Every bit counts: How Kuching Food Aid gets help for the poor and needy via Instagram
By Linda Kumar, 15 Jan 2021
KUCHING, Jan 15 — As rain continues to fall ceaselessly, flash floods in several neighbourhoods in Kuching and Bintulu are causing residents to flee to higher ground.
This natural disaster is yet another calamity given the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. What can one do, what could anyone do?
If you’re Shen-Tel Lee, the answer is simply whatever you can.
Australian-born Lee, whose mother is originally from Kuching, is used to splitting her time between both Kuching and Sydney.
It was in Kuching that she co-founded accessory labels Bowerhaus (with her sister Elizabeth) and Sereni & Shentel (with her friend Sereni Linggi).
Returning to Kuching recently due to a family emergency, Lee had no inkling she would soon be the focal point for ad hoc charitable work… via her Instagram account (instagram.com/shentel).
She says, “It all started from a direct message over Instagram from a total stranger asking me if I could help him buy face masks and sanitiser. This person happened to be staying in an area that was locked down due to a high number of community transmitted Covid-19 cases — 200 families were told they could not leave their homes.”
After researching the situation, Lee’s immediate reaction was to help. She messaged that stranger back and told him she would do what she could.
“I put it out on my Instagram saying that if anyone wanted to donate to pledge to me privately and I would buy first and they could pay me back later. Within 12 hours I had more than enough funds from total strangers to buy masks and sanitiser for 200 homes!”
People kept donating and Lee started her mission of helping local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and charities who have lost their funding due to Covid-19. She formalised that flood of donations into Kuching Food Aid (instagram.com/kuchingfoodaid/), an initiative to collect money for food for the many poor and underserved people living in Kuching.
Lee says, “To date we have helped connect food to over 3,000 families. It is pretty incredible considering the first food aid packages we made was on the 5th of November.”
Given yet another onslaught in Kuching — this time of the flash floods — many of those affected need any help they can get more than ever before.
According to Lee, the day-to-day “operations” grew organically as she tried to figure what was the best way to process donations, from initially going to buy food stuff and packing them in her home in Kuching.
“Every day is different but essentially we wait for the call for aid. When charities, NGOS and volunteers visit families and check on their wellbeing they contact us to let us know how much aid they require.”
Lee and her family, who are helping out, then match them to a supermarket where they go directly to collect the aid.
She recalls, “In the beginning we bought and packed everything ourselves. Weekly I would buy aid for families and together with my family we would pack all night after work and home schooling at home. My kids, nieces and nephews, brothers- and sisters-in-law and mother-in-law all helped.”
Ultimately it was 22 of them packing for two months straight. It was very labour intensive and strenuous work but it kept them going at a difficult time.
“At the time we had just lost the head of our family, with the passing of my father-in-law and us in the mourning period it allowed us to help redirect our grief into doing good.”
December 7 last year proved to be a game-changing day for Lee, who had been enlisting the help of local supermarkets to help pack aid.
She says, “I realised that people loved to donate aid, but that they want to know that their money is going to the source and not being lost in admin. Every single supermarket I met with listened and said yes to the idea.”
Today one can buy aid directly from six supermarkets in Kuching: DeGrocery, Ta Kiong, Choice, Everrise at Green Heights Mall, The Gourmand and Fresh & Pay. Each supermarket has a Kuching Food Aid box stocked on their shelves.
Lee explains, “When you buy a box, the cashier will bag it for you to take away as a token for your donation. It is then captured on their system and weekly they submit a report to Kuching Food Aid so we know how much aid we have to connect.”
As an incredible measure of efficiency, the supermarkets pack the aid ready for Lee and her family to collect. There is a list of the essential food items each box needs and the supermarkets match it.
Lee adds, “We have also partnered with DeGrocery a local online supermarket, who deliver RM100 aid directly to families within Kuching. It has been a real luxury to not only get the aid donated, but to have a supplier deliver it for free is just amazing. It makes connecting aid fast become a reality.”
Since the inception of the initiative, the donations have slowed down somewhat. Yet the need is perhaps greater than ever.
Lee shares, “Donating directly to the supermarkets is what is needed as well as more social awareness. Many Malaysians are stuck abroad and many want to connect and help their community but want to be a part of the journey.”
Those who are keen on helping can buy aid online and follow its journey on the @kuchingfoodaid Instagram where, she adds, “We try our best to be fully transparent.”
From this humbling experience, Lee has realised that “a little can go a long, long way. A single post has the power to rally people together. Covid-19 may have stopped us from gathering physically but technology has enabled us to group together in huge numbers and do good.”