere,” admits Susanna. “Our city’s philanthropists are donating where they feel they can support people’s basic needs, like food and shelter, and of course this is necessary. Early Childhood Education was put on a back burner in people’s minds.
“As we come out on the other side of the pandemic, we are hopeful that we can once again raise awareness of the importance of what we do here. Yes, we are always grateful for funding to help run our programmes. But, at the most basic level, we just want everyone to know that we are here, ready and able to help. Because, now more than ever, we have become a lifeline to so many families.”
“We know the situation is tough for many people right now,” Susanna says as we say goodbye. “All we are asking is for people to raise awareness in their communities that we are here; by mentioning us to friends or following us on their favourite social media platforms. And we are always happy to welcome visitors to the Centre to see for themselves the work that we do, so just reach out!”
If you are interested in OneSky and the work that they do, you can visit their website HERE.