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City Weekend

Breaking the cycle: Mother’s Choice boss on caring for Hong Kong’s pregnant teens and vulnerable children

Mother-of-four Alia Eyres says she sees a bright future for young mothers in Hong Kong, but more must be done to educate and inform

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 January, 2018, 3:17pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 July, 2018, 5:31pm

Mother’s Choice has been a safe haven for some of the most vulnerable people in Hong Kong for over 30 years, providing much-needed support for pregnant teenagers in crisis as well as children without families.

Mother-of-four Alia Eyres has been CEO of the grass roots local charity for over five years now, having taken up the job after spending several years as a high-flying corporate lawyer. Born and raised in Hong Kong, Eyres grew up with six younger siblings in a multiracial, multicultural household.

“Not only growing up in a large family, but also having my own kids, has given me a lot of empathy for the pregnant teenage girls who come to us as clients, as well as for the babies and children who are waiting for families,” she says.

Eyres has a long history with the charity: her parents, Ranjan and Phyllis Marwah, co-founded Mother’s Choice in 1987 with their best friends, Gary and Helen Stephens, and were inspired to act by a series of newspaper articles on the issue. The charity’s head offices and pregnant teens’ hostel are still housed in the same colonial building, tucked away in the heart of the Mid-Levels.

Mother’s Choice: caring for Hong Kong’s pregnant teenagers and their babies since 1987

“That really shaped who I am as a person, because I can really see how small acts by the community can have a huge impact,” says Eyres.

There are an estimated 7,000 crisis pregnancies in Hong Kong each year, and stories of abandoned babies regularly make the headlines. Getting a legal abortion for children under 16 requires parental permission as well as signoffs from two doctors, which may be off-putting to an already frightened teenager.

Long waiting lists and high operation costs also drive teenagers to illegal practitioners, shady mainland clinics or to buy pills online, which carries huge health risks. Furthermore, the strong stigma surrounding sex education in Hong Kong prevents many young people from being fully informed about their bodies in the first place.

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But Mother’s Choice is doing all it can to help. Its small team works with hundreds of volunteers daily not only to care for shelter residents, but also to offer a crisis hotline, therapy, workshops and training for parents, educators and children. Last year, it looked after 150 children via its care home and volunteer foster families, and found permanent homes for 58 children.

The charity’s ultimate goal is to reduce crisis pregnancy in teenagers through sexuality education and proper child protection training, to break the cycle of abandonment, abuse and neglect that affects so many vulnerable children in Hong Kong.

Why did you get involved with Mother’s Choice?

Even though I’ve been working here for the past five-and-a-half years, I was actually a volunteer for over 25 years before that. My parents and the Stephens started it when I was nine years old and really involved us as kids. Mother’s Choice has always been a huge community effort, and being around them and other volunteers who invested so much of their time, energy and resources over the years was a real inspiration for me and my six younger siblings. All of us are really passionate about social justice and being a voice for the voiceless because we grew up around Mother’s Choice. I get to see lives change every day, and it gives me so much hope for the future of Hong Kong.

What are the biggest challenges facing pregnant teenagers and children without families in Hong Kong?

The two issues are very much interconnected. When children grow up in institutional care, foster care and orphanages, they don’t grow up with a safe, permanent and loving family around them. They face many challenges physically, emotionally and financially. Kids who grow up without families are more likely to have antisocial behaviours; they’re more likely to do drugs, drop out of school and go to prison. If they’re a girl, they’re much more likely to get pregnant as a teenager and more likely to place their children in institutional care, and the cycle begins again.

That is my dream for Hong Kong – to see parents equipped, empowered and able to support young people to make healthy choices for their lives
Alia Eyres

If we really want to address the underlying issue, we need to break the cycle and see children growing up in loving, safe and permanent families.

It really takes a village to raise a child, we’ve learned. Everybody in the whole community can all be more supportive of families and children.

How can their situation be improved, and what needs to change?

Sure there’s policy that needs to change, but it actually starts with us individuals doing what they can to support the vulnerable in our own circles. There is actually something everyone can do, and that is why I’m so inspired by our founders. At the time, they had very little money and barely spoke Chinese, they didn’t even know how they would find pregnant teenagers or children without families.

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Instead of asking what are other people or the government going to do about this, they took it upon themselves to act. That is why volunteering is so pivotal for us at Mother’s Choice – it’s ordinary people doing their one small act of kindness. When we can see that in every sector of society, we’ll see things change.

On a wider level, we need to do a lot to invest in child protection in this city. I feel really hopeful about [Chief Executive] Carrie Lam’s promise to establish a Children’s Commission; I think that is going to be a big step forward.

What’s been the proudest achievement of your career so far?

Definitely the pioneering work we have done to innovate foster care, to get kids out of institutional care and into permanent families. We’ve been running a project for three years now where we use unpaid volunteer host families who are willing to take children into their own homes while our team works very hard to get them into a permanent family, whether it’s a birth family or adoptive family.

We’ve seen 100 per cent of the kids who’ve come to us receive permanent families, much faster than anyone anticipated. Also, because of the incredible love and hard work of our team together with the volunteer community, every single one of those children has improved in their developmental milestones and health way beyond what was ever expected. You can write a cheque but you can always open your own home. That is a harder thing to do, but it’s actually so rewarding.

In fact, myself and most of our senior leadership team here were also Project Bridge foster families and welcomed children into our own homes. It’s such a privilege. People are always scared of getting too attached to the child because it’s painful when they leave, but I can say that it has been life-changing for me and my family. While we’re sad to say goodbye, it means that we did a good job.

Going back to the issue of teenage pregnancy, how can sex education in Hong Kong schools be improved?

In order to prevent teenage crisis pregnancy, we need to invest in comprehensive sexuality education for young people as well as access to the support of trusting adults. Our community education team does child protection as well as comprehensive sexuality education workshops, working with young people and those who care for them such as teachers and social workers. It’s not just understanding how your body works, but also understanding the context of relationships and knowing what your own values are, so you can make informed decisions and protect yourself in the long run.

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I would like to see schools taking a more comprehensive approach to sexuality education, but that can never be enough to prevent crisis pregnancies. Frankly, parents who are waiting until their kids hear about it in school are too late. We as parents need to be the ones who are talking to our kids [about sexuality] from birth in an age-appropriate way, so that they understand their bodies and their values, and are able to protect themselves. That is my dream for Hong Kong – to see parents equipped, empowered and able to support young people to make healthy choices for their lives. It’s a fundamental child protection issue.

There are always improvements to be made [in terms of policy] but the biggest issue is in our minds and our hearts, and how we treat people who are in crisis. I would really like to see a more loving, more connected Hong Kong. We want every young girl who’s experiencing a crisis pregnancy, or a child who’s out there without a family, to know that they’re not alone and that we’ll be there for them. We want to inspire others in our community to be there for them too.

What’s been the biggest change since moving from corporate law to Mother’s Choice?

In my old job, a bad day meant that a client yelled at you or you had to work overnight, but here it’s being confronted with heartbreak every day: a newborn baby left in the trash or a pregnant 13-year-old who’s been abused and kicked out on the street, for example. So it’s learning how to deal with that kind of devastation. I have such a higher capacity for hope now, and the things that’d stress me out before wouldn’t stress me out any more. I have really learned that everyone gets a second chance. Eighty per cent of our team here are volunteers and we work with hundreds of them every day. That gives me such hope for the future of Hong Kong – people give their time, their heart and their energy to help.

What do you do in your spare time?

I have four children, I don’t have any spare time! But a few things are important to me as I manage my very tightly packed schedule. I work out in an all-women’s gym every morning – not just for taking care of myself physically, but being around other amazing mums in Hong Kong. I have a strong faith, so making time for Bible study with some girlfriends every week and having their support is important to me. I’m part of a book club of amazing ladies who really support me too – I don’t know what I’d do without them. My husband and I also try to take an hour or two every week for a date night. Those are the things that keep me going.

What’s your favourite holiday destination?

My family has spent every summer in the Colorado mountains ever since I was a kid. That’s a really special place for us, and it’s where Gary and Helen Stephens, the co-founders of Mother’s Choice, are from. My mum grew up a few miles away in New Mexico too. There’s lots of space for the kids to run and play, fresh food and fresh air.

What’s your most treasured memory of your children?

I’m so incredibly grateful for their lives; every single one of them I longed for and prayed for. The four days of their birth are the highlights of my life. I’d like to have more but everybody tells me I’m crazy to think that!

What’s your favourite cuisine?

We mostly still eat Indian food at home – I’m half-Indian. But my real favourite when I’m outside is Italian food. Chef Umberto Bombana has a restaurant here called Otto e Mezzo.