The Broaderview: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

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The Broaderview is a monthly series by broad Laura Turner, a Denver local traveling the world with Remote Year. Every month, Laura moves to a new country with approximately 60 other digital nomads. The Broaderview is a glimpse into the life of a local woman in each country, getting a sense of what it means to be a broad beyond the Mile High City. This month, Laura interviewed Joyce Lee from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

By Laura Turner | Global Content Contributor

I met Joyce Lee at a positive impact meeting for Remote Year participants. Lee is one of the co-founders of Pit Stop Community Café. Pit Stop is not your “traditional food bank.” There was not much of a precedent of food banks in Kuala Lumpur as the Cafe opened in Spring, 2016. Lee had to extend her research and looked to DC Central Kitchen and Real Junk Food Project (a food rescue initiative out of the UK) as inspiration for creating Pit Stop. Lee studied “models around the world that were actively combating hunger while providing opportunities for marginalized groups, with the most visible being the homeless and urban poor.” There is a high need right now in Kuala Lumpur for feeding homeless people. Pit Stops currently serves an average of 4,000 people per month. I sat down with Lee to learn more about her work and motivation. 

Pit stop has a very distinct approach to the tone of the words used. Instead of saying “the homeless” it is common to hear “street friends” or “clients.” Something I remember you mentioning is more than just “giving people food” you are also returning dignity to people who may have lost that due to their circumstances. How do you think these differences in terminology and treatment of clients can be a hallmark for other homeless shelters?

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My partner, Andrea Tan and I are first and foremost writers, and we understand and respect the power of words. In addition, I was previously a journalist who then ventured into corporate and financial communications, where I stayed for almost 10 years. Sometime in between all that, I picked up a certificate in neurolinguistics programming. And before we started the Pit Stop, I had been driving in and walking the streets of KL talking to those living on the streets. What we observed and found was that most of the time, they are invisible and, more importantly, they feel invisible. Even if there were people who were giving them food, they were often objects of pity.

What we realized was this: not everyone wants to live on charity all the time. That was how we first came around to the concept of pay as you can; it doesn't matter that they don’t have “enough” for the price in the menu. What matters is that they can feel like they have paid for their food for the day. At the same time, by putting money into the contribution box, they could in turn feel that they might have contributed towards a warm meal for someone else who needs it.

You have three rules for clients. What are they?

The first rule at the Pit Stop is politeness and courtesy. The second rule is cleanliness. The third is don't waste food. On the surface, these look like simple rules. But there are reasons behind them. When you’ve been on the streets, just surviving, you sometimes toss out what you think you don't need and politeness and courtesy is not high priority. We strive to remind our street clients that politeness and courtesy are the glue that holds society together and one of the things that make us more human. Simple things like queueing up, saying thank you, they remind someone that they are also human beings, and that there are other human beings who will be touched by their courtesy. On cleanliness - when you’re on the streets, sometimes you're none too clean and that also means you’re possibly more prone to illnesses. but if you take care of your own hygiene and your surroundings, there are less health hazards over the longer term.

The third rule: don’t waste food. Well, we’re in the food rescue game. It makes no sense if our street clients then wastes food. But on another level, it also means that if they waste one portion of food, it is one portion that another hungry person may need that they will not receive. Care and consideration for another human being, taught hopefully subtly.   

And there is a narrative of “not giving help” unless someone independently asks for help. How did you formulate Pit Stop’s mission and tone?

There are also those who may feel that life on the streets is fine with them. We’re fine with that, too. As I mentioned, we are non-partisan and therefore, also non-judgmental. If they feel that they are fine on the streets, we respect their view and map of the world and therefore do not impose our map of the world on them. Why attempt to save someone if they don't feel like they need to be saved?

On the more practical side, we all operate on scarce resources and that also means we can’t save or rescue everyone. So we focus on the ones who want to be rescued, and ask for help. The Pit Stop is not just a three-story building, or Andrea or me. This is our philosophy: A Pit Stop is a place for someone to refuel, gather themselves, mend what needs to be mended and move on. We are all pit stops in one way or another.


Hear more from Lee, including her motto to "love all, feed all." 


How did you teach yourself how to start a non profit?

When I left journalism to join the corporate world, I had to learn a lot of things the hard and practical way. However, I learned and eventually ended up running the communications agency I was then attached to. I left that to join and head the country office for another international communications firm. In essence, I had to run a business. The Pit Stop is not intended to be a pure non-profit. We hope to be self sustainable in the future; how far in the future, I honestly cannot say at this point. We are a social enterprise, and a social business which means we have picked our cause and now we are wrapping a business model around it.

For now, we survive on contributions, financially and in kind. We have a crowdfunding page where people can pitch in and contribute from around the world. At the same time, we have also kicked off our catering business, which is staffed by the formerly homeless and youths in our culinary training program for the homeless and underprivileged. It is our commitment that we will continue to train and hire from the streets and the underprivileged and marginalized communities. Basically, what we’ve done is also take a very long hard look at the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Currently we hit about nine of them.


On the RegVirginia Santy