UCA News

Catholic nun’s food bank legacy continues for poor Malaysians

Sister Stella Tan started the 'Food on the Boot' project to serve needy people in Bau about a decade ago
Sister Stella Tan and her team distribute food to a villager during a visit to Bau in Malaysia

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

Published: November 07, 2023 12:17 PM GMT
Updated: November 08, 2023 04:04 AM GMT

Catholic nun Sister Stella Tan started the “Food on the Boot” project after she came across poor, hungry people during her visits to villages in the interior pockets of Bau in Sarawak state of Malaysia 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,” Tan said.

Tan 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.

Honored for her service

Tan 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 cash and kindness thus ensuring the continuity of the project even after Tan left Bau in 2019.

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

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

Nurses with Global Impact is a non-profit organization that aims to connect, support, and celebrate the work of nurses worldwide.

The group observes the annual International Nurses Day, which honors 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 Tan for the award based on her service.

“[The] year 2023 has been an incredible one for me, especially after the traumatic years of MCO (Movement Control Order) during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic,” Tan says.

“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,” Tan added.

A call to serve

Tan was born in 1949 in Kuala Belait, Brunei. She had three brothers and four sisters.

Tan decided to become a nun after completing her O-Levels in Malaysia 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),” Tan said.

In 1970, Tan joined the Sisters of Saint 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).

Tan completed her graduation in 1975 and was posted as a General Nurse to Saint 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,” Tan recalled.

“Under the visit program, we were tasked with providing maternal and child healthcare services to the villagers, including immunization. For some patients, we helped with the referrals to the main hospitals,” Tan said.

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 Tan 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,” Tan said.

“The Baram experience opened my eyes even more, making me realize about my responsibilities as a health worker,” Tan added.

Tan 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 pm to 10 pm,” Tan said.

Tan 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],” Tan said.

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.”

Tan has served in various roles overseeing the elderly residents and attending to their needs and also involving herself in HIV/AIDS advocacy.

Surviving pandemic

Tan 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,” Tan said.

“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],” Tan added.

“Although now I’m no longer in Bau, our food outreach still continues,” Tan further added.

** This report is an edited version of a feature published by the Borneo Post on Nov. 5 with the title, Pantry on wagon.

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