Challenges of the past few months have been abundant – not to mention comprehensively documented. But even in what we’ll look back on as a historically bleak year, there have been energising stories of community, compassion and kindness all around the world.
Stop & Help is one such story in the UAE.
Launched in 2019, the project, described as a kindness exchange platform, took on new life in March 2020, as lockdown bit and families across the country felt the impact of pay cuts and job losses.
To date, the initiative has matched more than 6,000 families across the UAE with individuals who want to help support them and their children with gifts of groceries and household supplies.
“It really took on a new form in March, when I supported a number of children whose parents were locked out of the country,” says Heather Harries, a UAE resident of 14 years, and who began the project within her Kidsfull Education business.
At first, Harries checked in daily on the children, dropping off toys, books and cakes, and updating their parents on their wellbeing.
“This small band of children I was looking after just kept growing until I needed some more mums to help. I reached out to the Dubai British School PTA.
“Within a few days I had more mums than children, so I thought if I set up a Facebook page where families in need could register, and those who could help could respond in the spirit of kindness, then we could make a difference.”
They could hardly anticipate the response.
Just a few weeks in, the Stop & Help Facebook page was in contact with more than 2,000 families seeking support. Today, the page has 12,000 members.
“It’s a community platform to support people in desperate need,” says Harries. “The concept is simple, if you would like to do a kind deed, you register on the platform and we match you with a family in need. I believe that everyone wants to do a kind deed; the difficulty lies in finding those who need that help the most.”
While it can be difficult to determine who is most urgently in need of support, Stop & Help has criteria that need to be met – including that it will only help families with children living in the UAE.
“We support children under the age of 12 and their immediate families who live in the UAE. All families are verified, and this means they must provide proof they are based in the UAE and have an actual need as a result of circumstances beyond their control, such as salary deduction, redundancy, medical issues or bereavement,” Harries explains.
So how does it work for those who want to help another family in need?
“Once you register on the platform as a kindness giver, which takes about three minutes to fill in the form, you will be matched with a verified family within approximately 24 hours.
“Their details are supplied by email with a list of any specific requirements, such as baby formula. The kindness giver sets the budget, chooses their preferred online retailer and ships the shopping directly.
“Currently the main requirement is basic food, but it could also be educational books, nappies, an interview suit or art supplies for kids. You send the items directly and then the family sends back a lovely thank you note.
“This is, in many ways, one of the things that makes supporting us so rewarding. You can even build up a relationship with the family you help, providing shopping on a more regular basis.”
While numbers have, as Harries says, “dropped, thankfully” in recent months, Stop & Help continues to receive up to 200 applications from families in crisis every day.
“The peak of demand was during lockdown, particularly for families who lived off tips and gratuities. Not being able to leave home and earn any money at all was a serious problem. We’ve seen a drop in urgent demand, but the degree of the problems is much more severe,” Harries says.
Though the pace and scale of the page’s growth was a challenge to meet, it’s not the only difficulty the Stop & Help team have come up against.
“The other biggest challenge is coping with the heart-breaking stories we hear on a daily basis.
“It’s impossible not to get emotionally attached to the families we help; they send pictures of their children and we just want to take their stress away. This is really hard.”
Equally, there are heartening stories of compassion and selflessness, even among those who most desperately need help.
Harries says she has been surprised by “the resilience of people in need, and the overwhelming kindness of a whole community to help people they have never met.”
“If I have learnt one lesson, it is quite simply this: the less you have, the less you ask for,” she says.
“Families will ask, ‘Please, just food for my child’. You ask them about themselves and they reply, ‘I don’t mind not eating but my child really needs food’.
“We often see a last cup of rice given away to someone who needed it more. I am constantly amazed by people’s capacity for compassion and understanding and the overwhelming desire to help.”
And it’s that huge desire for help that is spurring the project – and Harries – onwards to their next goal.
“We are currently registered as a data company. The next stage is to become a foundation so that we can really make changes. I want to give a voice to the voiceless; to advocate for undocumented children and provide better mental health services for those in need,” Harries explains.
“The UAE is one of the most amazing forward-thinking country in the world and the leadership care so deeply. We know it’s a country not afraid to make changes; COVID has highlighted issues that need to be addressed and I want Stop & Help to be a positive force that can help make this happen,” she adds.
“Stop & Help will continue to move forward as an organisation that will support any child and their family through a short-term crisis. To continue to do this, we need a broader network of professionals that can support our goals and an ability to raise funds, which we can’t do as a data company.
“However, I have no doubt our goals are achievable, and I believe that the work we have been doing over the last few months has laid foundations for positive change in 2020 and beyond.”
If you’re looking for your next good deed, you’ve found it.
To find out more and take part in the initiative, click here.