Domestic helpers give up day off to feed the hungry

Food programme volunteers spend their Sundays aiding poor, elderly and homeless

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 October, 2013, 3:02pm

Aida Pagaling's alarm clock rings at 5am on Sunday. The domestic helper quickly packs her cooking utensils, puts on her best Sunday dress and leaves her employer's apartment in Happy Valley for a bus to Sham Shui Po.

When she steps into the Cornerstone International Church of God, about 30 other Filipinos are already busy preparing to cook for a crowd, carrying bags of rice and a massive rice cooker onto the balcony.

Together with a dozen Chinese volunteers, they have prepared more than 100 rice boxes by dusk, when a nearby restaurant owner, known as Ming Gor, delivers discounted dishes.

Then Pagaling and her fellow workers carry chairs and plastic tableware to the space under the Tung Chau Street overpass - home to many of Sham Shui Po's hundreds of street sleepers - where dozens of homeless, poor and elderly people wait for a free meal. Some are in wheelchairs or on crutches, some have brought children as young as four.

"I was surprised when I first visited the overpass. I didn't know people lived like that in Hong Kong," said Connie Cruz, a domestic helper who has been in the city for 20 years.

The Street Sleepers Registry kept by the Social Welfare Department reported 595 homeless people in March. However, according to the Society for Community Organisation, there are 1,200 street sleepers citywide, half of whom are in Sham Shui Po.

Cruz and Pagaling joined the free-food programme in April, after a new Cornerstone Church, opened in Sham Shui Po.

The programme started off small, with bread donated by fast-food chain Maxim's. Then fitness trainer Brian Cha, who broke a Guinness World Record by hitting 8,000 golf balls in 12 hours earlier this year, volunteered to raise funds for the meal boxes. Each box costs about HK$10 to HK$13 each.

Now the church serves more than 100 free meals every Sunday in Sham Shui Po and has a bread-sharing outreach programme in Victoria Park and Sha Tin.

"It's a great blessing to all, not a burden, though we are not a rich church," Pastor Daniel Miguel Villa said. "It brings joy to our sisters - we are not just here to be helped by the Chinese, we are also able to help them back."

But the team is not always greeted with kindness. When the Filipinos tried distributing bread in Sha Tin last month, an old man shouted at them in Cantonese.

"He said: 'You all go home! Go back to the Philippines,'" said Tommy Tam, one of the few Chinese members of church.

Villa said he felt hurt. "I can't blame him because those bad things happened," he said, referring to the 2010 Manila hostage crisis and the shooting of a Taiwanese fisherman in the South China Sea in May. "But I hope there will be a little bit more mutual understanding."

Tam shared Villa's sentiments. "If we can entrust [helpers] with our most valuable possession, our children, we can be more compassionate."