If you had asked Rhonwyn Hagedorn several years ago if she could live without hot water, electricity or heat, her answer would’ve been a defining “no”, but that’s before she founded an organisation that changed not only her outlook to life, but also positively affected the lives of many families she’s worked with since. Project WHEE!, the brainchild of the 25-year old “half-Chinese, half-Dutch and 100% Malaysian” advocates for the sustainability of rural communities through entrepreneurial activities and youth volunteering programs. Splitting her time between Kuala Lumpur and Bario, Sarawak where they currently run youth volunteering programs, we managed to catch the social entrepreneur on an off-day to talk about her dedication to the women of Bario, her philanthropic heroes and the bigger vision.
Rhonwyn Hagedorn, 23, Founder and Managing Director
2. Many of your goals and missions for the organisation focus on the sustainability and livelihood of those in rural areas. Why have you chosen those as a focus of your philanthropy?
I love rural areas. I was born in KL but I grew up with my parents taking me to hash groups and going to kampungs to hang out, but I still remained a city girl at heart. When I was in SMK we hiked less because of exams, but when I finished SPM I did an internship that took me to Bario for one of their projects. It was unlike anything I experienced because I was used to just doing day trips to rural areas and not staying for long periods of time; like at the end of the day I still got to come home to charge my phone and take a hot shower. When I first went to Bario I honestly didn’t like it at all because it was so different from KL life. Back then Bario had no 24 hour electricity, the roads were mud and not cemented yet and I did not expect the cold showers. Bario is in the highlands so not only is the water from the mountain cold but the weather is too! Think doing the ice bucket challenge everyday as a shower, that’s how cold it got. But after that first experience I got used to it the more I went back for work and I started to realise how much I loved being in a rural setting. It’s become something like a passion. Now I believe that I’m definitely more of a kampong girl at heart. I love being barefoot and getting close to nature. Whenever I go for site visits to new rural areas, I get so excited and I adapt quick to the settings, whether there is no electricity at all, bathing in the river or no flush toilets. I love it! As far as goals and missions are concerned with WHEE, I don’t want to impose my ideals on to them or try to ‘change’ them, but more of be a facilitator to bring about some sustainable growth to them by using what they already have available, and learning and growing together with them.