SINGAPORE: On their only day off in the week, they can be found here at the Kallang Riverside Park among dozens of other racing enthusiasts, pulling on the oars and grimacing with effort as their dragon boat cuts through the water like a knife.
For the past four months, they’ve been training hard every Sunday, on land and in the water, for the 35th Singapore River Regatta in November.
“We’re just hoping to do our best. We’re not really expecting anything,” said group leader Jen Macapagal, 29. But this belies many of the women’s determination to prove a point – both to themselves, and to society.
Nineteen out of the 40-strong crew are Filipino domestic workers. On weekdays, they cook, clean house and look after someone else’s children or elderly parents.
Often, they are seen as “just maids” who, on Sundays, gather at malls and public spaces to chat and while away time.
That’s a stereotype someone like Mariz Marasigan, 42, wants to change. She said:
We are human also. I can feel sadness when you treat me like I’m so small. (People) don’t know that I do other things.
Ms Marasigan is part of Race2Share, a non-profit group founded here in 2015 to engage people - initially Filipinos mainly – in sports and volunteer work.
Its members have helped raise awareness and funds for social causes, by organising runs – such as to raise awareness over the sexual abuse of deaf women and children; conducting bike and swim clinics; and competing in long-distance races, like the Race Against Cancer in July.
On top of this, some like Ms Marasigan also devote time every Sunday to volunteering at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), where they bring some joy into lonely residents’ lives.
MARATHONS EASE HOMESICKNESS
Finding the time to train and volunteer isn’t easy, for the only free time most of them get is on Sundays.
A rare few, like Ms Jannah Pascua, 43, train at night after their work is done. She runs four times a week, and since 2011 has taken part in eight races - including four full marathons.
When I'm not doing anything, I feel lonely. I miss home and I want to go back. But when I do things that I like, it helps me cope well with homesickness.
“Sports improved my life a lot,” she said. “It makes me happier.”
When she first arrived in Singapore 12 years ago, Ms Pascua’s life “was like hell”. “I couldn’t open the door, they didn’t give me a key. They didn’t let me use the phone to call home.” She had to wake at 5am and go to bed only after midnight.
Then she transferred to a new employer who gave her more leeway. She volunteered at Aidha, a charity for foreign domestic workers and lower-income women. When Aidha was looking for a runner to take part in a marathon, Ms Pascua thought: “Why not?”
These days, she runs to raise funds for various organisations, including a special school foundation in Cavite, in the Philippines.
“I don’t have much,” she said. “But if I have extra, then I give. How I wish I had more, so I can help more.”
SEEING THEM IN A DIFFERENT LIGHT
For Ms Marasigan, sports and volunteering has helped ease the heartache of separation from her two children - the younger boy was just 10 months old when she left to become a domestic helper in Singapore.
“They thought I was just going to the city to buy something.” But it was three years before she went back for a visit – and they didn’t remember her.
“They thought that that I was a stranger,” she said, breaking down in tears.
WATCH: The two women’s stories (7:20)
Her own experience with how sports can alleviate loneliness led Ms Macapagal, 29, a programme coordinator at a financial training firm, to co-found Race2Share.
She’d moved from the Philippines in 2006 to join her father here. “I didn’t have friends and everything was new to me,” she said. Then she joined a sports team and started making close friends.
Eventually, she noticed there was “a lot of interest” from foreign domestic workers here who wanted to take part in sports, but couldn’t.
They told me how they could only watch the dragon boaters training at Kallang. So that’s when I realised that it’s the access to sports that needs to be addressed.
With Race2Share giving them newfound opportunities to get involved, Ms Macapagal said: “They feel somehow empowered, and their sense of self-worth has improved. Because now they can own the sport.”
Taking part in races like the regatta will showcase their skills, “and let the Singapore community see them in a different light – that they are not just foreign domestic workers, but they can also be athletes.”
DO EMPLOYERS CARE?
Rain or shine, training takes place every Sunday from 12pm to 2pm at Kallang Riverside Park.
The regimen on land includes running intervals and strength and conditioning workouts – burpees, push-ups, squats and more. Battle-scars are worn with pride. “Look at this, I have a bruise on my arm!” said Claire Montemayor, 39, showing it off.
When it came time to hit the water, Ms Macapagal yelled “Paddles up! Go!” – and with instinctive ease, they all raised their oars in sync and propelled the boat forward.
Everyone was sore in no time. Said Ms Marasigan: “After the training, it’s very painful. But we’re okay after one or two days.” There are also night training sessions on weekdays, for those who can make it.
But were these helpers’ employers concerned their activities would get in the way of their work?
Some participants told CNA Insider that their employers were glad they were doing something meaningful on their day off.
But a few said their employers didn’t know, and didn’t care. “It makes me sad,” said one.
In Ms Marasigan’s case, her employer’s 10-year-old son, Jon, sometimes joins her on runs around the neighbourhood. “She is very kind and is doing this to help others,” he said.
Ms Pascua’s employers say her activities have “never really affected her work” as she gets her work done first. Mr Daniel Honaker added: “Sometimes I wish she would take more time off just for herself… Jannah is part of the family, and whatever makes her happy is best for all of us.”
‘I HELP WITH MY HEART’
For Ms Marasigan, happiness comes in visiting her other “family” on Sunday mornings before training.
She is part of the volunteer group Ladies in the Power of Service, who entertain long-stay patients (those warded for more than a year) at IMH with songs, dance, drawing and card activities.
They have been doing this for about three years. “I help with my heart,” she said. “We’re very happy to see them, and at least we can bring some happiness to them.”
Ms Catherine Chua, IMH’s volunteer programme manager, said she really appreciates their presence.
Some of these patients don’t have visitors for such a long time and they are so lonely. To them, these ladies are family.
As for the Race2Share “family”, they are hoping to empower more people through sports, including beyond the Filipino expat community here. But one challenge they face is expenses, said Ms Macapagal who is hoping to find sponsors.
Equipment rental, for example, costs S$200-250 a week. Mostly, she and her co-founders are pumping in their own money to keep the initiative going.
“We try to cover the fees so the members won’t have to shell out, given their monthly salary,” she said.
For workers like Ms Pascua, the group is a lifeline to friendship and happiness. “I get excited to see the others every week,” she said.
“When some of my friends hear that I’m doing all these things, they ask me: Are you not tired? I said I am, but I love what I’m doing. As long as you’re happy, you won't feel tired.”
Check out more inspiring stories like this one at CNA Insider.