The 18-year-old co-founder of ESpero for Innovative Philanthropy shares a story of resilience that emerged from the Russo-Ukrainian war.

“In early 2022, I received a poignant letter from my friend Maksymvk. He was a retired Ukrainian soldier I had met at a conference. His son was playing in a junior ice hockey league when the Russia-Ukraine war suddenly broke out.

With no contact and little hope, Maksymvk rejoined the army in a desperate search for his son. Our contact ended abruptly as he left his ‘last letter’ to me – I couldn’t reach him again. But that ‘last letter’ was the catalyst for something much bigger.

Moved by Maksymvk’s story, I founded ESpero with my friend Brendan Hendrata, a science research advocate. Meaning ‘hope’ in Spanish, ESpero was initially dedicated to helping war refugees by creating art pieces that share their stories and preserve their cultures. 

One of the art pieces that touched me the most was an AI-generated painting of a mother and her two children. In the picture, they can be seen dragging their suitcases on the highway. They are fleeing from Ukraine in search of safety in another country.

To better understand the plight of Ukrainian refugees and how ESpero could impact them, I spent the summer of 2022 volunteering with Doctors Without Borders in Norway. What I witnessed was many heart-wrenching stories, just like Maksymvk’s.

But I also saw the inspiring efforts of selfless individuals who had left lucrative careers to aid refugees firsthand in worn-down shelters. For a young student like me, I learnt so much, including how an NGO like Doctors Without Borders operates.

That internship experience in Norway was truly valuable because we also plan to operate ESpero as a non-profit. And while it started off as a small project between Brendan and I, more people started learning about what we do. Now, ESpero is an actual organisation.

Over 120 volunteers have joined ESpero, and we currently have branches in Canada, the US and Southeast Asia. Our mission has expanded to include various areas of human rights violations, and our volunteers have provided over $83,000 in pro bono services.

We aspire to inspire more Singaporean youths to join our cause, because a key strength of ESpero is our diverse and talented student body. This enables us to push boundaries and launch initiatives that are unique and innovative.

For example, leveraging our skills in tech, we launched a data-driven human rights journalism blog and an NFT fundraising platform. We also provide tech consulting to non-profits, and teach coding skills to underprivileged students through online educational programmes.

I would like to call for youths in Singapore to join us on our journey. By volunteering with us, you can contribute to society in your own unique way. You can express an area of human rights violation that you feel passionately about. And based on your strengths in a particular field, we can come up with a project together as a team.

Why should people care? To be honest, people in Singapore have every reason not to care about the war in Ukraine. We are not directly or even remotely affected by it. And juggling ESpero with sports and academics as a full-time student hasn’t been the easiest feat for me.

The more you multi-task, the lesser the quality of each task you perform. I used to believe I can do everything, and that I can handle everything super well, but now I am more humble and more practical.

The amazing thing about having a team is that we’re there for one another. If I have a test coming up and need to study for it, I’ll simply inform them that I won’t be able to attend a meeting. Having an understanding team and proper balance in life is so important.

But at the end of the day, we come together and volunteer our time and resources because we find value in what we do. Yes, we’re dedicating our time and effort, but we gain so much more in terms of experience and perspectives. It helps us mentally and emotionally, too.

When you personally see how hard it is for displaced refugees to find their footing and survive, what more to earn a living, you tend to appreciate your life more. You instantly feel a need to help in whatever way you can.” – Bruce Yu Lepeng

Story submission by Bruce Yu Lepeng

Edited by Arman Shah