SINGAPORE: Wriggling maggots in filthy pots and pans. Bedbug-infested mattresses. Once-white walls and tiles blackened with grime.
These are just a few things Dianne Loh has grown accustomed to seeing as a volunteer with Helping Joy, a Singapore-based non-profit group. Growing up with helpers at home, the 36-year-old didn’t even know how to change her own bedsheets.
But these days, she spends her weekends scrubbing toilets and repainting walls for strangers.
It all started about a year ago when she came across a Facebook photo album of an old man who lived alone in a small and grubby rental flat.
“I was wondering how anyone could live in such conditions,” said Ms Loh, who was so affected by the images that she couldn’t get to sleep that night, until understanding finally dawned on her.
“It is not that they choose to live like that, it’s because they lack the power of choice - be it that they have some sort of illness like dementia, or they are immobile. And even worse is that they live alone and have no relatives to help them.”
BITTEN, AND ALMOST BEATEN, BY BEDBUGS
This epiphany prompted the senior design manager to quickly sign up as a member of the cleaning squad at Helping Joy - the organisation that had posted the pictures to appeal for volunteers and donations.
But her first outing with the group didn't end well. She realised, when she got home at night, that she had been bitten all over by bedbugs.
“(The bites) didn't go away for three months. It was like itching and then it would reopen again,” said Ms Loh who almost didn't want to volunteer a second time.
But she did. “Imagine there is actually someone going through this every single day - it was a very terrible thought. So I forced myself to come back, and it has gotten a lot better.”
WATCH: How they bring light into elderly residents' lives (6:41)
THE PASSION PROJECT THAT GREW AND GREW
Helping Joy was founded five years ago by Steven Goh, then a full-time financial consultant. It began as a passion project that grew bigger as more people became aware of it through social media like Facebook.
It is how most of the 208 volunteers came to know about the ground-up initiative, and how members of the public alert Helping Joy to elderly folks in need. “We welcome anyone to seek help from us, and we will be there because we are helping islandwide,” said the 38-year-old.
He formally registered the charity organisation in 2016, and now works on it full-time.
Every other Sunday, early in the morning, the cleaning brigade from Helping Joy arms itself with scrubs, bleach and cans of paint - all donated - and visits old folks whose homes are in desperate need of a makeover.
First, all household items are removed, sorted and thoroughly cleaned. Then, the entire flat gets hosed down, disinfected and repainted.
Finally, old pieces of furniture are replaced with new ones. In a matter of hours, cluttered, dingy homes get transformed into bright, clean living spaces.
While there are other charitable organisations and projects doing similar work, what sets Helping Joy apart is their follow-up visits and the more holistic approach to things.
“When we take care of an elderly person, we will follow them all the way until they pass on,” said Mr Goh. (And sometimes even after. One old woman who was a hoarder requested that they de-clutter her flat after she was dead, for her surviving son's sake. They fulfilled her dying wish.)
The monthly maintenance team makes sure each beneficiary's home stays clean and clutter-free long after the big clean-up.
And the befriending team comes in to take the elderly on outings, celebrate their birthdays with cheerfully decorated cakes, and give them emotional support - so that they don't stay cooped up and isolated in the confines of their tiny flats, and fall easy prey to depression.
JOY IS FOR THE VOLUNTEERS, TOO
Through Helping Joy, Mr Goh also hopes to make a difference to the lives of the volunteers.
He said: “We do not neglect the volunteers. They must feel happy to volunteer. If not they will not come back.
"We are like a family. We have a lot of communication during the process and everyone looks forward to a Sunday project together.”
For Ms Loh, joy comes from giving dignity back to the old and frail.
She once had to pick up packets of soiled diapers from the room of an elderly uncle. “He just couldn’t make it to the toilet,” she said. “I believe that nobody would want to live like this, having to defecate in your own bedroom. That must have been the lowest point in his life."
"Being able to know that someone tonight is going to sleep in a clean bed, or having clean utensils so they don’t have to worry about ingesting dirt - it’s a huge satisfaction for me personally.”