Humble beginnings lead to selfless career

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 August, 2009, 12:00am

Lin Oi-chu knows what it means to have seen the harder side of life. She comes from a poor background, having grown up with two sisters and three brothers in a wooden hut in Shau Kei Wan. Her late father was a hawker of noodles and fish balls.

Ms Lin, 49, feels the fact that she has experienced hardship, as well as a more comfortable life later on, helped her operate better as chief executive of the Hong Kong Aids Foundation. But her communication skills and experience in understanding people also comes from her previous job as a psychiatric nursing officer for the government.

'My first full-time job was a student nurse. I joined the field in 1982 and trained as a psychiatric nurse. At that time I didn't have a comprehensive idea of what I wanted to be,' said Ms Lin.

'I came from a poor background - so this job provided me with post-school training, a salary and living quarters. All three things were very important to me. I worked in a mental hospital and then in 1993 was promoted to nursing officer in the psychiatric field.'

Working at Queen Mary Hospital, Ms Lin set up a psycho-social liaison service, working with cancer-stricken children. The young patients were often angry and filled with hatred because of their situation. Ms Lin recalls being asked to look after a young boy who had behavioural problems, suffered from a terminal disease and was also infected with HIV because of a contaminated blood transfusion.

'After two weeks I began to successfully communicate with him and I learned more about HIV. Later, I was invited to work in the HIV/Aids field at the Castle Peak Hospital,' she said.

For Ms Lin, this was a turning point. In the early 1990s, there was a lot of discrimination towards people living with HIV. The boy she helped had been asked to leave the school he was attending as teachers feared the HIV would spread.

By 1994, Ms Lin had been in the nursing field for 13 years. She was respected by her peers and earned a good salary, but that wasn't enough to keep her. An opportunity came to join the Hong Kong Aids Foundation and she jumped at the chance. She felt it would provide her with more job satisfaction and a real sense of achievement even if it meant a lower salary and going without some benefits.

'It was a good decision, but it's also been very challenging. It's seven days a week, 24 hours a day, but at the same time I think I got new experiences and friendships,' said Ms Lin who is now running a team of 17 workers plus 300 volunteers.

The more than 13 years of training added to the practice as a registered nurse provided Ms Lin with good opportunities to learn how to communicate well and understand people, she said. 'The type of work I now do with the Aids Foundation demands that I have very good skills in understanding people, including my patients, my colleagues and my students on the mainland.

'Also being a mental nurse in Hong Kong, like it or not, the majority of my patients were from the lowest levels of society, and coming from a poor family and knowing all these patients from different backgrounds helped me acquire an understanding of what society is all about. Being a nursing officer I had to manage a team and all those management skills have helped me as a senior staff member with the Hong Kong Aids Foundation.'

Being a part of the foundation also meant that Ms Lin learned quickly about the levels of discrimination in Hong Kong back in the mid-1990s. Moving out of her nursing quarters, she remembers having to find a flat of her own and gave a prospective landlady her business card. Later that evening, she was told the flat was no longer available.

'These days, 80 per cent of people know how HIV/Aids is transmitted, back then there was a lot of fear. We now also have anti-discrimination laws and the Equal Opportunities Commission so people wouldn't dare to break that law.'

Ms Lin's advice to anyone who would like to work for a non-governmental organisation is that they first of all must decide what kind of body they would like to be involved with, and what issues they are passionate about.

'It's very important to have passion, but you also have to see what kind of expertise you can bring along to these services. If you have no current skills, don't worry, the important thing is to have passion, because skills can be acquired,' she said.

While working for an NGO can bring great job satisfaction, be aware that it is not a big earner, said Ms Lin.

'When you see your friends working for banks or the government, they will have a lot of promotions and increases in salary. You may stay in a similar position and similar levels of salary for a number of years and after a lot of effort. Be prepared to accept this before you decide to work for an NGO,' she said.

When she's not working, Ms Lin enjoys reading Chinese novels and listening to classical music.

'I think the fact that I am single helps, as it would be very difficult to also dedicate time to a family. It is challenging but also very rewarding.'

Finding your calling

How to get the idea
Think about what talents you have and services you could provide

How to plan
If you are not sure what kind of NGO you would like to work for, become a volunteer and try it out

How to get it going
Passion is good, but skills are also needed. Look into social work and counselling courses

How to make sure it works out well
Have realistic expectations. NGOs will bring job satisfaction but not high salaries

How to stay motivated
It might be 12 hours a day sometimes, but working in an NGO often means you'll also be a pioneer