Founder & CEO of Love 21 Foundation and Impact HK
Place of Birth
Surrey, British Columbia, Canada
Year of Arrival in Hong Kong
What brought you to Hong Kong?
How did you get involved with the special needs community?
I started to reach out to asylum seekers and refugees at the beginning to coach football because I like to use sport as a vehicle to help build communities and help people feel more included in society.
The football programme was going well and I shared about that in a speech, following which I was approached by a doctor from the Hong Kong Down Syndrome Association who asked if I would consider running such a programme for them. I thankfully said yes, and that weekly football class became an amazing, life-changing experience for me. I have been involved with that community now for about 17 years.
How are you currently involved with the special needs community?
I am currently the Founder and CEO of Love 21, which supports almost 400 families in the neurodiverse community in Hong Kong.
How did you decide to set up Love 21?
One of our friends who was playing football with me sadly passed away. I started to ask questions about life expectancy for the Down Syndrome community in Hong Kong, which was met with no answers because there was no clear data. It became quite obvious that the life expectancy of someone with Down Syndrome in Hong Kong compared with the average Hong Konger is extremely low and unnecessarily so because we all have access to the same health care system and similar diets, but it was very clear that there was a problem there.
I started Love 21 in 2018 to tackle that and to help those with Down Syndrome have longer, healthier lives and feel more included in society.
Please tell us about Love 21.
We have a holistic model. We have our sport and healthy activities where we offer a range of about 50 different types of programmes - all the classics like basketball, rugby, tennis, swimming and a lot of dance classes. There is the therapeutic arm which includes music therapy, art therapy, African drumming, sign language, lego, and also community classes like dance, Zumba, and yoga. We also have competitive classes so that members can train in football, basketball, tennis, table tennis, and swimming for our competitive teams.
We have been very fortunate to have support from The Hong Kong Jockey Club for our dietary nutrition programme, which has been groundbreaking. We match the family with a dietician, and they have a tailor-made programme for that person's specific needs. We also support the families in their planning because you really need the mother or father to also embrace the family diet plan. In the first year, we eliminated all childhood obesity from our members, which was an amazing step.
In the second year, we have gone from strength to strength and we have conducted a successful study with probiotics and how they regulate mood and improve sleep, a lot of medications are no longer needed and it is really good for gut health.
As I have gone on to learn more, I have realised that the shorter life expectancy may also be related to stress as a result of not feeling accepted in society. Many from our community feel like they cannot step out on the streets without being judged or pointed out or without having people walk away because they don't want to sit next to them. It makes people unwilling to want to go outside.
It is the lack of opportunities, but also the lack of acceptance and care in society that really hurts this community. We focus a lot on our holistic model of having the sport and the nutrition, but also on education and raising awareness through going into schools, working with volunteers, and using our voices to help stand up for this community.
Who is eligible to apply?
When we first started, we were about 70% with Down Syndrome and 30% with autism. Now it has flipped. Now we have around 70% with autism and 30% with Down Syndrome and I think that number will increase. That being said, we want to help as many people as possible and having a diverse community is key, so we do not want to exclude anybody based on their particular challenges.
We have never recruited for members and at the moment we have around 100 families on our waiting list. Everything we do is free. We do not charge our members a single penny.
What age groups do you work with?
We are trying to understand our niche as a charity, and what gaps we fill. There are other organisations helping this community as well but one of the gaps that we are noticing that we fill the best is in relation to individuals in the 18 to 30 year old range.
After leaving school, there are limited opportunities so we offer a full range of classes for individuals in this age range and we can look at the employment aspects as well.
Are you able to accommodate different types of special needs?
Yes, we are. I am always partial to wanting to help people who need it the most. The reason I am very confident and comfortable in taking on members who are more challenged is that I don't see it as an ability issue - I see it as an opportunity issue. It is nice to be able to provide that opportunity and then see them flourish.
Do you collaborate with other organisations?
Yes, we hire individual coaches, companies that specialise in a particular activity, and we also partner with a lot of clubs like rugby clubs, cricket clubs, and other great organisations in Hong Kong. We have noticed that when we give people an opportunity to meet our Love 21 community, they love them and they are so embracing.
At our new Center, we are going to offer about 700 classes a month. In addition to that, we will have at least 100-200 classes a month outside so that our community can visit different places and engage in our city more.
Are the classes adapted for individuals with special needs?
Yes, they are. The instructors are thoughtfully selected. We work with organisations that have had experience with this community and individual instructors who are experienced as well.
What is the ratio of participants to instructors?
Typically, the ratio in a class is 15:1 and there are also a few volunteer assistants or members that we have employed to assist. In our therapeutic classes, we would have a low ratio - it could be 2:1 or 4:1. Yoga would be part of our community classes and a class with parents and children together could be 30:1.
Are there opportunities for parents to get involved as well?
Yes, there are. One of the key programmes is our holistic family care. It is a blessing in many ways to have a child with Down Syndrome or autism, but it's also extremely challenging to be a parent, for any child, and even more so for the neurodiverse community. So, we try to provide a lot of family care and understanding.
We offer classes for parents only and classes for parent and child to attend together. We provide counselling for parents and siblings, and we offer workshops to equip our parents with tools to handle certain situations better, such as behaviour change. One of the beautiful aspects of our community is the peer support that the mothers especially give to each other - younger mothers and older mothers are constantly talking. It is an incredible community and a space that is needed.
What are your plans for Love 21 going forward?
We are learning that we need to support the parents better, and we need to do a lot in terms of educating society. The final piece is employment.
We have employed over 20 of our members to work for us in a training programme and we will keep bridging and fostering relationships with organisations that work in employment for the neurodiverse community. We are trying to create programmes that help facilitate the employment of our members, to help them find meaningful, purposeful employment and help their families out financially as well. I think this will be a big step that we are going to move towards in the coming year.
What are some of the positive outcomes that you have noticed over the years in those who have joined Love 21?
You can just see the improvement. Physically, you see people that were not able to jump, start jumping. One girl has cerebral palsy, for example, and couldn't really do much and now she is running with us.
I am constantly seeing progress in different people every day over the years, not only in their physical ability but also in their confidence and their willingness to come up to me and say "hello" and look me in the eyes. It is quite an amazing experience.
Do you know of any other useful resources in Hong Kong?
Cafe 8 and The Nesbitt Centre are lovely. I am a huge fan of Dignity Kitchen which employs our community from Love 21 as well. They are probably my favourite social enterprise in Hong Kong.
Do you think there is adequate support for adults with special needs in Hong Kong?
No, definitely not. We hear a lot of complaints and concern over the lack of opportunities for this age range. We have a lot of people who are, especially foreigners, leaving Hong Kong all the time with their children because they don't have enough opportunities for them here. So it is very well known that there is not enough support.
What are some areas that need improvement?
If we want to get to a situation where we embrace diversity and believe that everyone has an opportunity to live and be accepted in the city, then the biggest and most important area which needs improvement is the education of society. That has to be the long-term goal.
What are some of the rewards and challenges of working with individuals with special needs?
The biggest challenge is educating more people in Hong Kong and doing our very best to ensure the neurodiverse community are getting equal opportunities to progress and reach their full potential.
The rewards from working alongside this community are plentiful but I am most appreciative of the friendships that have been formed. This community is like a second family for me. I am so grateful for their care, trust, and acceptance.
Where can parents find more information about Love 21 and how to get in touch?
Love 21 Foundation has a website: https://love21foundation.com
I can be contacted by email: email@example.com
Parents are also welcome to contact our Programme Manager by email for more information: firstname.lastname@example.org
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