It all started in 2007.
Grace and I had wanted to make a trip to a nearby country within the region. And so, we booked a trip to Siem Reap. The Angkor Wat, and more importantly, the cheap airfare on Silkair drew us to the destination. We decided to stay at the Shinta Mani, a boutique hotel which Grace found out ran like a social enterprise, where profits were channeled towards providing scholarships to local youths, equipping them with culinary skills, front office skills or spa-related skills, so that they can be gainfully employed.
We also found out that the hotel allowed guests to visit nearby villages which they had supported. Being educationists (Grace is a lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic, and I was a secondary school teacher then), we were excited about how we could support the local schools in the villages. We got in touch with the General Manager of Shinta Mani and she told us to bring school supplies and slippers.
We got the supplies and 20 pairs of slippers and headed to Siem Reap.
We were excited the day we were to visit the village schools. As I stepped out of the van, Grace and I excitedly unloaded most of the supplies. Our guide then told us to keep more of the supplies for the next school we were to visit as it was in a much worse state. I looked at the school we were in, and I wondered, “How much worse could it get?”
The guide was right. I walked into a classroom made of wooden planks that had holes on its sides. The guide told me the classroom would flood with water if it rained heavily. I stared at the blackboard. It looked nothing like the worst blackboards I had seen in Singapore.
Our guide told us we could give out the slippers we had brought when we entered one of the classrooms. In Khmer, she called out for students without footwear to come forward as we had slippers to give out. Almost the whole class of 40 to 50 children did. My heart sank as I saw how the children took turns to try to fit their foot into the slippers. If it fit, they got the pair. I couldn’t bear to see the faces of those whose feet didn’t fit.
The 20 pairs of slippers were soon given out. I went back to the van, wishing I had more to give out. But there were none. I cried, feeling a sense of helplessness.
We left the village and in my mind, I knew I had to do something more. These children walk long distances just to get to school, to have a chance for education. Surely, a pair of slippers to protect their feet would be the most basic thing I could provide to encourage them to continue their education? I wanted them to go to school happy. I wanted them to have happy feet. I want to do something for these children.
So with a group of friends, we decided to raise money in our own ways and return to the schools. And that was how Project Happy Feet was born.
What started out as an ad hoc project in 2008 became a Singapore-registered Public Company Limited by Guarantee in 2009 to fundraise for education and training initiatives in Singapore and beyond. Sticking to the same principles of the original ad hoc project in 2008 – that everyone volunteers their expertise; that all costs are covered by individuals or a company; that 100% of funds raised through any form of fundraising activities go directly towards the cause – Project Happy Feet Ltd was able to uphold an ideal that people can be altruistic and are willing to give back to the community through their time, expertise and energy – and sometimes even money.
For that reason, since 2009, it remains an organisation that is fully run by volunteers (no paid staff) and its operational costs underwritten by individuals and companies.
In 2017, the organisation changed its registration to a Private Limited company with the intention of being run like a private social enterprise. The decision made by the volunteers to save on audit fees, which typically came up to about SGD5,000 a year. This amount cannot be sponsored due to a conflict of interest on the part of the auditor. The change was also made to respond to the organisation’s move away from being one that collects donations. Being registered as a private company (as opposed to a public company) meant that Project Happy Feet did not have to pay yearly audit fees, and it would have greater flexibility in generating revenue beyond donations and fundraising events.
Today, Project Happy Feet is supported by a core team of about 30 professionals and has a database of 500 volunteers and growing. It still places great emphasis on corporate governance, transparency and accountability, and through innovative fund-raising over the years, has raised in excess of SGD1.3million, made its footprints of change to benefit more than 5,000 underprivileged children and youths, and has provided more than footwear and school supplies, empowering lives through supporting education and training in Cambodia, India, Nepal, Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam.
The village school we visited.