Nun’s food bank legacy for the poor

Sr Stella Tan, SSFS started the “Food in the Boot” project after she came across poor, hungry people during her visits to villages in the interior pockets of Bau in Sarawak about a decade ago.

Nov 19, 2023

Sister Stella Tan and her team distribute food to a villager during a visit to Bau in Malaysia. (File photo: The Borneo Post)

Sr Stella Tan, SSFS started the “Food in the Boot” project after she came across poor, hungry people during her visits to villages in the interior pockets of Bau in Sarawak about a decade ago.

From 2012-2019, the nun, a veteran medical nurse, was based at Saint Rita’s Convent in Bau and frequently made pastoral visits to remote villages to serve sick and bedridden people.

“From these visits, I was able to see their living conditions and the daily struggles faced by these families. That was when I came up with the ‘Food Bank’ project,” said Sr Stella.

She launched the “food bank” project and used a truck to deliver food to the needy villagers.

“I believe that throughout those seven years, I have been to nine villages and reached out to around 100 people,” the 74-year-old nun said.

The veteran nurse said that her initial task was limited to monthly visits to the sick, bedridden, and housebound individuals and administering Holy Eucharist to them.

Honoured for her service
Sr Stella recalls that her food project started at the back of her truck with some food and other essential supplies that were distributed to the poor and the needy. She and her co-workers used to prepare the food baskets themselves and deliver them to families in need during their monthly visits.

News spread about the efforts and donors came in and contributed in cash and kind, thus ensuring the continuity of the project even after she left Bau in 2019.

“It gives me joy and fulfilment whenever I get to meet the needs of the sick, the elderly, and the housebound individuals – physically, psychologically, and spiritually,” said Sr Stella.

In May this year, Sr Stella, along with 13 others was awarded the Nurses with Global Impact 2023 honour during the International Nurses Day celebration.

Nurses with Global Impact is a non-profit organisation that aims to connect, support, and celebrate the work of nurses worldwide. The group observes the annual International Nurses Day, which honours nurses from around the world who are impacting lives with quality care and comfort while serving as role models for future generations of caregivers.

The International Catholic Committee of Nurses and Medico- Social Assistants (CICIAMS) nominated Sr Stella for the award based on her service.

“The year 2023 has been an incredible one for me, especially after the traumatic years of the Movement Control Order during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a nurse and a nun, I feel blessed to have been able to look back and reflect over my 50 years of service, over this path that I have chosen,” said Sr Stella.

A call to serve
Sr Stella was born in 1949 in Kuala Belait, Brunei. She had three brothers and four sisters.

She decided to become a nun after completing her OLevels in Malaya after being inspired by the work of the nuns whom she saw around her.

“I was touched by the sacrifices of the nuns, [and] the school motto Amare et Servire (To Love and To Serve),” she said.

In 1970, she joined the Sisters of St Francis of Sarawak (SSFS) Convent of Mary Immaculate in Kuching, the capital of Christian-majority Sarawak state. Two years later, she enrolled in the School of Nursing at the Sarawak General Hospital (SGH). Upon her graduation in 1975, she was posted as a general nurse to St Joseph’s Mission in Kanowit, where she stayed for three months.

She later returned to Kuching to take charge of mobile clinics in villages on the outskirts of the state capital that were accessible by road, which she recalls as a difficult task at that time.

“Back then in Sarawak, it was very difficult to undertake road traveling – there were not as many vehicles as there are today… But we strove on. Under the visit programme, we were tasked with providing maternal and child healthcare services to the villagers, including immunisation. For some patients, we helped with the referrals to the main hospitals.”

From 1977 to 1978, Tan undertook a midwifery course at the Withington Hospital in South Manchester, England. She took a break and returned for service in Sarawak from 1979 to 1981.

Serving the remote areas
The trip to remote upriver pockets was scary, but Sr Stella recalls she undertook the mission while placing her faith in God.

“Was I scared to go to the ‘ulu’ (remote pockets upriver)? Not at all! I knew that the Lord would protect me from any danger, be it the strong rapids, wild animals, or even bad people.

The Baram experience opened my eyes even more, making me realise my responsibilities as a health worker.” She recalls that her work in Long San in her twenties was difficult. “Yes, it was difficult, and at times, helpless, due to severe lack of facilities. There was [an] electricity supply, powered by hydropower, which was running from 7.00pm to 10.00pm.”

She also recalls the loss of lives during emergency cases wherein the patients had to be sent to Marudi Hospital as they did not have the facilities to handle such situations.

“That was challenging indeed. Back then, the radio call service only operated during regular office hours, and it was almost impossible to call for a Medevac [helicopter].”

She recounted that a pregnant mother and her unborn child died after a 24-hour ordeal while waiting for transportation. She still grieves the incident as “a tragedy.”

Sr Stella has served in various roles overseeing the elderly residents and attending to their needs and also involving herself in HIV/AIDS advocacy. She said the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020 had caused immense hardships to the people in the region.

“Many people lost their jobs, and farmers could not go to their farms. Families with children and elderly individuals found it difficult to put food on the table. It was a time of great distress for us too – it was really challenging for us to go out to deliver the food baskets in view of the strict [restrictions].

“Although now I’m no longer in Bau, our food outreach still continues,” she added. --ucanews/Borneo Post

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