Marina Fairfax - Founder of the Computer Club and youngest member of the Order of Malta in Hong Kong
Introducing Marina Fairfax
Marina is 33 years old, grew up in the United Kingdom, spent many years in New York and lives today in Hong Kong. She started volunteering with the Order in her 20s and became a member of the Order of Malta when she was 28. Marina works in fashion and just had her first child, her two months old daughter Astrid. Marina is bubbling over with ideas and enthusiasm - not only was she one of the initiators of the successful White Cross Ball in New York, but the hugely successful Computer Club project in Hong Kong was also her brainchild. It is about time to introduce the worldwide Order of Malta family to this remarkable woman…
1. How did you hear about the Order of Malta and why did you decide to get involved?
I guess my story is a bit different because I converted, so I wasn’t always Catholic. It was when I wanted to be closer to my faith, when I moved to New York from London, and got involved with the Order of Malta.
Together with some others I helped set up the first White Cross Ball* in New York and the people in the organisation committee are now some of my best friends. That’s how I got involved and started doing more volunteering.
The volunteers and members of the Order in New York were really amazing and so welcoming. It was everything that I wanted from my faith. Being able to help as much as possible while having a community and a family was incredible.
* a fundraising ball for the Order in New York based on the concept of the White Knights Ball in London.
2. How did you get involved with the Order of Malta in Hong Kong?
When I moved to Hong Kong I was in my year of formation for becoming a Dame. The Hospitaller in New York put me in contact with the Hospitaller in Hong Kong. Again, it was exactly what I hoped for. I automatically had a community of amazing like-minded people who had a similar faith to me. The Order gives you a link because you all are coming together to be part of and to do something for your community and help as much as you can. The amount of work that is done by the Order here is just amazing.
3. How old were you when you became a Dame?
I must have been 28 or 29 and was flattered and amazed to be nominated that young. Becoming a member made me want to get even more involved. Once you are a part of it you feel the friendships you build not just with your fellow volunteers but also with the guests and the people in need that you work with even more. It is a very strong sense of community. When my friends join, they are always very surprised and tell me “Ohh wow, this is really so much more fun than I thought it would be” and I’m always like “Yes, I told you so many times, it’s great!”
4. What was your first experience volunteering with the Order in Hong Kong?
I first got involved with the Asia Pacific Youth Camp here which was amazing We had an incredible time, and it was a great success. I was asked afterwards by the Hospitaller if I would head up the “Flying Young” project which was one of the first projects of the Order of Malta in Hong Kong.
5. What is the “Flying Young Project”?
“Flying Young” gives children between 5 and 13 years old from disadvantaged families, a “flying” start. Volunteers of the Order in Hong Kong broaden their horizons through new experiences. These children live in “subdivided flats” where multigenerational families live all together in half a room subdivided by a thin wall. Anything that is not home, school, or work costs money they don’t have. In our “Flying Young” programme we widen their experiences and horizons by taking them to beaches, parks, art galleries, museums etc – experiences they would not otherwise have.
And then the pandemic hit us and we couldn’t meet anymore.
For me, being at home the whole day was fine because I had enough space and could work from my computer. These children stayed at home alone or with their grandparents trying to do online schooling on their parents’ smartphones while their parents went to work. Those children were already on the backfoot and now they were going to fall back even more.
We very much missed seeing the kids and knowing about their difficult living conditions we wanted to help. In March 2020 we decided to start a computer club where we could come together virtually.
We put together a proposal and secured funding for 40 laptops (Chrome Books so gaming would not be possible). We bought these laptops and to ensure proper use asked the families to pay a 20$ annual rental fee and sign the children up for a minimum of 12 out of 25 virtual classes.
6. How did it go from there?
In September 2020, we began teaching the children every other week - about how to use the laptop and then on general knowledge. We are not teachers and we do not pretend to be. In school they are being taught maths, sciences, algebra etc. What we can share with the children is our general knowledge and life skills, that they lack the opportunity to gain. So, we did sessions on history, space, sustainability, music, art, recycling, healthy eating, anti-bullying, PE exercises showing why it’s good to exercise to get your brain going and many more. After the first year was such a success, the Global Fund for Forgotten People had a donor that wanted to continue to support the program. Thanks to that we were able to buy another 20 laptops., expand our age range and split the classes into two age groups, younger kids from 5-9 and then older children from 10 to 13.
With more children, we started to teach two classes every week and were able to hire a tutor which has been really amazing. She developed lesson plans for us and introduced a concept where each term covers a general theme. In addition to our amazing tutor the number of volunteers increased massively. It’s a very easy way to get into volunteering because you are only needed for one hour on a Sunday, and we meet in person once a term.
We now have 60 students logging on each week. One of our unique selling points is that we are teach in English and in Cantonese so we are also helping the children to improve their language skills. It’s really important for employment prospects in Hong Kong to have English skills.
The kids have homework as well, they do little projects, and we do surveys with their parents to make sure that they’re happy.
It started from the pandemic but it’s going really well and since we can meet in person again we are tying the classes into everything else within the Flying Young programme. The last live event we did was on October 4, a harvest festival, where we collaborated with an eating disorder charity here in Hong Kong. Nutritionists held a workshop with parents about how to feed their children healthily and how to identify signs of eating disorders. A chef came to show the children how to make a healthy lunch box to take to school – it was amazing, they all had little chef hats and little Order of Malta aprons.
7. Could you share one or two highlights of your time with the Hong Kong Association with us?
The whole experience of starting and running the Flying Young Programme and the Asia Pacific Youth Camp in 2018. The venue was a holiday camp facility for disabled people and they did incredible things with the guests there. They could all go swimming, do archery, zorbing, and a guy was rock climbing in his wheelchair! It was a time for the guests to come together, and not to feel like they’re disabled – it was amazing! Now we have our No Limits Social Club where all the disabled guests from Hong Kong who joined the Asia Pacific Camp come regularly together to have dance parties and other activities. I love to go to see them when they meet up and we always have a great time.
8. Could you give us a piece of advice for volunteers/something to keep in mind when we volunteer?
You have to be respectful of the people you’re working with. I think it’s all about treating others as you want to be treated, being mindful about where they’ve come from and just to be super nice!
9. What would you say if someone asked you today why he/she should start volunteering?
I think it’s about the sense of community and being part of something bigger than yourself. Not just the community of your co-volunteers but also being part of the wider community of where you live, which is so important in an increasingly online world where so many people don’t know who their neighbours are. Being part of the Order of Malta is amazing and I think it opens you up to meeting so many new people and being together – I think people miss the human connection!