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Deputy Mayor’s Blog: Hope lights the way

Date: 21 February 2024
Author: Councillor Fiona Sacks
Title: Deputy Mayor

According to the Chinese zodiac, every Lunar New Year, beginning with the second new moon after the winter solstice, a new animal takes over the reins of fate. Its character is said to guide the course of the year and individuals born under its sign, to adopt its behaviour and traits.

For the Chinese celebration of Lunar New Year, which started on 10 February, the Dragon takes the helm. With a camel’s head, deer horns, a demon’s eyes, a bull’s ears, a snake’s neck, a carp’s scales, a clam’s belly, an eagle’s claws, a tiger’s paws, and breathing fire, what should we expect? Well, according to experts in Chinese mythology the dragon catalyses “all the powers of nine animals” and “there is an overwhelming mixture of respect and hope in invoking the dragon’s powers.” * Many believe a baby born during this year is destined for success. 

There was certainly a feeling of hope and optimism at the Little Panda Mandarin School and Drama Club New Year celebrations held in Tower House School in East Sheen and hosted by co-heads, Xiaoyu Shi and Max Gold also a local actor. We were treated to a wonderful spectacle of dance, drama, poetry, and song from both little Pandas (younger children) and so-called Giant Pandas, (older students), some of whom had been members of the club for over 10 years. They also performed in a fantastic short play about a Chinese Olympic high jumper who, inspired by the flight of the dragon, confronts considerable challenges, and eventually achieves success. 

Afterwards, we all shared some delicious Chinese food, and I was struck by how the celebrations brought different communities together and by the longevity and vibrancy of traditional Chinese culture. There is surely no better way of building deeper and more meaningful connections and long-term understanding than by learning each other’s language, experiencing each other’s culture first hand, and of course enjoying each other’s food! You can find out more about learning Mandarin (adults and children) and drama classes on the Little Panda Mandarin School website.

As well as being entertained, we were also there to support Little Panda’s charity fundraising for WWF and more specifically to protect pandas. The challenging work of WWF, local communities and the Chinese government has helped save pandas from extinction and shows that conservation efforts are working. That said, pandas are still vulnerable and do need our support in the climate emergency. Theirs is a story of hope.

Hope was also centre stage when I had the privilege of attending Shepherd’s Star Table of Hope at Bingham House in Richmond earlier this month. Shepherd’s Star is an amazing local charity, run by Desiree Shepherd. The charity supports people who have experienced life challenges and who desire to move forward, to learn new skills and grow in confidence so that they can reconnect with the community and actively contribute to society. There are several projects, ranging from personal development programmes to the regular Friday All in One Hub in Twickenham offering a hot meal and advice/links to other services.

Desiree and her team also organise a monthly community invitation to a nutritious lunch at a communal table in a safe, interactive space. The aim is to reduce isolation and enhance wellbeing. The idea came to Desiree out of the pandemic when she had a vision of the community coming together – those hopeful and those not so hopeful, those well and those not so well – connecting and building friendships around a table where “we could see one another, and we heard one another and… and there was joy and food before us.” I can certainly vouch for that! The setting was gorgeous, and the food provided by Bingham House was delicious as were the mouth-watering desserts by Pots & Co. As the lunch was love themed, we were also entertained to a beautiful poem by Kofyah Remmington, specially written for the occasion. I was deeply moved and felt very privileged to have been invited to such a wonderful and inspiring event.

One of Shepherd’s Star’s funders is Rotary International. Recently, I was invited to speak at a charity lunch hosted by the Rotary Club of Twickenham at Squire’s Garden Centre. While there I learned about another inspiring project Rotary is supporting, this time in Ukraine. Children in Ukraine have suffered badly in the war with homes and schools bombed or ransacked and trying to learn in cold classrooms and dingy bunkers with attack alarms sounding day and night is anything but easy.  Having already raised the £50,000 for their initial education project - the supply of large storage batteries, laptops, a colour printer, and other essential items to schools – Rotary is now embarking on a new STEM project. The idea is to start with one school and kit it out with high-quality STEM science and engineering equipment so that it becomes a centre of excellence, and its students can learn the skills they will need to begin to rebuild Ukraine once the war is over.

Rotary has a dedicated team in the UK and Ukraine to ensure these projects succeed and hopes this project will be one of many. It is coming up to the two-year anniversary of the start of the war in Ukraine and I shall be attending a “Ukrainian Evening of Invincibility” at St Mary’s Twickenham later this month. Although I am sure it will be an uplifting event, I am conscious that the war is inflicting terrible loss and suffering that must be so difficult to endure. Then I am reminded of Desmond Tutu’s famous quote; “Hope is about being able to see that there is light, despite all of the darkness….” I pray that Ukrainians both here in our Borough and in Ukraine can, with our continued support, find the strength to do so. Given the courage and fortitude that they have already shown, I hope and believe they will.

For more information, visit the Crowdfunder for children in Ukraine.

*Richard E Strassberg, A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas

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Updated: 28 February 2024