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That Mama: Shaun Bernier of HandsOn Hong Kong

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Our latest That Mama is Shaun Bernier, founder of HandsOn Hong Kong, a volunteer organization that promotes community-based volunteerism by helping charities meet their volunteer needs and helping individuals who want to give back to the community – think of them as a match-maker for those wanting to give back and local charities looking for volunteers. This week we ask this philanthropic mamapreneur her tips for getting through the day with a toddler and newborn, her thoughts on ways we can help our kids learn the value of giving back, and more.

How do you save time? What are your organisational tricks and tips?
Time is of the essence these days with a newborn and an active 2-year old! Since I spend a lot of my time at the moment nursing my son, it’s all about the iPhone these days, as I need to be able to organize work, the kids and the house one-handed! A few apps I rely on: Total Baby (great for keeping track of my newborn’s feedings, sleep, diaper changes, and expressed milk); the Cozi family calendar (a free calendar app that my husband and I share on our phones that enables me to manage our family-related appointments and share them with our helper); Genius Scan (allows me to use my phone to scan, save, and send any documents as jpg or PDF files); Dropbox (a shared file system that we use for HandsOn Hong Kong – comes in very handy when I need to access files but I don’t have access to my computer). I also find recipe apps like epicurious and Whole Foods Market Recipes extremely helpful for meal planning: I can search for a new recipe while I feed Luca and then just email it from the app to my helper.

I wish I had more time for…
Everything! I’m glued to my newborn most of the day, and as much as I enjoy the time with him, I miss having more one-on-one time with my daughter. I also wish I had more time to spend with my husband (without the kids!). Not to mention a little more ‘me time’, even just to do simple things like go to the gym or get a haircut, which I haven’t done in six months…

I always feel saner after….
I run or workout at the gym. That alone time enables me to clear my head when I need to and helps me put things in perspective.

Favourite activity with the kids in Hong Kong?
We’ve always lived close to the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens, both of which my daughter loves. There’s so much to do at both places that she never tires of going. And I love the convenience of it as it’s just a short walk from our apartment.

Favourite kid-friendly restaurant in Hong Kong?
Personally, I think HK is largely lacking in this area! Simply having high chairs does not equal kid-friendly in my book. To me, a restaurant needs to have a good kids menu, plastic cutlery and dishes, and ideally, a diaper-changing station in the bathroom – not to mention helpful staff, and enough space to walk around the restaurant with a cranky toddler or baby. That seems up be a tall order for HK, so we rarely eat out with the kids other than at the American Club (Country Club in Tai Tam). It has all of the above and a kids’ buffet so there’s no waiting to feed them (and it’s free for young kids), plus it has a great play room in addition to the pool (ie: loads of options for pre- and post-meal play). Whenever we go elsewhere to eat with our toddler, I always regret not just going to the AC instead.

Favourite family-friendly holiday spot in Asia?
We enjoyed Koh Samui with our extended family and our first child before she was a year old, and later Bali when she was almost a year and a half old. What made these trips family-friendly (and what I think can make any holiday spot family-friendly) was renting a villa, rather than staying at a hotel. We had a place all to ourselves, the staff that did all of the cooking, etc. It was great not having to worry about taking my daughter out for every meal or needing to find a sitter. I also find renting a villa is typically much more cost effective for a group.

For a quick getaway with a baby and little ones, I think the Four Seasons in Macau is excellent. I’ve stayed at a number of places in Macau and the Four Seasons is at the top of my list when it comes to kids. It’s not as chaotic as some of the other hotels there, plus they give you all the baby gear you could possibly need, including a baby bath, bottle sterilizer, and lots of baby products. Their pool area is great for kids — and it’s huge, hands down the best pool amongst all of the hotels I’ve seen in Macau… I wish it was in HK! And of course there is a terrific spa to spoil yourself at, should you get a chance.

Activity that I do not love to do but do it anyway because my kids love it…
Probably having to read my daughter’s favorite book of the moment at every story time for several days in a row. She’s a big fan of the Pinkalicious series and goes through phases of wanting to read it over and over. I, however, am not a fan of this series and curse my friends who gave her those books every time I have to read them!

Do you have any tips for keeping the romance alive in your relationship?
Well, with a toddler and brand new baby, I could use some pointers in this area myself!  It’s tough, to say the least, and I think with a newborn, both partners have to accept that life is going to be a lot more complicated for a while, with little time for just the two of you.

I think date night is important. It’s hard when you don’t feel 100%, particularly late in pregnancy. But you have to remember that once the baby comes, you won’t have much time for just the two of you! Despite how chaotic things are right now, we’ve still managed to go out for a couple of quick dinners here and there. It’s been great for me to get out and have one on one time with my husband. It’s also helped us to connect better. There are times when we are like ships passing in the night between the baby and his work schedule, so an occasional date night has helped us reconnect.

I also think when you’re new parents you need time to yourself to do the things you enjoy. My husband and I try to give each other time to ourselves whenever we can, and when this happens I always appreciate not only the time I get to myself, but the gesture on his part.

Favourite date-night restaurants?
We’re always looking to try new places. That said, we love Posto Pubblico and it’s become our go-to place for an easy family dinner or date night when nothing else sounds good. And a new(ish) place we enjoyed recently is Strip House. Maybe it was because my husband took me there for my birthday, but I think the ambience there is very chic and romantic with its black and red décor. The food was great, too.

Can you take us through your career pre and post babies? How did you get back into the swing of things after having children?
My background is in public service and social domestic policy. In the US, I worked for elected officials as well as various non-profit organizations focusing on the wellbeing of low-income families. When I moved to HK in 2007, my focus shifted somewhat and I began working in Corporate Social Responsibility and to facilitate volunteerism in the community when I founded the charity, HandsOn Hong Kong. 

I didn’t realize it at the time, but starting my own organization was both a huge positive and negative around the time kids came into the picture. On the positive side, I could be my own boss and work when I wanted and where I wanted. This meant I often worked from home during my daughter’s naps and after putting my daughter to bed at night, rather than having to sacrifice a lot of time with her during the day. This was huge for me after having my first child, Mia. I got to go back to a job I loved and work flexibly. On the negative side, it’s your organization and I always felt its success or failure fell entirely on my shoulders. I felt a constant push and pull because working part-time wasn’t really enough for the organization, but I also wasn’t happy during the periods that I worked full time as I couldn’t stand being away from my daughter. Eventually, I decided to take a break from work so that I can be at home. Now we have a terrific new Executive Director, Caroline Sprod, who is leading the organization, along with our two incredible Project Managers.

HandsOn Hong Kong is such a unique organization in Hong Kong – how can people get involved?
HandsOn focuses on helping busy Hong Kongers find ways to volunteer in the community in a flexible, but also meaningful way.  It is incredibly easy to start volunteering with HandsOn. You simply need to visit our web site ( and register as a volunteer. All of our volunteer opportunities are listed online and you can sign up for any activity once you’ve registered. There’s no long-term commitment and you’ll find lots of volunteer activities to suit your schedule (weekdays or weekends), and a variety of activities to choose from. Whether you want to work with children, the elderly, ethnic minority groups in HK, animals, etc., we have something for everyone. Just be sure to check the volunteer project calendar on our site regularly and sign up for volunteer activities as soon as they are posted as the majority of our activities fill up fast!

In a city like Hong Kong where privilege abounds, what advice do you have for parents who want to help their children embrace the importance of giving back and getting involved in the community?
There is tremendous need in HK that often goes unnoticed. More than 17% of HK’s population is living in poverty, including more than one-quarter of all children and one-third of the elderly. One in six families in HK can’t meet their basic food needs. HandsOn helps address these issues through our volunteer activities with other charities in the community. With many schools requiring community service, we have a real opportunity to help mobilize young people to take action in the community. HandsOn already has some activities, such as walking dogs from the Hong Kong Dog Resuce, that are open to kids or teenagers, and we are working to expand these activities over the coming months. Visit our website to check out our current opportunities – and stay-tuned for more family and youth-specific volunteer opportunities.

I also think you need to start at home and there are so many simple ways to do this.  Just a few ideas we have incorporated at homeUse your child’s birthday as an opportunity to teach them about charity and giving back.  The next time you throw a party for your child’s birthday, check out the new service, Two Presents, an online invitation service with a charitable giving side. Two Presents allows you to send and manage your invites online.  And rather than buying presents, guests are invited to give money instead. The money given by each guest is then pooled and split into two parts – one part is given to charity (HandsOn is one of the potential beneficiaries) and the other is for you to spend on something special for your child.

Start a collection in your building for canned food and have your children help you collect and deliver the food to St. James Settlement. And if your building doesn’t have recycling, contact HK Recycles to have it set up at your home. Each week, your kids can help sort the recycling and prepare it for collection. HK Recycles is also a social enterprise employing disadvantaged and marginalized groups in HK, so by using this service, you’re not only helping the environment, you’re also giving back to the community.

Do you have any tips for aspiring “mamapreneurs” and other working mamas in Hong Kong?
Understand what you’re getting into!  Starting your own business or organization might give you the flexibility to ‘have it all’ so to speak, but it won’t be easy. You’ll likely work more than you ever have and it will be near impossible not to take that home with you. I think to be the hands on mom (no pun intended!) I want to be, I will likely always have to be a “mamapreneur,” so long as HK continues not to offer more flexible options for working parents. That said, I know the trade off is not having the ability to just put work aside.  I can think back to many moments when I was with my daughter and should have been enjoying that time, but was completely distracted by work. Even now that I’m not running HandsOn, there are still times where I wake up in the middle of the night worrying about an issue facing the organization!

I think what can help mamapreneurs is to set a strict schedule for work. You might be working from home, but set clear times for your work and activities with the kids. The days I would just squeeze in work wherever I could were always more stressful than those where I set a specific schedule for work.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as a parent?
It’s hard to narrow it down to one! When I was pregnant with my first child, I think my OB-GYN sensed I was a bit caught up in the labor and my birth plan. She advised my husband and I to not worry so much about the labor and delivery and really think about what happens after the birth. So simple, but she was right. I had spent so much time thinking about getting ready for the baby, I hadn’t really thought much about what to do with this little bundle once she arrived!

I also really struggled with breastfeeding the first few weeks after my daughter’s birth – she was unsettled the first few weeks as a result and I felt like a lousy mother. I also felt pretty inadequate after reading things like the Gina Ford book. I use some of her advice now with my son and also with my daughter, but it was just too much for me when my daughter was first born. Around that time, our pediatrician told my husband and I at one of our appointments that the first three months is just about getting by and that we should worry about the schedules, routines, sleep associations, etc. after that. It was such a relief to have her say that. I felt like someone had finally given me permission to be the imperfect, struggling new mom that I was. And that it was okay!

Give us your essential new mama advice that might never occur to other women.
This might sound a bit off the beaten path, but if you’re a new mom who doesn’t have a car (like so many of us in HK), think about how you want to get around with your baby/child in a taxi once he or she is too big for their infant car seat. Most snap and go car seats are only for babies up to 13kg. Many parents use Baby Bjorns, but those also have weight restrictions and aren’t as safe as car seats. I really struggled with what to do with my daughter, as I wanted to keep her in a car seat, but couldn’t imagine lugging one around HK! My mom actually found a great solution – the Lilly and Gold Sit ‘n’ Stroll. It’s a car seat and stroller all in one. It is not perfect (it’s a bit heavy and takes a little time to get used to opening and closing it), but it is the best solution I’ve found and there’s really nothing else out there like it. It’s great for running around town in a taxi or using when we travel.  I had to buy ours from the US, but I was thrilled to see that they now have it available in HK at Tiny Footprints. I would really encourage families that don’t own cars to check it out.

My most humbling mama moment was…
Too many to count! I think the first time my daughter peed on me when she was a newborn was humbling to say the least!

What’s your favourite family ritual?
My husband or I cooking pancakes with Mia on the weekend and her ‘helping’. I especially love it when my husband is the one doing the cooking….

I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about….
I used to wake up thinking about HandsOn. Now, I mostly wake up to feed Luca every fewhours!

Bedtime is always smoother when…
I could actually use some advice here! Somehow bath time always starts in tears! But, it’s generally best when my daughter has time to run around the house naked before her bath (we call it her ‘naked baby time’)!

Even when my child has a family of his/her own, I’ll still…
Think of Mia and Luca as my babies.

One thing I won’t sacrifice as a mama is…
Working out

My favourite moment of the day is…
With a newborn and a toddler, I feel like I’m mostly splitting my time between the two kids. It’s hard to do a lot of things as a family when Luca needs to be fed so often. I really cherish the alone time I have now with Mia, whether it’s taking her to a class or reading her a book before bedtime. With Luca, he’s cuddlier than Mia was at this age, which I’ve been enjoying. He sleeps well in his own crib at night, but rarely naps in his own bed, so once a day, I’ll have him nap with me just so he can get a decent nap (and I can sleep a bit, too!). I love that time with him, even with his loud snores in my ear.

Fabulous photos by super talented Melanie Aldridge. And you can check out the rest of our That Mamas here.

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