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Taking time out to help others

Published on Friday, 18 May 2012
The blueprint for the Kampot school (bottom left) is transformed into a school with a playground.
Photos: AECOM
Thomas Tang
Photo: Nora Tam
Gigi Poon
Photo: Nora Tam

While helping others can often bring a satisfying sense of meaning to our lives, it can also make us aware of our limitations.

Gigi Poon Wing-chi is a Hong Kong-based water and urban development engineer with global engineering and architecture giants AECOM. Last year, Poon took paid leave via the company’s “Time Bank” scheme to work as a volunteer in the Cambodian province of Kampot, helping to build a pre-school facility with the Involve in Design, Empower with Action (IDEA) organisation.

“On [professional overseas] projects, we often worry about the quality of the local workers,” Poon says. But in Kampot, she concedes, she received a salutory reminder of the maxim “respect the local”.

“Although local construction in Kampot relies mainly on manual labour, it was the first time my teammates and I had tried to prepare concrete by hand,” she explains. “In Hong Kong, concrete is always prepared well before delivery to site. Between us we had years of experience in civil and structural engineering, as well as architecture, but once we had the cement, sand and gravel, we stood there wondering: ‘How much water do we need?’ ”

Eventually, the highly trained professionals had to rely on local skills to get the mix right.

However, this in no way detracted from Poon’s fond memories of a country she first visited in 1999 as part of a delegation from Oxfam Hong Kong. “Since then, I have been in love with Cambodia. The people are so friendly and devoted to improving their country after the tragedy of Khmer Rouge rule in the late 1970s,” she says.

Launched in April last year, AECOM’s Time Bank initiative was the brainchild of Tony Shum Chun-kin, chairman of AECOM Asia. “While staff at AECOM are in general willing to spend time on volunteer activities, they are constantly under pressure from their projects and clients, as well as their line responsibilities,” explains Shum. “And on free weekends, they would prefer to spend time with their families. The Time Bank was set up to allocate paid time for individuals to work on volunteer projects.”

AECOM has “deposited” 2,000 employee hours in the Time Bank. So far, 43 of its Asian workforce have made “withdrawals”.

“There’s quite a spread in terms of activities selected,” says Dr Thomas Tang Sek-khuen, AECOM Asia’s corporate sustainability director. These range from a visit to a home for the elderly, to designing a fantasy garden for an orphanage in Shandong province.

Tang says AECOM has clear criteria for evaluating projects. “Firstly, we try to find engineering or design-type projects within which we can apply our skills,” he says. “Secondly, we look for locations that are of interest to us, such as China and India, while also maintaining a geographical spread. Thirdly, we want to get involved in the best way possible. We recognise we’re not going to be experts in many cases, and need knowledgeable partners to work with.”

In Poon’s case, this was IDEA, which had partners in Cambodia who knew how the system worked. “In terms of cultural sensitivity, we must always recognise that while we may be experts here, when we go somewhere else this might not be true,” adds Tang.

AECOM backed Poon’s commitment to her volunteer work with IDEA, which began in 2009.

“The pre-schools are offering preparation classes for 90 students in Kampot, filling the education gap before they enter government primary schools,” she says. The five days she withdrew from the Time Bank allowed her to help with the work.

In Tang’s view, it is not only volunteers and the beneficiaries who benefit from schemes such as AECOM’s Time Bank. In the corporate world, people get bombarded with ideals such as “core values”, which are good and valid but sometimes a little abstract. CSR initiatives such as the Time Bank can bring these concepts to life, Tang adds.

“One of the biggest challenges any company faces is finding the right staff,” he says. “We do use our CSR policy to differentiate ourselves when recruiting, taking the time to spell out our policy and giving examples of what we’re doing.”

This also appeals to a younger generation who want more rounded lives in which their work – and the causes they hold dear – can intermesh. Tang also highlights the role CSR projects can play in leadership training, as they often require cross-cultural teamwork, collaboration and empathy.

For Poon, though, some of the rewards are more personal. “Every moment in Cambodia was great fun. The children were so friendly and they were always running after us just to give us a big hug,” she says.

And she’s already looking ahead. “We are now working on the third pre-school in Cambodia, and a fourth school project in Nepal.” 

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