Interview with Miriam Heatherich: First Things First

Interview with Miriam Heatherich

We speak to the president of Singapore-based volunteer group First Hand, about her love for — in no particular order — charity, children and fashion.

Mei Anne Foo: Why did you decide to take up the presidency at First Hand?
Miriam Heatherich: I’ve been living in Singapore for four years and previously had a fashion label for 14 years. Since I wound down my business, I found myself with spare time. I was initially introduced to First Hand during an event in 2012 and was impressed by the passion of the First Hand team. I decided to get involved with First Hand and believed I could offer my business, marketing and bookkeeping experience.

Currently, First Hand is making impact on the lives of children in Cambodia. Why this nation?
Personally, I knew very little about Cambodia before I became involved with First Hand. While I had learned in school about the Pol Pot regime and its impact, I was not aware that there was a lasting effect on the Cambodian people. There is an entire generation that has grown up without parents, without a family structure. As Cambodians struggle to find their way, they live with systemic corruption and apathy. In this vacuum, some Cambodian families, living in devastating poverty are tricked by traffickers into selling their children. We work with NGOs that rescue and rehabilitate trafficked disabled children, after being sold to beg in Thailand. I cannot imagine a more vulnerable group of people than children who are sold by their parents, and due to their disabilities are not even able to escape from their traffickers.

Any plans on expanding your reach to other countries?
The problem of child trafficking is also really prevalent in the Philippines. If we can expand our committee, it would be wonderful to help communities and other NGOs in the Philippines. This is no simple task. We would need to audit the organisations we would be working with. At First Hand, we have — quite literally — a first-hand approach, making sure the funds are appropriately spent, making sure our Cambodian partners have regular contact with First Hand committee members.

What makes First Hand different from other charity groups?
Leading up to an event to raise funds, the hours are long (up to 60 hours per week) and all of this time is volunteered. If I visit our Cambodian partners I will cover my own cost for travel and accommodation. It costs money to be in this committee, but the reward is huge. Also, no funds are spent on administration costs. The committee is doing everything from our home computers and printers. I don’t know many organisations that can claim 100% no administration fees, so this aspect of First Hand really makes us different. It is certainly one of the reasons we have been an attractive charity to become a sponsor of. Our sponsors enjoy the fact that 100% of their contributions are delivered to projects in Cambodia, so our sponsors truly make a significant difference.

Additionally, we encourage regular contact with our Cambodian partners and have long-term relationships with them. I think it’s great for our sponsors to know they are speaking directly to the people who visit the children. For example, on a recent trip to Cambodia in October 2014, I met a new resident, a two-year-old severely disabled girl who had been abandoned. She was unable to sit up and therefore had to be fed while lying down. Some funds from our last event were dedicated to buying her a wheelchair. We were then able to visit her six months later where we managed to post pictures of her on Facebook sitting up for the first time. This is an example of the First Hands impact, made possible only because of our sponsors.

How are funds raised at your events?
My background in fashion led me to organise ‘Runway Heroes’ in May 2015. It was a fashion-focused event and we were fortunate to showcase directly after Singapore Fashion Week. We held two runway shows, silent and live auction, including fashion, holidays, art created by the Cambodian children and a share in a racehorse!

Who is suitable to contribute and how?
We call for people who want to make a difference and stop child trafficking. Often people and businesses do not have the time to do the work on the ground and visit these wonderfully selfless NGOs. First Hand is able to do this for them. Our sponsors feel confident that their funds are delivered directly to these vulnerable children, and that the progress of the projects we support will be published regularly on our Facebook page. This way our sponsors can stay informed of the impact their funds make.

Have you any final thoughts about the achievements of First Hand and its plans for the future? 

I haven’t done anything in my life that is as satisfying as being involved in First Hand. I read a wonderful quote today and it went something like this: “True satisfaction is giving to someone who can never thank you.” I can’t quite articulate how wonderful it feels to be doing something for a stranger because you can. My six year old daughter, Willow, at her last birthday party asked her friends to provide money instead of gifts. She managed to raise S$646 to donate to First Hand. As a mother, I could not have been prouder.

My plans for the future are to continue doing this as long as I can, even if I leave Singapore. I will still donate my time and expertise to helping causes involving children, vulnerable children, anywhere in the world. It is my passion.

First Hand’s next event will be a Black & White Masquerade Ball held at The Marriott at Tangs on 24 October 2015. The ball will be set in an 18th century Venetian atmosphere. It will include contemporary dance shows, roving performers and a live auction.

For more information, visit First Hand’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/FirstHandVolunteers

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