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Little hands, big deeds

Published on Thursday, 05 May 2011
HKUST student Mavis Ho (in blue) and friends sample melons with local kids in Sichuan.
Gabriel Yu shows an elderly woman her photo.

Every week, Gabriel Yu Chung-sing, a year-three civil and environmental engineering student at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), brings volunteers to a number of care homes to take the pictures of the elderly residents.

However, these special photos are not meant to grace their living rooms. They are to be used when they are dead.

Some traditional old folks used to regard picture-taking as disrespectful, but Yu says it serves a practical purpose and many of his subjects have become open-minded about it.

Yu and his friend, Benson, founded Voici Photo, which initially offered commercial services such as wedding photography.

When Yu's grandfather passed away some years ago, he was devastated. What made the loss even more painful was not being able to find a nice portrait of the old man for the funeral. Yu says he realised there could be many families that faced the same problem, so he thought of providing free photo-taking service for the elderly, along with Benson. 

"Our team of volunteers shows a lot of love and care throughout the photo-taking process. We talk to the elderly, help them with make-up and clothes, let them know we care. I hope that in the long run, we will have a number of photo teams serving more people," Yu says.

His project, "The Lasting Smile", is part of HKUST Connect, a university-wide initiative that aims to mobilise students to get involved in the community.

Grace Au, the university director of student affairs, says HKUST Connect gives students the opportunity to take part in community projects. It makes special funds available for students to initiate their own projects or help non-governmental organisations (NGO).

Au believes a small group of people can achieve big things. She says many NGOs are hesitant to co-operate with university students because they may not be able to balance school work with volunteer activities and may take off right after graduation. But so far, she says HKUST Connect has been able to unite the departments of the entire school and provide NGOs with steady manpower supply.

Working under HKUST Connect gives students the chance to get hands-on experience and apply the knowledge they learn in school. "We have projects to build houses in Thailand and bridges on the mainland. Our civil engineering students find this experience very inspiring," Au says.

Since December 2009, HKUST Connect has run more than 120 projects involving around 1,900 student-volunteers. The projects are not only limited to Hong Kong. Students go on service learning trips to the mainland, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Australia.

Mavis Ho Mei-hung, HKUST graduate in chemical and environmental engineering, joined HKUST Connect as service co-ordinator.

Last summer, when she was still in school, she initiated her own volunteer project in Sichuan. "I first volunteered in Sichuan in January 2010. Upon coming back, I felt the urgency to do more, especially in the remote mountains," says Ho, who went back to the village to teach and set up a library.

CJ Tan Sze-jye, a year-two finance student, also volunteered in Sichuan last year. He organised a one-week service trip for 30 schoolmates last June. He says he was overjoyed to see a huge improvement in the area during his second trip.

Au says the spirit of HKUST Connect lives on with the dedication and wholehearted support of its student-volunteers.


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