Moving mountains is not a feat that many would take on, especially during the worst pandemic that most of us have lived through. But here on Koh Samui, a non-profit organization is doing just that and further proving that they are, indeed, the backbone of anything charitable on the island.
In an exclusive interview, Samui Times goes behind the scenes of Sisters on Samui, the island’s driving force behind keeping the community alive, quite literally.
Co-presidents Yvonne Roberts, Juliette Burrows and Keyt Topcu along with a team of over 300 members have worked tirelessly to keep those with food insecurities afloat.
But the task is undeniably daunting as feeding an island with over 60,000 people, who are largely unemployed due to the Covid-19 crisis, requires everyone to get on board to #FeedSamui.
“Well, I think like anybody who takes on an operation of this kind I never really anticipated the sheer volume of people who would respond. I had always said to myself that given the incredible amount of places to eat and how Thai culture revolves around the family dining table, that Thais would never grow hungry. Talk about a perfect storm, people are now stripped of the ability to feed themselves,” said Roberts.
Efforts to feed those most in need on the island are further muddied by trying to reach those who may not even know help is available. As most hotel, restaurant, bar, gardeners, chefs, maids and taxi drivers are comprised of Thai and Burmese, many don’t speak English and may have trouble accessing help. As of now, SOS is the only organization that has the infrastructure in place to handle such a large-scale task.
“We gather most of our information on the people in need from local health workers in each of the island’s villages. Some of the other groups were doing a tremendous job but didn’t have the same infrastructure that we had built up,” said Roberts.
Apart from the monumental task of feeding those during the Covid-19 pandemic, SOS workers are undoubtedly putting themselves at risk for infection. But Roberts noted that they have taken precautions from the start of the operation with the hope of keeping everyone safe.
“All of us involved in the campaign take our own responsibilities very seriously and do the best that we can to protect ourselves. Even though there have been no reported cases of Covid-19 for over a month in our province we are remaining ever vigilant.”
However, SOS has received help to keep workers and clients safe.
“We have Samui Rescue on board. They take care of all the health and safety side of our operations, ensuring temperatures are checked, that social distancing measures are respected and making sure that hand sanitizer is available for everyone,” said Roberts.
Apart from social distancing measures, the organization practices safe hygiene when preparing the inventory.
“All the produce that we brought in was individually sanitized. At the time, we were packing everything ourselves for the food banks. We bought our own temperature guns and hand sanitizer, doing everything we possibly could to ensure our produce was virus-free.”
But thanks to more people joining the fight to #FeedSamui, the process has become more efficient.
“We have slightly relaxed our preparation methods but still maintain a high standard of hygiene. Now with more people involved in the operation we have been able to reduce the preparation time whilst still respecting the health guidelines put in place.”
With most of the procedural groundwork in place, SOS still had many things to maneuver around, including how to offer help to a culture that is largely based on saving face.
“There is the issue of many people who don’t think they are entitled to our help. Interestingly, a group of ‘Katoeys,’ or lady boys, asked me if they were entitled to receive our assistance, of course they are! I have also been asked by Burmese migrant workers or Thais not native to the island enquiring if they are eligible to receive aid, so they are extremely humble and naturally the answer is always yes, we can help you. Our whole criteria is if you are hungry, we will feed you.”
As co-president of the organization, Roberts has a lot on her plate. Namely, where will the money come from to provide aid to such a large group of people? Roberts said the number one issue is to make sure the funding is always available.
“There are a couple of German groups who have offered to help-one of which unfortunately had issues with paperwork. There are also many individuals, too numerous to mention, to whom I offer my eternal thanks who have liaised with us in order to spread the message and are assisting in any way they can, to help keep people fed.”
With over 2000 packages to be put together at any one time, Roberts says the feat could not be achieved without help. Food pricing and available stock have also proved to be a concern as many supermarkets in the area simply did not have enough to fill the needs of the organization.
“All of these issues needed resolving and thanks to the staggering outpouring of concern we are now in a much stronger position than when we first started out,” said Roberts.
Indeed, the goals of the organization have largely been influenced by the recent Covid-19 pandemic as 90 percent of the island’s workforce has lost their jobs. Roberts, however, has been on the front lines co-leading SOS for over ten years. When asked how she came to work at the non-profit organization, Roberts pointed to the already solid reputation it had gained on the island since its opening in 1997.
“I started going to a few of the lunches that the group holds every month. I took an interest in the committee work and found myself being gently strong-armed into taking over the running of the group when Sue Holehouse, the founder of SOS, left to return back to the UK.”
Roberts seemed to have found her place in the community as it seemed almost like fate that a leadership role would soon be open at the organization.
“It turned out that Sue had been considering myself and my friend, Juliette Burrows, for the position. When Sue took Juliette and I to lunch to discuss the future of the group, we both expressed a desire to share the workload and have been co-presidents ever since.”
With the recent economic downfall, it is clear that SOS has made its mark in the community.
When asked what the best thing is about her work, Roberts said, “Receiving messages from people that we have helped thanking us and letting us know that they are back on their feet again. Nothing could be more rewarding than to know you have made a significant difference in people’s lives when they needed it the most. Hearing from both Thai and Burmese people that had it not been for us they may very well have not made it through this difficult time honestly touches my heart like nothing else and makes it seem all worthwhile. It really is quite overwhelming actually.”
All the Sisters on Samui would like to send you a huge thank you for your generous donation to assist with our #feedsamui campaign here on Koh Samui.With your donation, we are able to deliver food packages to those who need it the most in these difficult times. As you are aware, Koh Samui is heavily dependent on tourism for the employment of many South East Asian workers. With all hotels, the airport, restaurants and many other businesses closed under the government guidelines to fight Co-Vid19, many have been left without work and salaries to support themselves and their families.Each individual and their families are very grateful to receive these donations of food to relieve some of the stresses and problems during this time and we would like to send our heartfelt thanks to you for your kind support Thank you from all those that received food
Posted by Sisters On Samui on Friday, 15 May 2020
Despite the hard work of SOS, Roberts says they have more goals to achieve.
“We hope to start a sustainable community garden project where people will be able to grow and nurture their own fruits and vegetables. We hope to convince landowners with plots lying fallow or unused for years to expand that sense of community and maintain it. Lastly, we have realized that there needs to be a third party contact for what we would call migrant workers who sometimes feel isolated and have little or no idea of where to go for help should the occasion arise. So, we would like to set up a mediator group specifically with these people in mind. Getting information to them will be a huge benefit and take away some of the everyday concerns that they may have whilst working away from their homes and families in a foreign, and often bewildering country.”
For those goals to materialize, the organization undoubtedly needs support from the community. SOS has made the route to donations easily accessible by offering several avenues in which to give money.
Currently, they have a Paypal account and Go Get Funding account which are both available on their Facebook page: Sisters On Samui. Additionally, the organization has built a new website that will be the go-to hub for all matters of SOS. Anyone who is interested in becoming involved can visit www.sisters-on-samui.org.
In the meantime, Roberts and her team will keep on trucking, abiding by a maxim that is best put forth by the Lord Buddha, “True charity occurs only when there are no notions of giving, giver or gift.”Stay updated with Samui Times by following us on Facebook.
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