FAITH IN THE SERVICE OF THE NEEDY – Catholic” means “all-embracing

  • Robaird O’Cearbhaill

Hong Kong Correspondent

In East Asia most children die of preventable diseases, for example diarrhoea and pneumonia, 63% before 5 years old, from unhygienic surroundings, and largely, because they don’t have soap. That’s where Soap Cycling comes in, making soap available free.   

Why soap? Because soap on skin cleans away microorganisms, very efficiently and successfully.  Soap Cycling spreads the word that soap is vital to human health, and that hand washing is crucial to prevent spreading of infectious diseases.  The recycled soap bars are made at very low costs mainly by hand by volunteers instead of salaried workers and expensive factories, cutting paid work extensively.    

Soap Cycling has been distributing soap in Asia since 2011, and is now in eight countries assisting poor communities, the elderly and the homeless, the largest portion are in the Philippines.  

Sadly the most vulnerable are children but last year Soap Cycling helped 50,000 children use soap for hand washing.  Even in rich Hong Kong one in three elderly people are living in poverty and are helped by the charity. 

Until the institution of public clean water supplies, water-borne infectious diseases killed most people in urban areas worldwide. Sadly today the poor in undeveloped countries suffer the same fate. Fortunately there are charities like Soap Cycling, the largest soap recycler in Asia stepping up successfully to address the problem and the people with a mission to run the show.

General Manager for Hong Kong, and Managing Director for Singapore, Patrick Davis, has found his mission in life helping others. It comes from his early Catholic childhood in the United States. 

“Church was a central part of everyone’s life, no matter the denomination. My family was very active in our parish, Our Lady of La Salette, Waleska, Georgia, and many of the activities involved service to our wider community.

Davis remembers that exercising charity was usual in his community. “It was never a question of whether you should give back, but how.” His practice of the virtue of charity continued as soon as he found his first job. “Although I commenced my working life in the legal sector back in the States, I always found time to contribute to local charities in my free time. During my 20s, I focused primarily on providing transportation resources to Atlanta’s homeless and refugee communities. Serving on boards, starting my own social enterprise, and leading several volunteer groups was a natural extension of my upbringing and faith.”

Davis came to Hong Kong to study at the University of Hong Kong. Having graduated from his MBA in 2016, he decided to move to charity work after he had found his previous legal sector work in labor and employment law “incredibly boring and unfulfilling” whereas running Soap Cycling in Hong Kong gives him great satisfaction and is all-embracing”  (just as “Catholic,” from ancient Greek katholikos, – the whole) means universal. 

His greatest pleasure from work therefore is “getting to work with a wide swathe of Hong Kong society. The true definition of the word ‘catholic’ with a small ‘c’ is “including a wide variety of things; all-embracing.” The strength of our religion is that it is universal and embraces different people from all across the world.” And Davis’ religious instruction, he said, has guided him well. 

“Catholicism in my life: growing up attending mass and CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine which teaches children religious education) as a youth provided a strong framework and foundation for understanding my life’s true purpose.” These lessons stay with him still. “Whatever industry you are employed in, your life’s daily decisions should be guided by your faith and improving the lives of as many people as possible. One aspect of Catholic theology that has really informed my working life is justification. Faith is, of course, very important in guiding our choices. Without good works to perfect that belief, it does little good in the real world.”

“While the charitable sector was not my plan when I made the move to Hong Kong, the biggest influence my Catholic upbringing has on my present day life is that it helps to maintain my faith, that my purpose is to make the world a better place, not simply to earn money,” he adds.

That comes with sacrifice running Soap Cycling here, he added. “Running a charity in Hong Kong is not a glamorous life. Making ends meet, brutal working hours, and constantly trying to attract support in a transient place are just some of the challenges that every charity faces in this market.” And it doesn’t end there he said.  “There are never-ending frustrations and hurdles that every small business owner faces trying to stay alive in Hong Kong. By keeping an eye on a higher purpose and knowing that each bar of soap we can save will improve someone’s life, it helps to keep everything moving forward.” And moving forward in expansion to other locations is also the charity’s vision.    

The idea is that Soap Cycling wants to use their experience and practical skills to help additional new locations have soap recycling production too. “Our larger mission as an organization is not only to recycle waste and help those in need, but also to spread the knowledge we have learned over the years so that more good work can be done in more places.”

For Macau, Davis underlines that their goal is to seal a deal with a partner. “Ideally, we would find a partner in Macau, probably an academic institution, and help them with knowledge, contacts, and back-end support to start their own internal soap recycling operation.” And this would be not the first Soap Cycling operation of this kind.  “This has worked for us in Shenzhen and Singapore.”

The Shenzhen operation began three years ago with Singapore following a year later. “Soap Cycling was founded in 2012 by a professor and his law students at the University of Hong Kong.  In 2016, a move was made to expand to Shenzhen. We currently partner with CUHK-Shenzhen and collect from over 100 Mainland hotels.” This operation has a nationwide deliveries system to a number of locations. “All soap is distributed within China.”

In Singapore just as for the Hong Kong foundation, students were at the fore. “In 2017, Soap Cycling Singapore was incorporated in the Lion City. It is run by students from NUS and is developing its collections and distribution networks. In 2018, Soap Cycling distributed soap to 12 countries in Asia and Africa. The majority of bar soap is shipped to the Philippines. Our largest foreign charity partner is International Care Ministries. We do also provide soap to overseas school service trips and to foreign domestic workers from the Philippines, we offer sponsor the shipment of boxes back to their homes for distribution to their communities.” 

For Davis new locations to startup soap processing are between two ends of the size scale. “Soap recycling as a concept is incredibly flexible: it can be large-scale like we do here in Hong Kong,  or a small-scale, community-based operation. Our job is to find the locations and opportunities around the world that can benefit from the soap recycling, whether from an economical, sustainability, health or education standpoint.”

While used soap works well, according to users and collaborating distributors, the public is put off by the idea. So how does Soap Cycle make sure germs are eliminated during recycling? 

Davis explains. “There is no chemical or biological process to ‘sanitize’ the soap. There will be some bacteria on it when it is distributed (there is no way to remove viruses). However recent research has shown that washing with soap removes bacteria where they live, which is not on the skin itself but in oil on your skin. Soap does not kill or remove bacteria from your skin (or any other surface), it only disperses oil, which is where bacteria lives and, more importantly, breeds. When bacteria sit on your skin in (warm) oil for as little as 2 hours they will start to reproduce and create the conditions for spreading often deadly contagious diseases (mostly diarrhea, TB, and pneumonia, major killers of children and elderly in the developing world),” he explained. He said chemicals to clean soap are also expensive and wasteful and users don’t like reprocessed soap.

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