The Big Read: Despite personal setbacks, ordinary Singaporeans on a mission to spread cheer amid COVID-19 gloom
The show must go on. With COVID-19 having thrown everything and everyone off-kilter this year, the demand for community volunteers has grown in the past few months.
SINGAPORE: Having decorated her beloved Bedok Reservoir estate without fail for the last nine years, Madam Sandy Goh, 53, initially felt too dejected to do it this year.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she had suffered a huge financial blow to the tentage services firm which she runs with her husband and the couple was running low on savings.
But the elderly residents whom she regularly visits and befriends at the void deck were looking so downcast that she decided to rally more than 50 residents in the estate and decorated the area beside the residents’ corner with upcycled Christmas decorations.
“A lot of the (elderly residents) are getting very sick and tired of sitting at home all day,” said the mother of three kids aged between 17 and 12.
“So I thought to myself that we have to go on with it. We have to be the ones to spread the joy.”
Indeed, the show must go on. With COVID-19 having thrown everything and everyone off-kilter this year, the demand for community volunteers such as Mdm Goh has grown in the past few months.
They have distributed food, cleaned up homes of elderly residents, sheltered the homeless and spread cheer - all the while navigating the pandemic restrictions, such as safe distancing and gathering size limits, which have made their work on the ground that much harder.
And in a reflection of how the unprecedented crisis has brought out the best in many Singaporeans, they are doing all these even while they are being weighed down by their own problems brought about by COVID-19.
One of them is Mr Firdaus Abdul Hamid, 40, the co-founder of non-profit organisation Human Hearts catering to ex-offenders, whom he deems to be one of the most vulnerable groups during this pandemic.
But unbeknownst to many, Mr Firdaus - who helps inmates, ex-convicts, families of incarcerated individuals and at-risk youths find support - could do with a helping hand himself.
The pandemic has cost him his marine engineering job and forced him to take up odd jobs which include cleaning work, on top of having to care for his pregnant wife and three children aged between 14 and 10.
“Yes, of course, it’s difficult for me. But I want to help people who think they can’t be helped. With the resources that I have, it’ll be a waste if I don’t,” he said.
For Ms Sherry Soon, 39, it also means being creative in order to continue making a positive contribution to others’ lives.
Ms Soon, who is the founder of ground-up volunteer group Be Kind SG, has vasculitis - an auto-immune condition that causes inflammation of her blood vessels and pus-filled ulcers to erupt on her feet whenever it flares up.
She had felt an overwhelming sense of paranoia when the coronavirus outbreak first started in Singapore.
To continue her group’s work, they have since switched to virtual sessions, where volunteers play games and sing songs with intellectually disabled adults via video conferencing tool Zoom to keep them entertained. This online engagement has helped eased her fears, said Ms Soon.
While these individuals have continued to do volunteer work despite their own less-than-ideal circumstances, they do not see themselves as heroes.
Some said they find great personal satisfaction in what they are doing that could not be measured in dollars and cents.
Others said they just could not ignore, in good conscience, those who were in an even worse plight than themselves.
Mr Firdaus said: “I’m no hero. I’m just on a mission to raise awareness that former offenders just want to be understood and we can change as long as we are given a chance.”
As we wind down an extraordinary year, this week’s Big Read highlights the efforts of unsung heroes in the community who are on a mission to spread cheer - not only during the festive season but in the past months - amid the COVID-19 gloom.
THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING
Having lived in Bedok Reservoir estate for over 14 years, Mdm Goh could not let the year end without the usual merrymaking.
For the past nine years, she had been rallying residents in the area to decorate their neighbourhood for Christmas to enhance the festive mood. Last year, they had decorated the plot of land beside the residents’ corner at Block 702 with a model of Santa Claus on a sleigh. In 2018, they put up a Christmas tree along with a plastic snowman.
Mdm Goh, who is known to be very popular among residents in the area, also distributes vegetables to about 60 needy families and hot meals to about 75 such families. She does this with a group of other residents at least five days a week.
When the pandemic hit, Mdm Goh and her husband were not spared. Their firm has suffered huge losses and they are now considering folding the business.
“There’s no point being sad about it. We have to move on, we have to do other things,” said the spritely woman.
Mdm Goh and her husband are currently living off their savings while they look for other jobs.
READ: Commentary: Even in a recession, lowballing job seekers is not only poor form but also poor strategy
Quickly switching the subject to this year’s Christmas trees for her estate, Mdm Goh said the project was the combined effort of nearly 50 residents and was completed in two weeks.
They had upcycled items donated by residents - such as broken frisbees, leftover paint and torn mittens - instead of splurging on new ornaments. The structure of one of the Christmas trees, which reaches about 3m high, is made from a discarded iron gate that was reshaped by a resident, many of whom are retired carpenters and welders, she added.
Pointing to a broken ornament, Mdm Goh said: “You see, this is broken but we fixed it with scotch tape. No need to waste money and buy more things this year.”
Listen to a conversation about recycling, repairing e-waste and the challenges of a consumerist culture on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast:
While they reused most of the decorations they had collected over the years, Mdm Goh still forked out about S$200 from her own pocket for streamers and additional decorations, but she did not mind it.
“It’s not as good as the one you see at Orchard Road,” she joked.
“But it means a lot to many residents here who are staying at home and didn’t get the chance to see Christmas lights because of COVID-19.”
HELPING THOSE ON THE FRINGES
While COVID-19 has left hardly anyone unscathed, there are some groups who need more help than others - but are often not on the radar of the general public, such as former offenders and sex workers.
Mr Firdaus Abdul Hamid from Human Hearts said he helped find homes for three ex-convicts who had nowhere to go in the last three months. Since the circuit breaker ended, the organisation has seen about two people coming in to seek its help each week.
Mr Firdaus, who had been in and out of prison five times for various offences, said he has seen many ex-convicts relapsing and going back to their old vices as they become isolated from society due to the pandemic restrictions. It does not help that many of them are unemployed and some even have nowhere to go.
“Sometimes I would get a call at 2 or 3am asking for this and that. I tell them to come to our centre, where there will always be someone who will take them in,” he said.
Mr Firdaus recalled a visit he made to a beneficiary’s home, which was lit by candles as the electricity was cut off.
“He told me that it’s okay and that he didn’t need help. And I said ‘how can that be? You surely need help if you’re sitting in a house that has no electricity’,” said Mr Firdaus.
Many are ashamed to share their circumstances with him, he said.
“Maybe they think I cannot relate to them,” he chuckled.
Mr Firdaus, who lost his job at the height of the pandemic, said when the organisation’s funds dried up in July, he and four other members pooled their own money to keep the education centre at 3 Queens Road running.
He puts aside at least S$200 each month to fund the cause, which goes to food for the 12 full-time volunteers there, supplies for their education centre and miscellaneous items such as cartridges for printers and stationery.
On top of his community work, Mr Firdaus is also looking after his wife, who is four months’ pregnant. She also suffers from depression, as a result of the post-traumatic stress disorder she faced after the family survived a near-death accident three years ago.
Mr Firdaus had crashed the family car into a tree after he fell asleep at the wheel after a long day of visiting relatives during Hari Raya Puasa. The accident had left his wife in a coma and she was in intensive care for two weeks and the high-dependency ward for about a month. She underwent five major surgeries to fix all her broken bones and had 12 metal plates implanted in her. Their children also suffered multiple injuries.
“Despite everything that I’ve been through, I consider myself very blessed. I don’t (dwell) too much on the past,” he said.
Like Mr Firdaus, Ms June Chua also feels strongly about helping the community she was once part of. The former sex worker is the founder of The T Project, a non-profit organisation which provides food and shelter to the elderly and disabled transgender community who mostly stay alone and in rental flats.
Ms Chua, who has been busy with the preparation for T Project’s Christmas giveaway, where volunteers fulfil the wishes of the beneficiaries, said as a transgender woman herself, she is well-versed in the challenges this often-neglected community faces.
The sex workers, who lost their livelihoods like many others during the pandemic, had problems applying for government grants as they did not get payslips.
Hence, Ms Chua had to fight for about 20 of them to get three to six months’ funding of about S$200 each.
“They are often the forgotten group. Everyone is doing great work, helping the low-income families or the children, but they forget about the marginalised groups,” she said.
Once, she had to take in a transgender worker, a permanent resident who lived in Malaysia and was stuck in Singapore.
“She was put in a hostel with other men even though she’s a transgender woman so it’s not a safe place. That’s why she was sent here, to our shelter,” she said.
To date, there are seven people living in the T Project shelter.
But despite the difficulties, Ms Chua feels that there is a silver lining to the pandemic. It has forced many sex workers out of their comfort zones to find other employment options such as in retail or spas.
“I feel that they are realising their potential … I want them to see that. No one is born to be a sex worker,” she added.
In the early days, Ms Chua said she was heavily involved in the lives of her beneficiaries and wanted to do as much as she could to help, but being their caregiver was exhausting and was not sustainable for her. So now, she makes sure every case referred to the organisation is tagged to a family service centre that can give them targeted support.
OVERCOMING HER OWN FEARS
Ms Sherry Soon from Be Kind SG said she enjoys working in the social service sector but with COVID-19 still looming large, there are times when paranoia and anxiety would creep into her mind.
Ms Soon said while it’s unfortunate that she now could not meet the residents of the nursing homes they serve face-to-face, the online engagement has helped allay her concerns about being infected.
For the past 20 years, Ms Soon, who has been hospitalised repeatedly and is on a long-term course of low-grade chemotherapy medication, has been on immunosuppressants — a type of medication that suppresses her immune system and increases the risk of infection.
After the circuit breaker ended, and people were allowed to return to their workplaces, Ms Soon constantly worried that her husband, who was working in banking then, might come into contact with potential COVID-19 carriers.
“I would ask him who he met that day, who he ate lunch with, if he took off his mask … I was very paranoid,” said Ms Soon.
She added that the paranoia also gave her crippling anxiety and took a toll on her emotionally. At times, she would feel pain and find redness on her feet, a symptom triggered by the stress.
“It’s like a vicious circle. When I get anxious about something, even when I try not to worry, it will still trigger the symptoms,” said Ms Soon.
In the middle of her own struggles, Ms Soon said she was reminded why she pursued social work in the first place when she visited a community home three months ago, where she had been volunteering. Although she could only stay at the entrance to the building, she was greeted by residents inside who saw her and waved enthusiastically.
“We’re not related by blood so I thought they would have forgotten me. But they didn’t … and this is why I continue doing what I do,” said Ms Soon.
LOSS OF LIVELIHOOD NO OBSTACLE TO DOING GOOD
Shortly before Deepavali, Ms Komala Devi Ramiah, 49, who had been handing out festive hampers to families in need for the last three years, was worried whether she could continue with the practice this year.
Apart from having to avoid meeting the 72 families she supports face-to-face due to the pandemic restrictions, Ms Komala was not sure if she would have enough money to sponsor them. Having lost her job last year, she had just enough savings left for her own needs then.
But the mother of two children, aged 16 and 20, who recently found a new job in the shipping industry, said: “I was more worried about the people who lost their jobs this year and could not afford to celebrate Deepavali. I went through that so I can imagine how they were feeling.”
To make sure she could proceed with the hampers’ project, Ms Komala cut back on shopping and eating at expensive restaurants. In the end, she managed to raise enough money with contributions from family and friends.
She spent about S$1,000 of her own money to buy some of the hampers.
“I never had second thoughts about spending this money on the less fortunate. I feel like they deserve it because they are genuinely in need of help,” she said.
Having scrimped and saved in the last few months to fund her volunteer work, Ms Komala then took a step further. She has been scouring the ground for homeless Malaysian workers with social activist Gilbert Goh to match them with Singaporeans offering shelter.
To date, she has matched four workers and is on the lookout for more of them.
For Mr Arifin Mohd Rahim, 50, whose catering business has suffered more than 50 per cent in losses, volunteering has shown him a side of society that he was not familiar with.
After his sales flatlined, he changed his business strategy and took small orders through Facebook.
“At that time, many caterers had to close shop so we were very lucky that we could survive. Because of this, I started an initiative where our friends and customers can chip in to buy packets of food for needy families,” said the father of three aged between 22 and 11.
Along with Mr Goh, Mr Arifin distributes 100 packets of food every Friday to those living in rental flats islandwide - majority of which were paid by monetary donations from friends and customers. His most unforgettable experience was meeting a family - a woman with two children, one of them physically disabled - living in a rental flat Bukit Panjang.
“There was only one bed and one portable cooker in their house. The children told me that if they run out of money, they will go to their grandmother’s house in Bukit Batok to eat,” Mr Arifin recalled, adding that the incident reminded him of his own children.
Mr Arifin said his problems pale in comparison to those of the residents he met during his food distribution rounds.
“Some houses were totally empty. No furniture, no TV … I didn’t know there were people this poor in Singapore,” he said.
“Frankly, I don’t want any returns, I just hope they cherish what they have and pay it forward.”
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