When I arrive at the Mother’s Choice premises on Bowen Road, its chief executive, Alia Eyres, has just wrapped up filming a thank-you video to the charity’s volunteers and supporters, who heroically came to the rescue after it posted warning of a shortage of diapers on its Facebook page.
Walking inside from the playground and warming herself up for a moment, she starts telling me how this former corporate lawyer ended up running a charity.
“When I was nine years old,” Eyres recalls, “I saw my parents and friends in our community come together to start Mother’s Choice. They didn’t have much at the time, but they were determined to respond with whatever they had to the needs of vulnerable girls and babies in our city. Watching all of them volunteer – and generously give their time, energy and resources – shaped my childhood here in Hong Kong.”
These memories stayed with Eyres, so that after she’d moved back to Hong Kong as a newlywed 12 years ago and was occupied by her busy legal career, she continued to volunteer at Mother’s Choice.
Establishing Mother’s Choice
Back in 1986 when Eyres was a young girl, a series of newspaper articles revealed the alarming number of teenage pregnancies in Hong Kong, and in the process moved two couples – Gary and Helen Stephens, as well as Eyre’s parents, Ranjan and Phyllis Marwah – deeply. When they read about the plight of these young girls, instead of looking to others to do something about it, they had the courage to ask themselves, “What can we do?”
Despite having young families and very limited resources, the Stephens and the Marwahs decided to roll up their sleeves. With a determination to serve
strengthened by their love for Hong Kong, they enlisted the support of a team of volunteers and founded Mother’s Choice one year later.
Fast forward more than two decades to 2012, when Eyres decided to make the big jump from leading a law firm to applying to head the charity co-founded by her parents, a move that she’d never have imagined while growing up. Yet today she’s been helming Mother’s Choice for almost nine years.
“I can honestly say it’s been both the most rewarding and most challenging career move I’ve ever made,” she says. Aside from being responsible for setting the organisation’s vision and strategy, Eyres also leads a team of some 140 staff and 700 regular volunteers, all of whom are dedicated to giving hope and changing life stories. “It isn’t easy to do with limited resources and the current challenging environment, but it’s truly a privilege to be part of this amazing organisation that’s impacted the lives of thousands of people across our city,” she says.
“I’ve become an increasingly hopeful person since I started working here because I’ve seen the generosity and kindness of ordinary people”Alia Eyres
Mother’s Choice today
Eyres explains how Mother’s Choice is a grassroots charity that serves babies and children without families and pregnant teenagers in our city. “Everything we do is aimed at seeing every child in a loving family. We operate from four different locations across the city and we provide multiple direct services for four kinds of clients: children, youth, families and the community.” Mother’s Choice has a residential-care system that cares for children through fostering services and in its child-care home, providing early intervention therapies and support so that each child can join a safe, loving and permanent family as quickly as possible. “Being in a family,” says Eyres, “is what can change a child’s whole life story – and for generations.”
Every year, the charity cares for more 150 children. “We have more than 700 young girls who call us for help with their crisis pregnancy, and we provide sexuality education to over 5,000 students. We also support more than 130 adoptive families and provide training to hundreds of professionals working with vulnerable children across the community.
“Our work with young pregnant girls focusses on those who don’t have the resources or community to support them during their crisis. Mother’s Choice is a safe place, where young girls are embraced, equipped and empowered for a hopeful future. We also take a preventative approach with our comprehensive sexuality education programme, working not just with the young, but also with their parents and educators.”
As well as providing financial support, the charity also equips families with the knowledge and skills to care for their children and, as no one can travel the lifelong journey of parenting alone, it connects them with community support. Helping to build families through adoption both locally and overseas, recruiting and training temporary families through foster care, and reconnecting and strengthening struggling birth families for both the children and pregnant girls remains the charity’s core mission.
Involving the community
Not only does Mother’s Choice help children and pregnant girls, but it also equips members of the community to provide solutions to such problems. “Community issues require a whole community response,” explains Eyres, “and we intentionally seek to inspire and influence different groups, sectors and industries to recognise the different ways that they can contribute. This includes engaging volunteers to increase our capacity and influence, as well as collaborating with our peers and other organisations here and overseas to increase our impact.”
Although Mother’s Choice has grown from small beginnings to helping thousands of people each year with multiple services and in several locations, its vision and mission have remained unchanged. “Today, the staff and volunteers of Mother’s Choice continue with that same spirit as the founders,” says Eyres. “We’re ordinary people from all walks of life who’ve seen how one simple act of kindness can change someone’s life – and that can change the world.” For emphasis, she quotes Mother Teresa, who said that “the problem with the world is that we draw the circle of our family too small”.
“We need to broaden our definition of ‘family’ beyond just a biological connection in order to break the vicious cycle. The cost and long-term impact of children growing without a safe, loving and permanent family is huge. Children face trauma that can adversely impact their entire lives and the generations that follow them. When we step up to become family to these children, young parents and their families, by giving our hearts, our time, our talents and our resources, it will transform our entire city.”
The impact of Covid-19
Covid-19 has impacted Mother’s Choice significantly, so that its services are needed more than ever. The closure of schools and playgrounds, combined with increased financial stress and pressure on parents, and social- distancing restrictions limiting access to important resources and interventions, put vulnerable children even more at risk, especially given the limitations on providing in-person support. Fund-raising is also a struggle.
“Only 25 percent of our funding comes from government sources and other large grants, so we have to raise 75 percent of our budget ourselves every year,” says Eyres. “More than a third is usually raised at our annual gala dinner, which had to be cancelled last year due to the pandemic. However, though Covid-19 has impacted every part of our work, we’re still hopeful for the future. We’ve seen people’s generosity and creativity in helping to keep our doors open increase during this difficult time.”
The road ahead
Recently, Eyres launched Vision 2025, a new five-year plan for Mother’s Choice that includes the introduction of Safe Families for Children, a programme that extends support for struggling birth families through a community of devoted volunteers. Early intervention services with occupational, speech, physical and other therapies will also be boosted.
“Even though we hear and experience stories of heartbreak and tragedy every day at Mother’s Choice, I’ve become an increasingly hopeful person since I started working here, because I’ve seen the generosity and kindness of ordinary people who want to help others,” says Eyres.
“Our biggest need at Mother’s Choice is financial. Even a small amount given consistently can make a huge difference and give us the financial security that we need to continue to care for the babies and young mothers of our city. There are also many ways in which people can volunteer their time, energy, and skills – and we encourage everyone to join our monthly sessions, where they can learn more about volunteer opportunities and how they can get involved in making a difference.”
(All images: Mother’s Choice)
This story first appeared in Prestige Hong Kong.