IT is close to 10 o’clock on a Friday night when Jerryson Abraham Doss, his wife Edna Sung Burongoh and a small group of Good Samaritans with them start setting up tables along the five-foot way on Jalan Hang Lekiu in Kuala Lumpur. The pavements are lined with street dwellers who gather there in anticipation of the many do-gooders who drop off food for the homeless.
Jerryson and his team wait patiently.
“Once they’ve eaten, they will come to find out what we’re here for,” he says.
A short while later, a few people approach the team and soon there is a queue asking about the jobs that are on offer.
Among them is single mother Nur who says it is her first night living on the streets. Holding on tightly to Nur’s skirt is her eight-year-old daughter Ain, a plump girl whose eyelids are heavy with sleep.
“I ran away from my husband. He always hits us. I’ve had enough,” says Nur who asks if there will be day care if she accepts any of the jobs that are available.
Jerryson and Edna have been organising “recruitment drives” for the street dwellers for about a year now. They offer proper nine-to-five jobs with their social enterprise – Viva StarFish, a company that bottles and distributes mineral water – and pay them a starting salary of about RM1,500, provide accommodation and teach them financial literacy so that they can save and rebuild their lives. And yes, day care can be arranged.
“We can choose to address their immediate need and feed them or we can try and get them off the streets by giving them a second chance at life,” says Jerryson, an accountant by training.
Their accommodation is a fully-furnished apartment which they share with other staff who come from out of town.
To qualify for a job, the applicants have to prove that they are drug free. Once they’re cleared, they are hired.
The jobs available are often entry-level: delivery workers, loaders, drivers and so on. However, good performers are rewarded and given a chance to move up the ranks.
Raj, one of the recruiters that night, was a former street dweller. After 10 months of living on the street, he met Edna and was offered a job. As he recounted his story, the 42-year-old former bank officer was close to tears.
“My wife left me with a lot of debt when she walked out on me and my children, debts I didn’t know about. I lost everything trying to settle my debts. I sent my children to my mother’s home in Johor Baru and started living on the streets,” he said.
Raj started as a driver, and his hard work and dedication earned him several promotions. He is now working in the company’s marketing department. On the recruitment drives, Raj is the “main man”.
“They trust him,” said Jerryson.
“Many of these guys have been cheated. Companies offer them work but don’t pay them for months and so initially when we showed up, they were wary of us. But when Raj and the other former street dwellers come with us, they know they can trust us.”
True enough, many of the homeless that night approached Raj to ask him how he was. Their faces lit up as they caught up with him and wished him well.
There are quite a number of former street dwellers and recovering addicts on Viva StarFish’s payroll. The latter is another marginalised group that Jerryson and Edna work with.
They sometimes bring their children. Both were inspired by their parents who showed them that it was better to go with a little less than to see another go without.
As a child, Jerryson remembers, he’d have an extra cup of Milo every day.
“One day my mother, who used to teach underprivileged children, told me that if I sacrificed one cup of Milo every day, I could help a child get an education. That really struck me and from that day I decided to give up my extra cup and save money to help a child. I remember keeping in touch with the children. And you know, it felt really good.”
The pair started Viva StarFish in March 2015. Before that, they used the profits from their safety training and risk management services company, Viva Odyssey, to sponsor the education of underprivileged and abandoned children. They also started a shelter and ran an orphanage for abandoned children.
Edna, an accountant, and Jerryson had full time corporate jobs before they decided to start their social enterprise and focus their time and energy on helping the less fortunate.
To date, the couple have given jobs to more than 150 people from the streets. Currently, they have 14 working with them. Many have left to work with other companies.
“When they first start, their self-esteem is low and they need to learn how to mix with and trust other people. Once they’re ready, we often recommend them to other companies. There are now other companies that work with StarFish and are willing to take our recommendations,” said Jerryson, adding that he hopes to find more partners who can help him and Edna reach more people who need a second chance.
This year’s Star Golden Hearts Award is supported by Gamuda. For more articles, go to thestar.com.my/stargoldenheartsaward.