Affiliate Stories: SJMF Youth

By Matthew Olivan, SJMF Youth

Humble Beginnings

Jieyang, China - a crowded, poverty filled Chinese city. At only 7 years old, Newton Zheng visited his father’s birthplace. “A lot of people didn’t have enough food and clothes”, he said. From this point on, this experience ignited within him a desire to help others.

Fast-forward 10 years later to 2014, and Newton has taken action. This started in his Gr. 12 year, where he was doing a co-op term at BTNX Inc. One day, he was talking with his boss, who mentioned that his son ran a charity called “SJMF” (Siempre Juntos Más Fuerte - Spanish for “Together We Are Stronger”) - a small charity which builds houses for the rural poor in San José de Ocoa, a province of the Dominican Republic. Initially, SJMF only sent university students to the Dominican to build houses. However, Newton wanted to help, despite being a high school student. “I wanted a more tangible way to give back to the community rather than just donating - I knew I was passionate about helping those in need in 3rd world countries”. So after several talks, Newton founded SJMF Youth, a branch of SJMF which gives the opportunity to volunteer overseas to high school students. It had its first trip in July of 2015, and continues to hold trips every summer.

Fast-forward to the present.

Right now, we’re in our fourth year of operation, and we’ve built 4 houses so far. While we may have started off just as a group for students to volunteer in the Dominican, over the years, we’ve morphed into a better-known youth council of 15 people with large fundraising events. For example, we hold League of Legends tournaments, which have a wide reach and raise large amounts of donations. In addition to our executive team (which spearheads the trip and events), we also have the ambassador program, which recruits people who fundraise money but do not go on the trip.

However, there are still challenges which we regularly face. Firstly, each person on the trip is required to fundraise (or pay) approximately $1500 in personal donations. Although this is much lower than most other volunteering trips, this is still a large amount - causing many of our members to get burnt out and quit.

As well, our charity is relatively new, being only 4 years old, meaning we get regularly questioned about our legitimacy, and we’re sometimes described as “sketchy”. This is because we do not have an advertising budget or spend money on promo items such as banners - 100% of our donations go to the Dominican Republic. According to Project Coordinator Alvin Li, “SJMF Youth has been previously marked as ‘fraud’ or ‘sketchy’ while we are just a bunch of teenagers trying to make the world a better place to live in. To be honest, we face a lot of challenges in terms of improving our reputation - we are a comparatively new and small organization, dedicating 100% donations to our cause, which means we don’t spend money on buying promotional materials. In the end, our minds stay unchanged because this is a cause we genuinely believe in, because we have experienced what it’s like in [the Dominican Republic].”

However, our reputation is beginning to improve, mainly due to our increased social media presence and larger fundraising events.

As well, many parents of our trip participants have many concerns, especially about safety. While the word “Latin America” may conjure up images of gangs and cocaine in people’s minds, the specific place which we are travelling to is actually very safe, with friendly and welcoming communities. Throughout SJMF’s existence, all of our participants have reported enjoyable and fulfilling experiences, with few concerns about safety on the trip. However, we still take several precautions, such as implementing a “buddy system”, requiring travel insurance, and recruiting adult chaperones. I had to put effort into convincing my mom to let me go on the trip, but in the end, it was worth it.

Life Lessons

So, what do our members get out of this? Firstly, members of our exec team get to experience leadership, event planning, and fundraising. As we’re a pretty small team of 15 people and a relatively egalitarian structure, each member has a voice, along with the opportunity to lead the planning of an event. This allows our members to gain valuable leadership experience, as opposed to in a large club where one can feel like just a number. As well, we train each of our members to fundraise the approximately $1500 they will need to go on the trip, teaching them how to build a “donation box” and deliver a convincing pitch.

However, I would say that the main highlight of being a member of SJMF Youth is the trip itself. Firstly, going to the Dominican exposes one to the harsh reality of poverty in the developing world. When I first arrived in the Dominican, we found an impoverished community with irregular electricity and water. However, our efforts in alleviating poverty have allowed us to gain a sense of fulfillment, as we built concrete homes in the place of makeshift shacks. Words cannot describe how great we felt directly witnessing how we made a difference in the lives of these families. We saw the smiles on the faces of not only the family we built the house for, but also the entire community. Secondly, we integrated with the community and experienced local culture, allowing us to view the poor in a more human and a more personal light. Getting to know the locals on a more personal level invokes as sense of empathy, instead of viewing them as simply “the poor”. Overall, our exposure to the squalid conditions that poor Dominicans live in has opened our eyes and brought to life the injustices and inequalities in our world.

As well, one other important aspect of the trip was the bonding between the members of our group. In the past, we have had less than 10 high school students go on the trip, meaning we all got close and bonded with each other. From gazing at the stars on a roof to late-night truth-or-dare sessions to dancing with the locals to Spanish music, I can honestly say that the two trips which I’ve been on have been a blast. Not only did I get to know my peers on a deeper level, but I also learned various life lessons and different worldviews. It also lifted me out of the mindset of sadness and negativity I used to be in. Personally, SJMF Youth showed me the importance of a strong community, and that there are things which I should value besides money or prestige - namely, mental health and a sense of community.

In all, SJMF Youth has drastically improved my high school experience. Not only did SJMF Youth allow me to practice my leadership and event-planning skills, but it has also expanded and broadened my worldviews - not only with global poverty, but also with your innermost values. Going on the SJMF trip has set me up with a network of friends and memories from a trip I will never forget. Overall, SJMF Youth has changed me as a person, and I don’t know how my life would have turned out without it.

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