Volunteers show how to be good neighbours

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 June, 2012, 12:00am
 

An online community is helping Hongkongers get to know their neighbours better.

Meetup.com is home to hundreds of interest groups that meet face to face. Formed 10 years ago this month, the word-of-mouth concept has taken off in a big way and there are now 213 groups in the city.

Co-founder and chief executive Scott Heiferman came up with the idea in New York after the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 when he found himself talking to his neighbours instead of avoiding them.

'I was living a couple miles from the twin towers [of the World Trade Centre], and I was the kind of person who thought local community didn't matter much if you had the internet and TV,' he wrote in a letter to Meetup members this month.

'The only time I thought about my neighbours was when I hoped they wouldn't bother me.'

What happened on 9/11 changed this. 'Could we use the internet to get off the internet and grow local communities?' Heiferman asked and, nine months after the attacks, Meetup.com was born.

In Hong Kong, the top three categories of groups are career/business, socialising and health/wellbeing.

The city's unique mix of locals and foreigners allows many groups to flourish, such as the volunteers group co-founded in 2007 by Janet Wai.

Janet, 56, quit her full-time job in IT six years ago to become a full-time volunteer working with ethnic minorities, delinquent youth, the elderly and drug rehabilitation.

'I wanted to give the second part of my life to charity,' she said.

The group has about 1,700 members with a core of about 300, aged between 20 and 40, who get involved with activities such as helping school children with homework, assisting kindergarten playgroups and visiting homes for the elderly.

'The volunteers get to see the dark side of society, so it makes them appreciate their lives more,' Wai said. 'They say it's fruitful because they learn something.' On a recent visit to an home for the elderly in Wan Chai, volunteers handed out rice dumplings to mark this weekend's Dragon Boat Festival.

Volunteers include expatriates, overseas-born Chinese and many locals who are comfortably off.

'Instead of spending their precious days off resting at home or hanging out with friends, they visit frail and needy seniors in a shabby, often dirty and very depressing environment,' Wai said.

Other local groups include an eclectic movie club, language exchanges, meat-free Mondays, foodies, board games enthusiasts, atheists, weight loss and life drawing.

The hiking group, one of the largest with more than 5,000 members, raised almost HK$1 million last year for charity.

16m

The number of Meetup.com members worldwide, in 100,000 groups. There are now 33 groups on the mainland.

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