SINGAPORE: Hours after CNA Insider’s article about volunteers dropping out was published on Tuesday (Feb 11), Food From The Heart’s volunteer hotline was abuzz with people wanting to sign up to help.
And in just two days, all slots to help pack food rations for the needy had been filled for the next two to three weeks. “My staff spent the whole day manning the WhatsApp hotline. By 7pm, he still had 100 more messages to go,” said its chief executive Sim Bee Hia.
On Monday, the non-profit had put out an urgent call on Facebook for help to assemble 2,000 food packs scheduled for distribution this week to households in need. Ninety per cent of its group volunteering sessions had been cancelled, as companies suspended their corporate social responsibility efforts amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We are counting on the individuals to come in because the corporations would really have to protect their staff first. We fully understand,” Ms Sim said.
Katherine Teo, 42, responded to help at the charity’s Joo Seng Road warehouse. “It’s important because if nobody volunteers, then what’s going to happen to these families? How are they going to survive?”
“My spouse still has some concerns but to me, it’s fine. It’s okay to go out, just be mindful if you are sick,” the stay-at-home mum added.
Surprisingly, a few organisations also responded to the appeal. The Singapore Land Authority came on Tuesday, Ms Sim said, with 20 people including their chief executive helping out. Another 35 staff came on Thursday.
One company which runs camps for schools also offered to send a team down to help, she said, amid the slowdown in work due to restricted school activities.
The Food Bank also saw a surge in offers of help. Up to 50 groups, comprising schools and corporations, wrote in proposing donation drives, for example.
Marina Bay Sands, for one, offered to pack 1,000 food bundles offsite and send them to the Food Bank, founder Nichol Ng said. Every slot for packing activities at the warehouse has also been filled till the end of February.
“I see some light in this crisis,” she said. “It makes us better prepared if anything like that should happen again.”
The charity is exploring how to decentralise the regular packing of food donations outside its warehouse. “Just like businesses, we need to think of our own continuity plans as well,” she said.
Food From The Heart has also taken precautions, such as ensuring temperature checks are done and that volunteers are split up into multiple assembly lines.
We must keep operations going because we don’t have the luxury of stopping - it would hit 6,500 households and a few dozen (institutional) homes.
“If you are healthy, able to move around, no travel history, do join us,” Ms Sim added.
HELP NEEDED CONSISTENTLY
However, the need for volunteers goes beyond the high of these two weeks, said all the food charities.
Food From The Heart worries there could be a drop in manpower again in March. Food Bank’s Ms Ng said: “It’s important for people to remember that those in need consistently need help regardless of the situation.”
Over at charity kitchen Willing Hearts, it will take a lot more for volunteer numbers to get back to normal levels.
Largely volunteer-run, it provides 6,500 cooked meals across the island daily. Schools and corporations can sign up, while individuals can walk in any time to help.
“Some groups who saw the appeal have come forward, but not many. We used to have big numbers of volunteers; now, fewer than half turn up,” president Teh Eng Hua said.
Because of the shortage, he and all his staff have mobilised to do deliveries themselves. “Maybe we will change our menu and simplify the meals,” added Mr Teh.
MONEY STILL A CONCERN
Monetary donations, meanwhile, have continued to take a hit, as businesses tighten their belts in the uncertain climate. Ms Sim said companies have been cutting back on the amount they give.
“For our major fundraiser in April, we see those who had committed to being an ‘angel’ sponsor drop to being a ‘friend’ sponsor,” she said - a reduction in quantum from S$25,000 to S$10,000.
Some individual donors have also stopped their recurring donations.
At the same time, the cost of operations has increased, said Ms Sim. The group has started adding sanitisers and face masks to the food packs, cleaning measures have had to be stepped up, and staff have had to work doubly hard.
But asking for donations during this time is a thorny issue, said Free Food For All founder Nizar Mohd Shariff, who estimates a 50 per cent drop in donations received.
The group, which provides free halal cooked meals to the needy, used to receive an average of about S$5,000 a month - as of the mid-February, they have barely hit S$1,000.
After the group shared CNA Insider’s article on Facebook, one netizen even commented that they were using the virus as an excuse to seek more funds.
Free Food for All requires more monetary than manpower support as most of its operations are handled by staff, Mr Nizar explained. The group has also been getting more requests for assistance, including from folks who have been quarantined at home.
More beneficiaries mean more resources must be purchased, he said. “For now we don’t have the luxury of scrutinising and vetting (the beneficiaries). I would rather be cheated than make the mistake of not giving to those in need.
“I would encourage every Singaporean to help out however they can - volunteer or by (providing) money,” added Mr Nizar.
To give all donors and volunteers a single point of reference for the most pressing needs during this period of the COVID-19 outbreak, a centralised platform has been set up by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC). Here, charities can list their fundraising efforts and appeals for volunteers.
Seeing the wave of support from the public at such a short notice has encouraged Ms Sim. “I am really heartened by the public spiritedness of Singaporeans,” she said.
“They’re worried, their businesses are impacted, there are still so many unknowns - but what was more immediate was to come in and help.”
HOW YOU CAN CONTRIBUTE
Food From The Heart: To donate or volunteer, visit https://www.foodfromtheheart.sg
Food Bank Singapore: To donate, visit https://www.giving.sg/the-food-bank-singapore-ltd
Free Food For All: To donate or volunteer, visit https://freefood.org.sg
National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre: To volunteer or donate to various COVID-19 charity efforts, visit https://www.giving.sg/sgunited
TOUCH Community Services: To volunteer for Meals-On-Wheels delivery, call 68046565
Willing Hearts: To volunteer, visit http://www.willinghearts.org.sg