SINGAPORE: Living in a one-room rental flat with six children and a mentally ill sister to care for leaves Linda, a single parent, little time for respite.
It also means her children aged five to 15 do not have space at home to do their homework without being distracted.
There would be arguments among the children, shedding of tears, noise and stress on weekdays, as she tries to control the chaos as best she can, Ms Linda told CNA.
"I would become a commander, shouting at them to stop fighting, to stop using their phones," she said.
The situation has improved since the freelance domestic cleaner found out about CareNights, a free service run by Morning Star Community Services. That is where three of her children aged 10, 11 and 12 spend their weekday evenings.
They are served dinner, get help with their school work and take part in workshops and other hands-on activities between 6pm and 10pm.
In the year that the children have been going to the centre in Sengkang, she said she has seen positive changes in her children.
"They have learnt to be more independent, and they get coached on their homework, so they are doing much better in school," Linda said.
Linda wants her children to receive a good education but was previously unable to send them for tuition because she could not afford it.
"When we are down, it doesn't mean we can't go up. There's always a staircase for us. For that, education is very, very important," she said.
Linda also benefits from the time her children are at the centre. She gets some breathing space and time for household chores.
The CareNights service is targeted at parents from households with a combined income of S$4,000 or less.
They would also be having difficulties such as not being able to provide adequate supervision for their children at home as they upgrade themselves by attending courses after-hours or attending to a family crisis.
The majority of CareNights children are from single-parent homes, or live with their grandparents, because their parents have left them, or are in jail, Morning Star told CNA.
HOW CARENIGHTS WAS BORN
The seed for the programme was planted following a conference attended by Morning Star executive director Freddie Low.
It highlighted the effects of adverse childhood experiences, including drug consumption, suicide and mental health issues.
“That really troubled me when I learnt about it,” Mr Low said, adding that there was also a call for more volunteers to help the less-privileged. He decided to act on the call. When he started thinking about how to help, he was sceptical about getting sponsors for the programme he had in mind because it was, according to him, a “simple” one.
But Temasek Foundation Cares, the philanthropic arm of investment firm Temasek stepped in and committed S$683,000 to the programme, which was piloted in Nov 2016 to make sure that children whose parents were not in the best place to take care of them in the evenings were not going astray.
“These kids, their parents may have faced some childhood experiences which were not very good, so we want to break that cycle,” Jagdeep Kaur, Programmes Manager at Morning Star told CNA.
FIGURING OUT WHAT WORKS
The pilot allowed the team to learn what works for the children who attend CareNights, Mr Low said.
He found them to be different from the students who attended their after-school services.
“They talked very loudly, they are full of energy, they were very disruptive, and we could not get them to collaborate with us,” he said.
The two full-time staff, along with volunteers - up to five each night - began communicating with the children differently and modeling behaviour they wanted the children to follow, and they started seeing gradual, subtle changes, he said.
“Even though our facilitators as well as our volunteers are not parents, because they serve as role models, and they could identify and relate with and to the children, a significant relationship began to occur. So now, when you go into a CareNights centre, the children are no longer so boisterous,” Mr Low said.
“CareNights also has a supporting role in the school environment when we help stabilize the children, help them to appreciate that not all authority figures are the same authoritarian figures that you may have at home,” he added.
MORE THAN JUST KEEPING CHILDREN OCCUPIED
Through the programme, the children learn how to identify and express emotions, said Supervisor of Programmes Lemuel Baculanta.
“It really helps them when they know that there is somebody that validates their feelings, and someone who can understand them. So in that way, they are more cooperative,” he said.
The programme is not just about keeping the children occupied. It is about teaching them about important life values, which is why they also learn to be responsible by washing their dishes after a meal. There is some resistance, Mr Baculanta said, as the children complained that when they are home, someone will do it for them.
He said: “More often than not, people who subscribe to the programme come from environments that are more lax - they do whatever they like, they eat when they like, they sleep when they like, and the list goes on. But at CareNights, it is very structured.”
Through structure, the programmes trains the children to be disciplined.
One powerful tool the facilitators use is praise, Mr Baculunta said.
“I think we underestimate the power of praise because we expend more of our energy identifying what is wrong, but I think we need to balance that with praise. (Parents typically) give them attention by pointing out when they did wrong, but fail to tell them that they did well,” he said.
PROGRAMME TO BE EXPANDED TO SERANGOON AND TOA PAYOH
Given the success of the three-year pilot, the service will be expanded to Serangoon and Toa Payoh to benefit more such parents.
Aside from Sengkang, CareNights currently runs a similar service in Bedok.
“The support from Temasek Foundation Cares was really instrumental in allowing us to have some space and resources to put together pieces of the jigsaw that would allow us to come up with a programme that can continue beyond the pilot phase,” he said.
Mr Low said that while they are expanding, they will not be able to expand such that they can plug the gaps in every estate where they exist.
“There are so many more organisations in our community with so much more muscle than our organisations, and if only they would consider doing a similar programme to support people living in their community, I think our society would be so much better off,” he said.