A doctor of tremendous ethical and professional competence and an individual of high standards and integrity, Dr. Thomas Chan is named winner of AmCham’s 2016 Ira Dan Kaye Community Service Award for his years of dedication to the alleviation of poverty, particularly among children, through World Vision here in Hong Kong and in China

By Edoardo Del Vecchio

For 30 years, AmCham’s Charitable Foundation has recognized individuals who have performed outstanding public service for the greater good of the community. In 2016, the Ira Dan Kaye Community Service Award went to Dr. Thomas Chan, a pediatric neurosurgeon and founding fellow of the College of Surgeons, for his 14 years of dedication as head of World Vision Hong Kong and World Vision China.

Dr. Thomas Chan visiting the quake-affected areas in Qingchuan after the Wenchuan Earthquake in 2008.

Chan has a reputation “as a doctor of tremendous ethical and professional competence” and is well known among his peers as someone of “high standards, integrity and genuine professionalism.” More importantly, he has a compassionate heart and cares deeply about his patients and their families. In 1996, he gave up his medical practice and dedicated himself to the alleviation of poverty through World Vision here in Hong Kong and in China.

“I remember the long line at the railroad station [from Hong Kong on our way to China], and everyone was bringing gifts for their families,” Chan recalls of his family trips back to the Mainland to visit members of his extended family. “Every year, we returned to Guangdong with as much stuff as we could possibly bring.”

The memory depicting a crowded railroad station is a reminder of the moment Chan first started to gather a strong sense of giving back to the community. “It struck me how my parents’ fortunate decision to come to Hong Kong has made such a big difference on my life. Because I was fortunate to have an opportunity to study and grow as a person, I feel I should help those in need, especially the children.”

Dr. Thomas Chan leading a team of plastic surgeon volunteers to visit Stomatology Unit of Guangxi Medical University. Dr. Chan was examining a harelip orphan.

A doctor & a humanitarian

Describing himself as “a typical Hong Kong guy who grew up in the baby boomer generation,” Chan comes from an ordinary family and has always strived for excellence in his studies as a teenager, with a dream of going to medical school and becoming a neurosurgeon. Along the journey, he developed his value system through important life experiences and became a devoted Christian.

“In a city like Hong Kong, we grow up in a society where making money, having fame and creating a fortune are considered successes in life,” he says. “But I learned to see things a little differently in medical school when I also became a Christian. It is no longer about making money but about giving. And it makes you happy, often happier than any other materialistic reward.”

That’s because as a doctor Chan has seen hundreds, if not thousands, of cases of life and death, and he understands how life can really be short. “One moment we may be in the prime years of our lives, and then we may experience some unexpected circumstances like a stroke and die. And a healthy and happy life is certainly not something you can always buy.”

The desire to help is the reason Chan became heavily involved with World Vision – an international organization that envisions all children having equal opportunities and a chance to develop the life they deserve. The organization strives to achieve sustainable development through poverty alleviation, healthy nutrition, clean water, proper education, healthcare and immunization.

“Children deserve to have hope as they grow up, and we need to provide children with hope,” Chan emphasizes. “They need a future that holds a promise. If you see a kid who has no response, it means that he has no hope, and that is bad. We must not let them believe that there is no hope.”

Dr. Thomas Chan with a group of street children at the opening ceremony of the Xieshou Microfinance & Enterprise Development Centre and Jiaxin Street Children Centre in Kunming.

The mission of helping others

“What I love the most about World Vision is that it really is a caring and empathizing organization. It represents all the values of being a Christian,” Chan says, noting that much of the success is due to the people involved and their earnest work.

Over 800 people in the World Vision China family serve daily without reservation for the improvement of children’s lives all over China. They participate and experiment with new ideas, and it is not uncommon to meet those who have been part of the organization for 20, 30 or even 40 years. “Many of the employees who work here are overqualified for the salaries they receive, yet they sacrifice because of their Christian ethos,” he adds.

Many involved in the mission of World Vision give up high salaries and prestigious careers to go into inland mountainous areas, where conditions are poor and life is hard, to truly live out what they believe in. Their goal is to implement a long-lasting change by changing the mindset towards poverty and enabling the poor to self-develop by giving them the skills to do so.

“We try to create a mindset in alleviating poverty through leading by example, giving them training, advice and other resources,” Chan points out. “Our project focuses on development rather than merely giving cash or food when there is a natural disaster.” The idea is to promote the development of a sustainable economic and social fabric and to create an impact across counties and provinces.

“More importantly, if you want to alleviate poverty, you’ll have to start with children, providing them with education and life skills,” he adds. “That’s because if you do that enough and work on that for 20 years, you’ll create a generation of people capable of helping themselves and their families out of poverty.”

Dr. Thomas Chan paying a visit to households and children in a village in Diqing.

The field work

In the first five years of World Vision China, Chan initiated a lot of projects in a country where his organization had virtually no presence. From a team of 20-plus people, it has grown to have more than 800 employees in two decades while donations have increased 20-fold. “When I first joined in the 1990s, operations in China were close to zero,” he recalls. “It was also a time when much of the population in China lived in rural areas, and children there didn’t have access to opportunities.”

And it wasn’t easy to obtain government sponsorship and earn the trust that World Vision needed to help the poor, in addition to the fact it is “not a missionary organization,” Chan points out. “Still, we don’t hide our core values or the fact that we are Christians. That’s just the way we live, act and serve.” Once participants of World Vision China got to start their work on the field, they discovered with pleasure that they were sincerely welcomed wherever they went.

Dr. Thomas Chan, paying a visit to a kindergarten in Liannan, Guangdong Province

Today, with donations in billions of US dollars each year in the form of child sponsorship around the world, fundraising based on long-term, sincere relationships with donors is a large part of World Vision’s mission. “We maintain a very robust communication system and notify donors continuously on the status of their sponsored children. We examine the child four times a year and write an annual report. It is very labor-intensive and is not always easy.”

“It’s always in the field where you find the most satisfaction,” Chan says. “You get to watch the lives of the people you help improve year by year, and you get to build a relationship with them and return year after year. Astoundingly, some of the kids who have benefited have returned to work for World Vision. “It is something that makes you really happy and gives you hope.”

Dr. Thomas Chan distributing greeting cards that were written by Hong Kong public to the quake affected children and young local volunteers.

It is never easy to eradicate poverty and it is always one step at a time. However, whenever a child is lifted out of poverty, it is one less child suffering, he believes. After stepping down from his position as head of World Vision in Hong Kong and in China, he left the organization in very experienced hands. “The current CEO is a great friend and a devoted Christian whom I deem better suited than me to run the organization,” he says.