Partying Against Poverty

By Wong Mei Ling

On the Thai border to Myanmar, sits Mae Sot  - a town eight hours by “VIP” bus over night from Bangkok. With a population of over 120,500, Mae Sot lies on the Thai side of the River Moie – a shallow strip of water barely 50 meters wide in the dry season – that marks the porous Thai-Burma border.

I had planned to spend just a few days in this town in January last year, in transit while waiting to catch my ride to the refugee camps further north to write a story for a magazine on the lives of children living there. But my time in the camp was too brief and I needed more material for my story. This was when my contact in Mae Sot introduced me to AGAPE, a boarding house started by a Burmese migrant for Burmese street kids and orphans.

Here, the children are almost all illegal migrants, have no access to medical care, and live in poor sanitation conditions. The Head Master, David, 52, can barely afford to feed the 220 children who live and study at his boarding house. Things like soap, shampoo and washing detergent are luxuries he could ill afford. Many of the children suffered from poor nutrition, open sores, worms, lice and malaria during the wet season. This was when I realised that the medical and nutritional needs of the children here were far more dire than those in the refugee camps.

When I returned to Singapore, I recruited a small group of doctors and trusted friends to put together a medical and nutrition project for the children living in AGAPE. Starting the project wasn’t difficult. Raising money was. But we were people who loved to party, and the first natural fundraising avenue for us was to party. Party Against Poverty (PaP) was thus born, with the philosophy that partying can be a meaningful and impactful activity. We also wanted our donors to benefit from the whole experience of charity by creating new spaces where they can come together, meet new people who also have a heart for charity, party and have a good time for a good cause.

It wasn’t easy finding good venues with owners who were generous enough to give us special deals for our fundraiser events or to donate part of their earnings for the night to our project. But all we needed was a few good men and the parties kept going and people kept coming.

From April to October 2010, we had four Parties Against Poverty. Handle Bar, Timbre @ Substation and BluJaz donated part of their food and beverage sales to the project, while Wild Oats gave us a special deal on drinks for anyone who put money into our donation box. Timbre @ Substation also roped in local band, Jack and Rai, to perform a special set for our fundraiser. At BluJaz, we had a montage of local bands and DJs – Matrix, Scarlett, and DJ Shawnn – who performed for free, got the crowds grooving and in a giving mood and cajoled, persuaded and emotionally blackmailed the audience into giving generously to the children.

By October, we raised almost S$14,000 for our project, far more than the S$8,000 we had targeted. This was also due to some large personal donations from Singaporeans who asked for nothing in return other than pictures of proof when we returned from the mission. But most importantly, at the end of the project, many new friends were made, people enjoyed themselves while giving to a good cause, and the children of AGAPE got the medical care, nutrition and sanitation they need and deserve.

When the medical team left Mae Sot upon completion of the project on 7 December 2010, David, Head Master of AGAPE, handed us two framed photos of the children holding up painted pictures of “We love Singapore” and “We love Singapore Doctors” He shook my hand firmly and said in a deep and sturdy voice, “tell all your friends in Singapore, we are now family.”

It wasn’t a colossal effort considering what we achieved. We were all volunteers with full-time jobs, working crazy hours. We were not professional aid workers, and we didn’t have any experience in raising money or carrying out such a project. But we had heart, dependable friends, 131 friends on facebook, and a lot of people looking for a good reason to party. (We were also people who didn’t need a lot of sleep.) And at the end of the day, we earned ourselves an extended family across many borders by partying against poverty.