Having read the news on Afghanistan, and living in a society still grappling with the brutality of Covid-19, with political instability thrown into the equation, adults could be forgiven for feeling sad and overwhelmed, let alone children. But it is also heartening to note that many Malaysians have stepped up valiantly to do their part in making the lives of their countrymen better. From the many innovative food aid programmes to the layman making it a point to pay things forward, countless stories abound of how the rakyat is truly embracing the “kita jaga kita” mantra, with one of the newer initiatives being Project Happy Bags.
Inspired by the numerous food bank drives, mother and entrepreneur Jenn Low, founder and managing director of jewellery brand Wanderlust + Co, wanted to play a meaningful role as well. “Project Happy Bags started as a personal project by my four-year-old daughter Olivia and I as a way to give back to children from families struggling with the lockdown. The idea is that these Happy Bags would be an add-on to food aid already going out to families in need.”
A few casual social media posts about what the mother-daughter duo were doing instantly sparked a flood of queries from friends and followers all over the world wanting to help, with RM10,000 in pledges garnered within 24 hours.
For those wondering what exactly a Happy Bag may be, it is essentially a colourful paper bag filled with useful as well as fun items that would delight a child, spark happiness and alleviate mental stress. For example, a Happy Bag would consist of an assortment of items that include butter cookies, a reusable cutlery kit and water tumbler, children’s dental care items, reusable woven face mask, a multilingual dictionary and toys. “We also made sure to add play slime for kids to de-stress with,” Low smiles.
What gives this project a lot of heart is the Happy Notes that accompany it. “Learning for children is largely based on discovery and joyful experiences,” Low explains. “Unfortunately, during this pandemic, many Malaysian children have not been able to experience joy. The idea of Happy Notes started with template messages we use [at Wanderlust + Co], such as ‘The world is a better place because you are in it’, ‘Don’t forget to smile today’ and ‘You are loved no matter how you feel’.”
Besides monetary pledges, members of the public may also donate Happy Bags or Happy Notes. “The messages are in both English and Bahasa and are meant to spread good energy. The Happy Notes make it easy for anyone to show love, from one Malaysian home to another, as it simply requires a pen, paper, time and good intent. Those who donated Happy Notes have shared that creating them has been an educational as well as therapeutic exercise to do with their children during lockdown. I now have hundreds of pictures of these notes, which really go to show how kind and creative Malaysians are.”
It is a sentiment echoed by partner non-governmental organisations (NGOs). “While we have given rice and essentials needed to survive, what has been impactful for my team are the Happy Notes that went along with each Happy Bag. We’ve been getting messages from families who send us photos of the notes,” says Heidy Quah, founder of Refuge for the Refugees. “The children stick the notes on their walls as a symbol of encouragement. There’s something about it that says ‘I see you. I’m with you. I hear you. And you are important to me’ to the receiver.”
Shen-tel Lee, founder of Kuching Food Aid, says, “When we were contacted, we saw how beautiful the notes of hope were and how they added a human touch to our aid bags. Our volunteers loved them so much that they insisted we laminate them so they could be kept as a token forever. The project shows that our nation, though stuck at home, is able to do more than we think.”
Though it is parental instinct to shield children from the harsher aspects of life, Low stresses the importance of not shying away. “If we want to raise our children to be good global citizens, then [we need to teach them about showing] kindness, compassion, and to understand that life is not problem-free … and that we must, as much as possible, do our part to assist. It is important to educate them about how problems should be perceived and what can be done.
"Children will come to see the real world for themselves sooner or later. All we can do, as parents, is help frame the narrative for them. I am very much motivated to help my children discover more about themselves and their place in the world. Sharing these experiences with them early on will, hopefully, enable a growth mindset in the years to come.”
On her four-year-old’s reaction to the project (her son, Oscar, is still a toddler), Low says: “Olivia was super excited! It was a little difficult for her to conceptually understand that, as much as all parents want the best for their kids, some may be struggling to provide that at this time. But she understands how a little joy like this can cheer someone up and she was very fast and efficient in packing the Happy Bags … oh, and sticking a Happy Note on each one!”
Each Happy Bag is set at a cost of RM25, with Noko Malaysia on board as project partner. Low says, “We are fortunate to have found a supermarket partner that believes in our goals and works tirelessly with us to make magic happen each week. We also wanted to ensure we were getting the most out of every ringgit donated, and we did. We immediately hit the ground running, procuring the best items at the lowest possible prices. We also obtained sponsorship for some of the items in the bag.”
The first round of Happy Bags, together with accompanying Happy Notes, was sent out to NGO partners on July 17 and deliveries continued until Merdeka Day, for a total of 6½ weeks. Partner NGOs include, but are not limited to, the Somali Refugee Community, Faith Works Enterprise and Hunger Hurts, as well as Segambut MP Hannah Yeoh’s beneficiaries in Segambut Dalam, Segambut Masjid, Kg Segambut Tengah, Segambut Bahagia Tambahan and Sri Sinar, all in Kuala Lumpur.
As at Aug 16, the team behind Project Happy Bags was pleased to report that RM69,000 had been raised, with 2,400 Happy Bags delivered, along with 120 stationery bags, more than 1,000 packs of baby formula, 13,580 baby diapers, 400 Covid-19 home test kits and much more.
This article first appeared on Aug 23, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.