Helping to educate the Penans

PETALING JAYA: With the belief that education is the only way to lift an entire community out of poverty, the non-profit accredited social enterprise – Helping Hands Penan (HHP) – strives to provide education sponsorship to Penan students.

Out of 40 ethnic tribes and minorities in Sarawak, HHP director Violette Tan said the Penans are still living in challenging conditions and lacking basic amenities in their villages, with many of their children not going to school.

“We are determined to help the Penan women to empower themselves as well as to provide education to the children and youths,” she said in an interview.

HHP, which started in 2007 and was officially registered as a non-governmental organisation in 2016, helps the Penan women weavers to sell their craft to a wider market by buying directly from them.

The proceeds from the sales of craft such as contemporary handbags, trays, baskets and other household items are then channelled back to HHP’s ongoing projects with education sponsorship being its main focus.

HHP has sponsored Penan students since they were in primary and secondary schools.

It has helped cut down dropout rates and long absenteeism which were rampant in the past.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Tan said they were sponsoring 150 students from primary to tertiary levels, noting that they saw their first sponsored Penan student graduating from university in May 2016.

“Currently, we are co-sponsoring a PhD student for his monthly travel allowances. This year, we also have a few sponsored students graduating from colleges and universities.

“Success stories such as these are an inspiration to keep us going, especially when the going gets tough.

“To see the hope in their eyes brings us a lot of satisfaction and the drive to carry on our work,” she said.

As the pandemic has upended the lives of numerous businesses and organisations, Tan said that many of their sponsored students have not been able to go to school as a result of the various movement control orders, coupled with their villages being placed under lockdowns.

Despite this, Tan said they have continued to support these students, who now have to attend online classes.

“We donated laptops to them so that they could follow online lessons, sit for exams and do their coursework,” she said.

Tan said they also continuously provide older students with monthly allowances to ensure that they do not drop out of school.

“In Sarawak, SPM students returned to school on Oct 3.

“We made sure that they attended physical classes by providing them with money to pay for transport from their villages to the boarding schools.

“We also bought for them school uniforms, school supplies and toiletries.

“We are fortunate that we could still help them as we do not have much in terms of overhead costs such as staff salaries and rentals,” she said.

As for its weavers, Tan said the Penan women still have income coming in from their weaving jobs as HHP continues to look for bulk orders from companies to make door gifts, festive hampers and annual gifts for their staff, adding that they also sell their products on Facebook live and online.

“Our Brunei volunteers and networks also continue to sell the bags which are in good demand,” she said.

During the pandemic, Tan said they organised three rounds of food aid for its weavers, which benefited 80 families in three villages.

“We tied up with a local sundry shop to arrange for food items to be delivered to our weavers in town.

“For those in the villages, we chartered a truck to bring these donations to them,” she said.

Other initiatives included solar panel projects, community development, welfare for the elderly and sickly, and providing milk powder to toddlers and the elderly.

Tan said among the challenges were the shortage of volunteers, as well as unpredictable and unsustainable funds raised mainly through craft sales which had dropped drastically due to the pandemic.

“We also face difficulties due to the distance and remoteness of the locations where our weavers and students are based.

“It is hard for us to be in contact to keep track of the weaving stages and the progress of the students,” she said.

Tan added that in the future they hoped to establish a bona fide social enterprise whereby students who have graduated could run it and employ fellow Penans to carry out the purchase, sales and sponsorship so that it would be truly “By the Penan, For the Penan”.

“As it is now, we have numerous nucleus groups where a head is appointed to manage the weavers in their villages.

“We would like to see our educated graduates taking over and giving back to their community,” she said, adding that her team would then just need to assist in overseeing the operations and ensure the finances are managed effectively.

For their noble efforts, Helping Hands Penan is recognised as one of the 10 winners of Star Golden Hearts Award 2021, an annual award that celebrates everyday Malaysian unsung heroes.

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