PETALING JAYA: Believing that education is the only way to lift an entire community out of poverty, the accredited non-profit social enterprise – Helping Hands Penan (HHP) – strives to sponsor the education of Penan students.
Out of 40 tribes and ethnic minorities in Sarawak, HHP director Violette Tan said the Penan still live in harsh conditions and lack basic amenities in their villages, with many of their children out of school.
“We are determined to help Penan women empower themselves as well as provide education for children and young people,” she said in an interview.
HHP, which started in 2007 and was officially registered as a non-governmental organization in 2016, helps Penan women weavers sell their crafts to a wider market by buying directly from them.
Proceeds from the sale of handicrafts such as handbags, trays, baskets and other contemporary household items are then donated to ongoing HHP projects, with sponsorship of education being its primary focus.
HHP has sponsored Penan students since they were in elementary and secondary schools.
This has helped reduce dropout rates and prolonged absenteeism that were rampant in the past.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Tan said they were sponsoring 150 students from elementary to college, noting that they saw their first sponsored student Penan graduate from college in May 2016.
“Currently, we are co-sponsoring a doctoral student for his monthly travel allowances. This year we also have a few sponsored students graduating from colleges and universities.
“Success stories like these are an inspiration to keep us going, especially when the going gets tough.
“Seeing the hope in their eyes gives us a lot of satisfaction and the will to continue our work,” she said.
As the pandemic has turned the lives of many businesses and organizations upside down, Tan said many of their sponsored students were unable to attend school due to the various movement control orders associated with the quarantine. of their villages.
Despite this, Tan said he continued to support these students, who must now take online classes.
“We donated laptops to them so they could take online classes, take exams and take their classes,” she said.
Tan said they also continuously provide older students with monthly stipends to make sure they don’t drop out of school.
“In Sarawak, SPM students returned to school on October 3.
“We made sure they took physical classes by providing them with money to pay for transportation from their villages to boarding schools.
“We also bought them school uniforms, school supplies and toiletries.
“We are fortunate that we can still help them because we don’t have a lot of overheads like staff salaries and rentals,” she said.
Regarding her weavers, Tan said that Penan women still derive income from their weaving work, as HHP continues to seek bulk orders from companies to make door gifts, party baskets and gifts. annuals for their staff, adding that they also sell their products. on Facebook live and online.
“Our volunteers and networks in Brunei also continue to sell the bags which are in high demand,” she said.
During the pandemic, Tan said he organized three food aid tours for his weavers, which benefited 80 families in three villages.
“We have linked up with a local miscellaneous store to arrange delivery of food items to our weavers in town.
“For those in the villages, we chartered a truck to bring them these donations,” she said.
Other initiatives included solar panel projects, community development, welfare of the elderly and sick, and the provision of powdered milk to toddlers and the elderly.
Tan said that among the challenges were the shortage of volunteers, as well as unpredictable and unsustainable funds raised mainly through sales of crafts that had fallen dramatically due to the pandemic.
“We also face difficulties due to the distance and remoteness of the places where our weavers and students are based.
“It is difficult for us to be in touch to follow the weaving steps and the progress of the students,” she said.
Tan added that in the future, they hoped to create a real social enterprise in which graduate students could manage it and employ other Penan to do the buying, selling and sponsoring so that it really was “By the Penan, for the Penan ”.
“Right now we have many core groups where a chief is appointed to manage the weavers in their villages.
“We would love to see our educated graduates take over and give back to their community,” she said, adding that her team would then only have to help oversee operations and ensure finances are managed. effectively.
For their noble efforts, Helping Hands Penan is recognized as one of 10 recipients of the 2021 Star Golden Hearts Award, an annual award that celebrates everyday unsung Malaysian heroes.