Not everybody’s dream list contains big travel plans, lots of money or a flash car. I met a British guy in Melaka who is helping kids in Sumatra, Indonesia and who would be happy with an electric sewing machine!!
It was Christmas Day morning and I was walking along Harmony Street in Melaka, Malaysia when I spotted some bags for sale.
They were hanging up outside a hostel that I had passed many times but I had never noticed them before, and I crossed the road to take a closer look.
The bags were all different and appeared to be made from pieces of old denim jeans. As I was looking at the bags I noticed a quiet bespectacled guy working at an old treadle Singer sewing machine in the shade in front of the hostel.
When he stood to shake my hand and introduced himself as Lee from England I couldn’t help notice that Lee was struggling a bit to get to his feet.
Anyway we got talking – subsequently Lee invited me for a coffee so that we could chat a bit more and then later for a lunch of redang chicken at his home.
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This is Lee’s inspirational story.
Why are you making and selling bags?
Lee told me that he makes and sells bags so that he can send the funds out to a grassroots project in Indonesia.
The project (the Dian Bersinar Foundation) does volunteer work in Medan, Sumatra and helps to educate and support pre-school children and their families in one of the poorest communities in this Indonesia city.
How did you discover the charity project in Medan?
Lee said that he had been travelling for many years and was introduced to the charity project In Sumatra by friends that he met. He stayed for a while so that he could volunteer with them, and now, because he still travels a lot, he supports the group by sending funds over to them. The money goes towards a small living wage for the teachers, building rent, food (the school tries to provide food or fruit when it can) and school supplies.
The project is a crèche/playgroup for pre-school children and is a safe place for the children to stay whilst their parents are out at work. It gives educational support to the youngsters – but the group also aims to educate the parents too.
The hope is that by the time the children are of school age, the parents will already be in the mindset that an education is important and won’t consider keeping the kids from school or send them to work or out onto the streets to beg.
The project is also about enriching the lives of these disadvantaged children, for example by giving them a day out to the swimming pool – fun things that they would otherwise probably never get to experience.
How poor are the children? Are they street kids?
They are not quite street kids. Most of the parents do work, but they are usually working in the lowest of jobs. Many of the kids are dropped off by their cycle tri-shaw driver fathers. They are actually charged a small fee for attending the project – otherwise they would simply not attend and miss too many days on a whim.
This small fee ensures a level of commitment from the parents and is hopefully building in a sense of value and responsibility.
You have been travelling since 2008. What set you off on that road?
‘It’s a cliché but I had a life changing moment. I was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and suddenly things in the commercial world weren’t so important any more. In my previous life I was a construction project manager – my speciality was carpentry but I sold up and I began to travel.
As the disease has progressed I have become less mobile but I am determined not to give in to it. Working with the charity in Medan is one of my hobbies and my passion’.
And now you are settled in Malaysia?
Lee told me no, although he does spend the winters here in Melaka. Usually he heads off about mid-April. Currently Lee has a van stored in Georgia and maybe he will travel onwards to Kazakhstan before returning to Melaka or maybe go back to Medan in November.
Do you sell the bags while you travel?
It can be quite difficult to sell the bags on the road but in his spare time, if Lee has suitable fabric, he will get out his machine and make some bags on a little table outside his van.
Where do you get the fabric for the bags?
Mostly the fabric is donated, but Lee is always on the lookout for unusual or local fabrics. He will make bags to order in any shape, size or fabric as well as making IPad and electronic gadget cases.
Lee told me once how he was admiring a guy’s trousers and a couple of days later the man came back and donated them to him so that he could turn them into yet more bags for charity.
What other ways can you raise funds?
Lee told me that he would like to set up an online shop so that he can sell the bags via the internet, but in order to do that he will need to increase his stock. Currently working with an old traditional (non-electric) Singer sewing machine, Lee reckons that he could greatly increase production if he had an electric machine.
The more funds that Lee can raise then the more children will benefit from the charity project in Medan.
Can anybody volunteer in Medan with the project?
The charity used to accept volunteers when it was in its original location alongside the train tracks and when it was accepting older school-aged children. Then, several volunteers lived in Medan and helped the children with their English classes and supported the teaching staff.
Once the project was forced to move buildings it meant that only pre-school children could be supported, although if anybody in Medan is interested in helping, the project would be more than willing to use any skills that people have.
How else can people help?
Share this message and like the Lee’s Facebook page – click here for the link. If you are in Melaka search for Lee (in Harmony Street) and buy one of his bags if you like them.
Lee told me that he also wants to set up a separate fundraising campaign so that he can buy an electric sewing machine that he can use when he is based in Melaka.
Summary: Lee is helping kids in Sumatra
You can usually find Lee working in Jalan Toking Besi (Harmony Street) in Melaka, during the winter months at least.
You can follow Lee and his Bags for Kids Project as well as the Foundation via the following Facebook pages:
Have YOU ever done any volunteer work?
Small things can make a huge difference to another person.
You may not have much money yourself but you will have a talent or a skill or just the time to give to others.
We don’t need to receive money as payment to feel valued.
As well as the benefits to others, volunteer work can boost your feelings of self worth and help you to feel valued.
Even a one-off Random Act of Kindness can make a huge difference to the recipient. Try it today.
More bags = more funds = happier healthy children that are lifted out of poverty.
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Additional Resources and connected products
You can read my comprehensive article about the best cheap and free things to do in Melaka here
For your Lonely Planet Guide book to Malaysia click this link