Kindness Walks: Walking the talk

Jeff Rotmeyer, the founder of ImpactHK, which is a non-profit that provides the homeless in Hong Kong with friendship, food, shelter, education and employment opportunities, has the attention of the media.  And rightfully so.  The passion project he started in 2017 to aid the plight of Hong Kong’s homeless has grown from strength to strength.  English publications such as Tatler to the SCMP, to Chinese publications Ming Pao and China Daily, all chronicle how this project has evolved to a powerful humanitarian movement based on the simple gospel of #kindnessmatters.  ImpactHK is now a well-known charity not just within the social sector, but also with Hong Kong’s residents, and more importantly, solidified their reputation for “walking the talk.”

Jeff’s large brown eyes twinkle and his hand gesticulates in the air to emphasise his excitement about ImpactHK’s mission.

The homeless individuals we meet outside don’t need your judgement or blame. They need care and a friend they can trust,” says Rotmeyer, “kindness opens the door – everything starts with kindness.”

 

A former school teacher from Canada, Jeff converted his compassion to help the homeless into practical and simple actions, whilst motivating large numbers of volunteers to do the same.  The bedrock of the ImpactHK service platform are “Kindness Walks”.  During a Kindness Walk, volunteers show tangible kindness by distributing bananas, eggs, water and bread.  Each week, there are approximately 150 volunteers who participate in 18 Kindness Walks in 11 of the city’s neediest locations.  In addition to volunteers involved in ImpactHK’s other services, the organisation has organically created an army of do-gooders.

Jeff’s business acumen and marketing knack is a boon for the organisation.  From the inception of his daring dream, he knew the importance of having a physical space for the homeless he would serve.  A physical space would signify security, identity, and from a practical perspective, a roof as protection during inclement weather.  After raising enough funds from corporate and individual donors in 2018, The Guestroom was established in Tai Kok Tsui as a haven for the homeless to visit and receive nourishment. Located in the same community, Place2Be opened in 2019 as a centre for recreational sports, activities and counseling, and the newest addition in 2020 is their social enterprise 1ofaKind, a second-hand clothing store in Yau Ma Tei, which employs the homeless population while encouraging sustainability. In a nod to Jeff’s aptitude for attracting the community, he set up a café serving free coffee and snacks to those in need, assisted by donations.

Impacting HK during the pandemic

There were (and still are) opportunities for volunteers to partner with ImpactHK to walk the talk, especially during the ongoing pandemic. In fact, their services and outreach are more imperative than ever.

“It has been a difficult year for everyone,” said Rotmeyer, “there is a big increase in homelessness, and demand for our meal service has increased six times.” Last year, the organisation served 2000 meals a week at The Guestroom, remaining at least partially opened throughout the waves of government lockdown. “I didn’t see it as doing anything heroic.  I just felt whether there was a pandemic or not, everyone has to eat.  So as much as possible, while adhering to government guidelines, we continued to serve meals to the homeless and hungry.”

On a rainy Sunday in Hong Kong, a small group of volunteers gathers to discuss ways to help those less fortunate. Three hours later, they have solicited donations, purchased 20 meals from a local restaurant, and hand-delivered them to a group of homeless men and women living underground. Not only did they provide a warm meal but a warm connection, offering acknowledgement of their challenges and a chance to get additional support from Impact HK, a local NGO that provides housing, employment, and a social network for those in need.

 

One of the most impressive outcomes from 2020 was an overwhelming response to a particular fundraising plea. In April, during the second wave of the pandemic, street sleepers found themselves bereft of shelter.  Jeff immediately sent a Facebook message to the ImpactHK community to raise money for emergency accommodation.  In only eleven days, the charity raised almost HK$700,000 through crowdfunding.

Though public sentiment was enormously generous, the truth remains there are people on the streets who are homeless in Hong Kong and who are dying every single day.

“There are thousands of homeless individuals tonight, sad, alone and not knowing where to go,” said Rotmeyer.

Plans going forward

Not all charitable intentions are impactful, and Jeff isn’t interested in quick fixes.  The type of impact he is fixated on is specific; namely, genuine, holistic and sustainable impact.  In short, he wants to see transformation.

In order to create transformative change, Jeff has created an ecosystem to reintegrate individuals back into society.  There are currently 152 “active cases” of homeless individuals who indicate they are ready for assistance and change.  ImpactHK helps these individuals locate housing, break addictions, procure legal assistance, and perhaps the most important factor to reintegration, find employment.  Having meaningful and paid work underpins the road to independence, said Rotmeyer, and so the organisation hires many of their own beneficiaries.  In fact, ImpactHK’s core group grew four-fold, and of the current 27 employees almost half have personal experience with homelessness.  Their shop, 1ofaKind also employs former street sleepers.

Despite ImpactHK’s four years of impressive growth and milestones, Jeff is still out on the street, daily walking the talk.  He befriends new faces he meets, handing each person a banana, a cup of water, a hard-boiled egg, all done with a caring smile.  And he continues to preach the same simple two-word gospel which he believes will transform lives and, eventually, whole communities: kindness matters.

ACS long-term partnership with Impact HK

We first met Jeff in 2018 via our Engage platform, a quarterly workshop and competition ACS designed to help NGOS better understand how to leverage digital technologies.  Sixteen organisations participated in this round, and ImpactHK was chosen as one of the three finalists, winning a corporate video donated by a media agency.  One of the judges recalled ImpactHK’s video entry as a clear and compelling story why the city needed ImpactHK, and what ImpactHK was going to provide the city.  John from ACS recalls his impression of working with Jeff.

“I remember him during the workshop, he had so many questions on how to best get things done digitally.  He really wanted to sharpen his understanding of technology.  He was encouraging his team to do better and learn more.”

Jeff and his team joined JC ENGAGE – Corporate Communication Series organized by ACS in 2019

More recently in July 2020, ImpactHK joined Mind Matters, a forum co-organised by Asian Charity Services and HSBC Private Banking.  Mind Matters aims to rekindle Hong Kong’s can-do spirit by supporting local NGOs in mental well-being services.

“Covid brought a massive increase to the homeless problem, which created a heavy strain on our staff and volunteers.  It’s clear ImpactHK has a large role to play in improving mental health support in Hong Kong.  As a charity we are learning and adapting to improve our care and support for our city’s most vulnerable.  I’m so grateful for our staff, volunteers and supporters like Asian Charity Services,” said Rotmeyer.

At ACS, we are delighted to witness ImpactHK’s four years of growth, and ACS is invested in their continued success.  ACS’s mission is to serve those who serve, and we look forward to continued partnership with ImpactHK.

The Author

Jen Wannenmacher

Jen Wannenmacher

Jen is an equal opportunity NGO lover, and enjoys meeting diverse organisations via ACS's Community Outreach team. Adopting ACS’s tagline as her own, she serves those who serve by writing articles promoting NGOs, NGO leaders, and best practices within the social impact sector. Her other volunteer roles include The American Club Foundation, Mother's Choice, and the Princeton Club of Hong Kong.

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