By Marte Hellema, Youth Co:Lab
Esmeralda Lo Tam began her Youth Co:Lab journey in 2017 in Samoa. Since then, she has traveled across the region, started her own social enterprise, and has been using her brand to promote mental health in the Pacific and beyond. She had big plans for this year, but 2020 forced her to rethink what is most important in life.
In December 2018, Esmeralda launched EI8HT SPORTS, a social enterprise that through producing and selling sportswear, particularly for women, promotes mental health across the Pacific. One year on, in addition to her base in Samoa, she was able to set up shop in Australia, Fiji, and New Zealand, as well as organizing health promotional workshops in Australia
Holding events to promote mental health had always been a big part of what EI8HT SPORTS does. However, it is a priority that is not shared by many people, especially not in the Pacific.
“We don’t put a lot of emphasis on mental health. It is not tangible. You cannot see it, like a broken arm. It is hard to see signs of it [mental health] deteriorating. But if you do not balance out your thought system or the ways in which you internalize things, then it can have detrimental effects on your work or your family,” Esmeralda said.
“In times of COVID, this is even more important. As people are losing jobs or are affected in a myriad of other ways, worries about whether you can keep your house or feed your family, will exacerbate existing mental health troubles. Serious societal problems related to mental health, like domestic violence and suicide, will likely increase.”
Esmeralda and her family raised the COVID alarm early on. So they tried to prepare themselves as best as they could.
Esmeralda was still working and meeting with people online. EI8HT SPORTS was still doing well. But being in isolation forced her to reevaluate what was important. It made her double down on her journey promoting mental health.
“Yes, the business is important, but it is not as important as your life or your health. That takes precedence over everything.”
She found that one of the biggest challenges for herself was a sense of helplessness. As a social entrepreneur and someone with plans to action health promotion in the community, learning to accept that she had little control over the situation she found herself in, was difficult.
She had to let go and learn to focus on what she could control. Focus on what she valued most in life. The value of time. The value of people, family.
“If we revalue what we give importance to, we can improve our mind space and our mental health. And in the end, we will be happier.”
It was an important lesson for herself and made her think of what insights other people might have gained during the crisis.
She decided to interview youth from across the world about what messages they had for other young people, including on how they ensured their mental well-being. In the form of videos, she shared their messages with the young people in her own community using the platform that EI8HT SPORTS provided her.
Having these conversations helped her reflect on needs and privileges. While some people complain about the restrictions that COVID imposed on them, others have had to deal with much more fundamental concerns, like having a roof over their heads or their basic human rights being violated. For Esmeralda it highlighted the need to build back better post-COVID.
“COVID was something that we were worried about in the health system obviously, but it also highlights a lot of other problems in our world.”
The project follows EI8HT SPORTS efforts to promote mental health. To inspire young people to get involved in their own communities in whatever way works from them. To not just question what is wrong, but to actually do something about it, especially when it comes to mental health.
“We can’t develop as nations, and we can’t develop as people, if we don’t do anything differently.”
While EI8HT SPORTS, like many other companies across the world, have been dealing with logistical issues, the business continues to do well. For most, this would have been enough. But Esmeralda has always had high ambitions.
She is already planning new endeavors and new enterprises to take on as soon as COVID allows. In a way, she has been busier than ever. But feeling she is contributing and supporting her community is exactly what is important to her.
Co-led by UNDP and Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab establishes a common agenda for countries in Asia-Pacific to empower and invest in youth so that they can accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. Read more about Youth Co:Lab here.