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Rebel with a cause: How to start a charity

Christina Wong discovered her passion for helping others over 15 years ago. But it took her over a decade to brave the unknown, veer off the path her parents put her on and start her passion project in the charity sector—with or without their approval.

After building a successful career in the corporate world, she realized she was lacking a purpose. That’s when Wong had her ‘ah-ha’ moment and changed the course of her career to earn more than just a paycheque—she wanted to make a difference in people’s lives.

She took the plunge three years ago and is now the co-founder and executive director of Employ to Empower.

Employ to Empower is a registered Canadian charity helping empower residents in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside through development, entrepreneurship, and advocacy. They offer a variety of services such as a development program, personalized weekly mentorship sessions and affordable micro-loans. Focusing on providing long-term personalized support, their mission is to empower individuals who face work and social barriers to cultivate community connections through entrepreneurship and self-advocacy opportunities.

We sat down with Wong to learn more about her journey and understand some of the challenges someone in her position faced getting to where she is today.

What inspired you to start your own charity?

Curiosity. Growing up I was always that kid who never stopped asking why—it really drove my parents wild. We’d go to Downtown East-Side Chinatown to go grocery shopping and my parents would always tell me to keep my head down, don’t look at anybody,  don’t respond to anybody and I always asked, ‘Why? Why can’t I talk to people like they’re people?’ I didn’t get answers and got shut down very often. I started to volunteer at age 14. I just thought if I’m not going to get answers from my mom or from the media, then I’m going to volunteer and find out from the community members myself.

I got involved with a youth group that took us on trips to hand out care packages to the community and that was my first experience. We were handing out toiletries and I met an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair and I gave him the toiletry package and I remember him distinctly saying, ‘Hey, thank you so much but I don’t really need this care package. What I really need is a haircut. I have a job interview tomorrow. So, give it to someone who needs it. Thank you so much.’

At age 14 that was something I felt confused about at first because why doesn’t this gentleman want to take my free care package? But it taught me the first lesson that shaped Employ to Empower today which was listening to what people need rather than assume. Because what I think this gentleman needed may not be what he actually needs and so I ran with that lesson.

It might be cheesy but that was my calling. I realized I wanted to do something in social services, I wanted to do it in a way that’s dignifying.

What purpose does Employ to Empower give you now?

Growing up I didn’t have much of a space to feel like I was seen, heard or validated for what I wanted to do. All of that was shut down and I was placed into this path of normalcy and what was deemed to be the best path based on what my parent’s upbringing was like.

But I wanted to be that supportive person for other people, especially for people who are not born with the same opportunities or born with the same resources like having access to great vision, two legs to walk on, social support system, education, health.

I set out to first see people as equals and collaborate with them to help them achieve their goals. Not treating people as charity cases because I hear first-hand from the community that people have the skill to contribute. They just need help pointing to where the door of opportunity is.

That’s the piece that makes it so special and purposeful for me.

What was the biggest challenge in the early days?

Burnout was a big piece. I had to move out from home and find contractor work to sustain myself for the first couple of years. Really understanding how to take care of myself was a big piece and looking for a therapist, to be honest. That was a great preventative method for me—someone with objective knowledge to help me understand my thoughts.

Another thing that was a challenge was, from a personal standpoint, internal validation. Sometimes when you go out and do what you want to do, obviously certain people who are close to you may or may not approve and leaning on my own internal validation was a big lesson in the first year.

What was a big asset during the beginning?

Honestly, my mentors. My background is in psychology. I don’t have a business background. I don’t know how to start anything. I think I learned as a result of asking for help. The mentors I confided in and the introductions they made helped me gain the toolkits that I needed to start something meaningful. The biggest asset was the people around me and not being afraid to ask for help. And doing it respectfully, always coming from an angle of, ‘Hey I respect you, I’d be so grateful if I could have a 20-minute coffee with you to get some advice.’ That’s my approach for every single person and I seldom get a no.

If you had one piece of advice for other young entrepreneurs what would it be?

It doesn’t have to be perfect to start. I figured it out as I went—so many plot twists and ‘oh!’ moments. You’re not going to get it right, it’s going to change and that’s ok. And be gracious for the change that comes with entrepreneurship.

From a mental health and well-being aspect, do what it takes to nurture your mind. I had a year that was really hard. I couldn’t take care of my anxiety but now I see a therapist every three weeks and she keeps me grounded and in check. Of course, it looks different for everyone. It doesn’t have to be a therapist.

Just make sure you nurture your mind like you nurture your business because the business can’t happen without you.


Want to join Employ to Empower?

Looking for a fulfilling and rewarding opportunity? Get hands-on experience by volunteering at an event and get the opportunity to see who you’re supporting directly. Explore current opportunities at Employ to Empower.

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