Charlotte Chan is running for a cause. The 16-year-old student from German Swiss International School is raising funds for dental care for Syrian refugees through her self-made charity project, Run for Refugees.
In the past few months, she has overcome not only the challenges of running a charity, but also the challenge of running itself – including coming 11th in the Hong Kong Standard Chartered Half Marathon for her age group.
She has also raised more than HK$50,000, more than double her initial goal.
“In German class we learned about the refugee crisis in Europe,” Charlotte explains. “After doing some research on the topic, I realised that a lot of organisations were providing medical care for refugees – but I couldn’t find a single one that specifically provided dental care.”
With her eyes set on a career in dentistry, Charlotte saw an opportunity to bring attention to a much-needed cause.
“I wanted others to acknowledge the importance of dental health care, which is often under-provided or simply forgotten in war-stricken countries,” she says.
“Oral health issues in refugees stem not only from poor diet and lack of dental care, but also from a wide range of other factors,” Charlotte explains. “Some refugees have had their teeth pulled out one by one as part of physical torture by terrorist and militant groups. Other serious cases reported in the news include police officers hitting children with steel bars on the mouth and bombs blowing up causing shrapnel wound injuries to the face and mouth. Even brushing their teeth can be an issue. Although it’s something you and I take for granted because water just flows out of the tap, for these refugees, finding water is a struggle in itself.”
Charlotte saw a way she could help make a difference.
Her project, Run for Refugees, aims to raise not only awareness, but much-needed funding for this specific type of care. “I decided to train to run the San Francisco Marathon in the summer and am fundraising by getting people to sponsor me for every mile I run,” Charlotte says. She set herself the goal of raising HK$20,000.
But first she needed to figure out where the money should go. “I contacted various agencies and charities and finally came across the SAMS (Syrian American Medical Society) Foundation, an organisation providing medical and dental health care relief in Syria and neighbouring nations,” she says.
After countless emails and phone calls back and forth, Charlotte and SAMS reached an agreement. “I will collect funds to buy medication and supplies to be used for dental treatment, and the SAMS Foundation will send volunteer dentists from the US who will go to the SAMS dental clinics and refugee camps to perform dental treatment using these supplies,” she explains. “The more money I raise, the more dentists SAMS will send, and the more dental treatment will be provided.”
But that was only the first step for Charlotte. With the goal of completing a full 42-kilometre marathon in July, she had to start training.
“Training for a marathon has not been easy – it requires lots of time and dedication, both of which I initially lacked,” she admits. “At first, balancing school work, social life and sports was a challenge. I’d come home from school too tired to do anything except mindlessly watch videos on the internet or talk to friends. I’d make excuses, telling myself that I’d run the next day and that July was ages away.”
But July got closer, and people were counting on her. So Charlotte started running.
“I motivated myself to run by signing up for local road races in Hong Kong. I joined the ICC vertical race, and numerous 10km runs like the UNICEF and Pocari races, among others,” she says. At the end of January, Charlotte ran the Stand Chartered Half-Marthon – and came in 11th in her age group.
“Looking back a year ago, I couldn’t run more than 5km,” she says. “I would never have dreamed of doing a half marathon, let alone a full one! It’s amazing to see how far I’ve come in terms of running.”
With every step she has taken in training, Charlotte has also made strides in gaining attention and support for her project.
“I started visiting the younger grades at school during their core period lessons and gave presentations on the issue explaining how they could help out,” she says. “At home, I printed out letters about the project and put them in the mailboxes of my neighbours. I posted pictures of my marathon training on Facebook with details of the cause, and made a website with information about the project, myself and how to sponsor my run, so that potential donors would know where their money was going.”
Charlotte’s hard work all began to pay off as support started rolling in from across the globe. “I began receiving emails from people saying that they were inspired by the project and wanted to donate,” she says. “Friends from places as far away as London, Munich and Los Angeles were sending in donations in all kinds of currencies.”
At the outset, Charlotte set herself a goal of HK$20,000. Now, only a few months after she began her project, Charlotte has raised HK$50,000 and counting, with months to go before her July 31 end date.
“I never imagined that I would receive so many donations. The generosity of everyone who has helped has really blown me away.”