KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 16 — Datuk Hartini Zainuddin, a child rights activist, has long dreamed of the perfect safe space for youths.
Cosy classrooms conducive for learning. A large library that welcomes all children and teenagers, be they migrants, refugees or orphans. A kitchen big enough to store the best food and let them cook together. An open space to play or garden, even.
Most importantly, a space where any child can feel safe and find shelter, all in a single building.
After years of looking, that dream may soon come to life. Located on Jalan Belia in Chow Kit, here, a four-storey building that was once a private college could house what Hartini hopes to be the perfect — or at least nearly perfect — one-stop safe space for minors regardless of nationality or race.
“It’s a huge new space — we can accommodate the 121 children from both centres plus have extra room for our own urban garden, programmes and space for our alumni, the library we want to build with books the kids want and have listed for us,” Hartini told Malay Mail.
“Computer rooms, performing arts space so kids can do all sorts of activities. Maybe have a kindergarten and indoor playground… who knows,” she added.
It is a dream and vision that has been in her mind for years, explained Hartini, one of the activists who co-founded Yayasan Chow Kit (YCK), a non-profit organisation that caters to the needs of children and teenagers in and around the bustling commercial road in downtown Kuala Lumpur.
Currently, YCK has two drop-in centres within Chow Kit and a safe home for children who need temporary guardianship.
But these centres are rife with problems. The centre that hosts seven- to 12-year-old children has been struggling with water pipe leakages for years. Its floors are riddled with holes and some spots are infested with rats, because it is located next to food stalls, Hartini said.
Meanwhile, the centre hosting teenagers had rent paid by the The Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development, but this has since stopped. Hartini said rent for the centre is expensive.
Both the centres are on different streets although close to one another.
“We needed to move. We’ve been saying this for a while and actively started looking for a new place in 2018,” she explained.
“We finally found a space in 2019 but then the pandemic happened and we couldn’t move. Which was also a blessing since we didn’t have the money to do the renovation — the cost was so high and we didn’t have enough for the deposit,” the activist added.
And cost will continue to be a key concern even for Hartini and her colleagues at YCK once the space becomes operational.
Renovation work could take up at least RM300,000 although Hartini said it could go up to a million ringgit to cover moving in, operations, rent and programmes. Rental alone will be RM16,000 a month, which is why Hartini said they would need all the help they can get.
Malay Mail visited the building together with Hartini. While spacious, refurbishing one floor alone would require much work. Some of the walls between existing rooms had holes, while the carpeted floors where the library is designated were filled with cat excrement.
“It isn’t enough but we can maybe, with Covid standard operating procedures in place and ever changing, get some volunteers to help us paint the space, use donated furniture, refurbished computers, books, curtains, et cetera to fix the place up,” she said.
“We don’t really know yet but that’s our goal for now.”
But for now things are looking bright for her and YCK. Hartini said her foundation has managed to raise the needed funds for the three-month rental deposits, which they had paid just last month.
Now they have the keys and renovation work is expected to start really soon. Hartini said the target is to move in by as early as March, depending on how fast repair and renovation work will progress.
In the meantime, YCK will be working hard to pitch the idea for investment.
Hartini said she plans to quit her job as a consultant with a local humanitarian organisation in February, to focus on creating the for-profit body of her foundation to create a different revenue stream to fund their programmes.
And she has bigger plans for the new centre to make the foundation financially self-sufficient, next to additional programmes that would create more youth-led enterprises with the hope of paving a formal track for upward social mobility through education and life skills.
Hartini also said she wants to help train youths at the centre to become “content specialists” while creating a more dynamic, vibrant space for exchanging and implementing ideas.
“It’ll be a living, education, child and youth space hub,” she said.
“We’ll focus on humanities and creativity and imagination through implementing innovative programmes that benefit the children/youth within the community, create our own ecosystem of programmes and activities, so we’re not always dependent on corporates and govt grants,” the activist added.
“We don’t want to be beneficiaries; we want to be equal stakeholders, working together to do good and get paid for it too. That’s the for-profit side anyway.”
At the moment, news about the new space has sparked keen interest after Hartini tweeted about her recent experience with the Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) library management, who prevented her and two refugee children from her centre from entering.
The YCK co-founder said she was enraged by the treatment, which made her more driven to make the YCK space project a success.
People on Twitter responded with eagerness to help, either by donating books, volunteering or donating.
If you want to help, Hartini can be reached here: https://yck.org.my/
*A previous version of this story contained an error which has since been corrected.