Local charity Mother’s Choice has been helping vulnerable teens and their babies for over 30 years. Carolynne Dear met with chief exec Alia Eyres
It takes passion and it takes great heart to successfully lead a charity and Alia Eyres, who heads up local non-government organisation Mother’s Choice, has these character attributes in bucketloads.
The organisation celebrated its pearl anniversary last year, an impressive thirty year history of helping one of Hong Kong’s most vulnerable sectors of society – abandoned babies and pregnant teens.
Last year alone, the charity provided 150 young children and babies with temporary care and 58 were placed with permanent families; its outreach programme offered over 10,000 young people with sexuality education workshops. It’s a multi-faceted approach to an issue that requires an holistic solution.
“Our mission is to join hands with the community, to give hope and to change the life stories of these young girls and their babies. And to do that we need to address the whole problem, from sex education in schools, through to support for the pregnant girls and aftercare for the babies, whether they are to be adopted or kept by the mother,” Eyres explains as we sit down for coffee at the charity’s baby care centre on Bowen Road. The impressive colonial building was loaned to the charity by the government in 1990. Built in 1914, it was occupied by the Royal Navy after World War 2 and in 1979 was handed to the government. Mother’s Choice took over the space on the premise that it would take care of the, by then, decrepit building.
The building now houses up to 44 babies and young children waiting for permanent families either through adoption or reunion with their birth families. Just up the road is another building belonging to the charity that offers a safe space for vulnerable pregnant teenagers. “These young women need care, support, a safe space and the ability to choose their own path,” explains Eyres.
The Mother’s Choice story began following a news report in 1986 in the South China Morning Post detailing how pregnant girls as young as 13 were crossing the border into China for cheap, no-questions-asked abortions. It was estimated in the report that as many as 100 girls a day from Hong Kong were seeking such services, paying $700 for a fetus as progressed as nine months to be terminated.
The report was seen by Eyres’ parents as well as by friends who at the time were providing services to help Vietnamese refugees.
“They were shocked,” says Eyres, who was just nine at the time. “But instead of shrugging and saying ‘what can we do?’, they seriously asked ‘what can we do?’ and ended up launching Mother’s Choice, so-called because they wanted these vulnerable young girls to have a choice.”
Co-founder Helen Stephens was particularly touched by the girls’ plight as her own sister had faced a crisis pregnancy ten years previously. “Our whole family kept it a secret,” she said. “She was sent away and gave birth to a healthy baby girl whom she never held… She was never able to recover from the trauma, from sudden loss of innocence, from a total loss of former self. I knew that girls in Hong Kong faced the same scrutiny and judgement, and I felt led to support them.”
The four co-founders didn’t really know what to do next, but Eyres’ father (who was a former journalist) decided they should hold a press conference to publicise things. “A local hospital immediately called to place a pregnant young girl with them and twenty four hours later the first ‘Mother’s Choice baby’ was born.”
Over the next 30 years, the charity would care for over 2,000 babies and serve more than 53,000 pregnant girls with counselling, parental support and adoption.
“In 30 years, the biggest miracle that we have seen at Mother’s Choice is the change in attitude of our community,” says Eyres’ father, Ranjan Marwah. “At the start, many people asked why I wanted to help those ‘naughty girls’. Some of those same people are now our biggest supporters and they value the young women and children so differently. That gives me great hope for Hong Kong.”
At the time of the charity’s inception, Eyres’ father was in the throes of setting up a new business and her mother was taking care of their large, young family (Eyres is the oldest of seven children). But nevertheless they threw themselves into the charity.
“And that’s the point,” says Eyres. “There is never a right time, we constantly say ‘oh, I’ll step up when I’ve got more money, or when the kids are older, or when I’ve got a better job’, but there really is no time like the present. If you want to volunteer, now is as good a time as any.”
Eyres herself was born and brought up in Hong Kong, attending Bradbury and South Island Schools before moving to the US for her tertiary education. Her mother is American, her father Indian, and rather romantically they met on Star Ferry. She returned to Hong Kong fourteen years later as a corporate lawyer and never dreamed she would end up heading up the charity her parents had founded. But with the support of the board, she took over as chief executive officer in 2012.
The project Eyres is currently most proud of is a community-based foster care programme called Project Bridge that she launched four years ago. As she animatedly explains, a care home is no place for a baby. Children thrive best when nurtured in a loving, family environment.
“Sometimes we wait to place the baby back with its natural mother, but she often needs time to stabilise her situation. Or the baby is to be placed with an adoptive family, but it takes a minimum of six months for the paperwork to be processed. Project Bridge aims to provide that vital stepping stone between care home and forever home. Volunteers need to have been in Hong Kong for one year with plans to stay for two more, and be living in a clean and safe space to look after a child for up to a year.”
Mum-of-one Jasmin Blunck had seven-week-old baby ‘W’ placed in her care for seven weeks before he was moved on to a permanent home. “We loved being able to make a difference to his life,” she said. “You don’t need to be the perfect parent or have a massive house to be able to do this; anyone can. And what a Project Bridge family offers is so much better than the alternative.”
Project Bridge is currently desperate for volunteers and Eyres is quick to reassure that all Bridge families receive appropriate training and plenty of full-time support. They are also cleverly paired with a ‘buddy family’ who can step in when Bridge families need a bit of extra support.
The Bowen Road baby care home itself is light and bright, the rooms filled with smiling babies and toys and the walls busy with colourful photos, pictures and schedules. Mother’s Choice goes the extra mile to ensure each child is cared for as an individual rather than a number in a cot. There are excursions three times a week, carers put together a portfolio for each child (“it’s important that this stage of the child’s life is properly recorded, it all contributes to a proper sense of self later on,” says Eyres), the toddlers each have their own wardrobe of little clothes to choose from and a friend of the charity stitches colourful bed quilts for the children. There are also facilities for a small number of special needs children, with trained staff able to meet speech therapy and occupational health requirements. In a word, children that might be written off elsewhere are offered a chance to thrive.
But how does Eyres keep so positive when surrounded daily with stories of abandoned babies, abused young girls and general despair, I wonder?
“Because for every desperate story, there is a case with a positive outcome. I’ve been told over the years that babies wouldn’t survive, that they’d amount to nothing. And time after time we’ve proved the naysayers wrong.” She points to a photo of a severely facially disfigured young toddler on the wall. “We were told this little thing had no hope, that she’d amount to nothing with that kind of disability. And then a couple came here to volunteer, fell in love with her, adopted her, put her through numerous reconstructive surgeries and she went on to graduate from Harvard and now has a successful career in the US,” Eyres smiles proudly.
“And in 30 years we have come full circle for some. Some of our babies now volunteer with us. They say it takes a village to raise a child, at Mother’s Choice we see the miracles that can happen every day if the community opens up its heart. I am full of hope.”
If you would like more information about Project Bridge, or about volunteering opportunities with Mother’s Choice, see motherschoice.org/en/take-action/