Charities in Singapore rethink their outreach programmes to help our youth overcome socio-economic, emotional and health problems.

Beyond adult job losses caused by Covid-19, we cannot forget that Covid-19’s psychological impact on children might need urgent care.

The very young can’t post on social media if they are hungry, or if they can’t understand their parents’ souring moods from income loss. They can’t discuss their living conditions with caregivers while their mothers serve time in prison. 

The younger the child, the harder it is for him or her to process emotions and events

Ultimately, they feel powerless.

That’s why social service agencies caring for them do not just offer financial aid, but protection and psychological assistance.

Being kept from early intervention is a recurring concern among social work and charitable organisations focused on issues that impact young lives. Many note that steep drops in funding (50 to 80 percent) and subsequently, fewer programmes, will cause delays attending to problems, making them larger and harder to treat later on. 

The 16 organisations responding to the questionnaire developed by WhatAreYouDoing.Sg are lean, with a majority having between 1 and 20 workers. About 5 have up to 100 workers, and only 2 have more than 100 people. 

Outreach programmes and activities to help the youth overcome challenges speak to a spectrum of socio-economic, emotional and health problems affecting them. And social workers, counsellors and specialists who run these operations say they face the proverbial stitch-in-time situation — less effort and cost is needed when an issue is still small, but left unattended, could extend even into their adult lives.

Above: Teachers at iC2 PrepHouse have turned to Zoom to reach visually-impaired students. They use visual activities like picture search, spot-the-difference, and stories to build on their visual efficiency skills.

iC2 PrepHouse, for one, notes that children who are visually impaired need help mastering tools they will use in primary school while they are still at pre-school. REACH Youth Services’ Rock Steady music programme, meanwhile, is designed to help pre-teen and adolescents cope with stress through social interaction, through teamwork and stage performances.

Above: Mr David Choo, assistant senior youth worker at REACH Youth Services, champions the platform REACH Rock Steady, which helps youth aged 10 to 20 years old struggling with confidence and esteem to blossom, as they perform onstage.

And, at the Singapore After-Care Association (SACA), which has operated the Initiative for Incarcerated Mothers and Affected Children (IIMAC) for over 10 years, staff have been unable to conduct home visits to children of women in prison to look in on their welfare.

When Mothers Serve Time in Prison

Mr Prem Kumar, director of SACA, has worked with ex-offenders for years. He notes that it is when mothers go to prison that he feels children and youth are most impacted, as their care is left in the hands of those who may be ill-equipped to cope. 

Above: Mr Prem Kumar, director of Singapore After-Care Association (SACA), personally tends to cleaning the area of the organisation’s office 81 Dunlop Street. SACA works with former offenders and their families, and has for more than a decade run a programme called Initiative for Incarcerated Mothers and Affected Children (IMAC), which seeks to address issues related to the care of their children.

“When a mother goes in, somebody has to take care of her kids.” Working with children and families of those who are serving time, IIMAC addresses issues related to the care of the very young, some of them just a few months old.

He notes that elderly grandparents might be coping with their own health issues, while the lives of children living with blended family units, perhaps among step-siblings from previous marriages, can be further complicated.

With the consent of inmates at Institution A4 (Singapore’s prison for women), IIMAC represents their interests outside the facility during their sentence. Its staff and volunteers work with those who have children below 16, conducting home visits in pairs to help in two ways: firstly, to conduct home visits to ascertain how their children are doing under current care arrangements and give their mothers their accounts. 

“In cases where children are cared for, then that’s great, we give their mothers the feedback through Singapore Prison Service. In the event that everything’s not so great, or children are at risk, when situations are more dire, then we will reach out to the appropriate agencies. The first intent is to look out for the welfare of their kids.”

Above: Ms Noraishikin Ismail, manager of SACA’s Volunteer After-care Programme, works with staff and volunteers to conduct home visits that focus on the living conditions of children whose mothers are serving sentences at Institution A4 (formerly Changi Women’s Prison), as well as how they interact with other members in their household. SACA has, for more than a decade, run its Initiative for Incarcerated Mothers and Affected Children (IIMAC), through which social workers such as Ms Noraishikin are able to help imprisoned mothers with the care of their children.

SACA’s manager of its Volunteer After-care Programme, Ms Noraishikin Ismail, reveals that it is these visits, which its volunteers and staff undertake in pairs, that allow the organisation to accurately observe the home, as well as the interaction among household members.

So it’s with a sense of relief that SACA is now able to resume visits, if lockdown challenges are anything to go by. She said grandparents frequently did not have digital know-how to handle home-based learning, or even know how to use teleconferencing tools.

“Online, there’s only so much you can see and assess,” she noted. “But when we go down, one person will focus on the adults, and the other will look at the interaction among the children.”

Hear4U Offers Psychological First Aid to Callers

Realising the need for swift emotional “first aid” for youths, CARE Singapore launched Hear4U, a WhatsApp first-response helpline that offers counselling to young people coping with stress. 

Its business-as-usual mission is to empower youths and safeguard their mental wellness. But, concerned with the three-month waiting time for their wards to see a counsellor, they launched the online service so callers might receive immediate help.

Mr Anthony Chng, CARE Singapore’s deputy director of enterprise, said the organisation pivoted from dealing mainly with students and their families through schools, to salve the specific mental stress that the young feel. 

“When the Circuit Breaker hit, we asked ourselves what we could do for the community at large. We found there wasn’t an easily accessible way for young people to talk about their feelings,” he said.

Hear4U is like an A&E for psychological first aid, so that you’ll be in better shape to wait for the full counselling.” 

The service, which is available Monday to Friday, proved so needed that it has since been extended to other groups, including the elderly and migrant workers, receiving referrals from the Migrant Workers’ Centre and National Care Hotline. 

It has a team of 12, who are a mix of senior workers and counsellors who during office hours offer quick help. After office hours, they man a callback service that assigns counsellors to speak with callers most in need. 

So far, it has tended to nearly 1,000 calls; a majority from its usual group of young people, with another 400 or so from others. Its English and official languages line is 6978 2728, while its dedicated lines for migrant friends are 6978 2725 (English), 6978 2722 (Tamil), 6978 2723 (Bengali), 6978 2724 (Mandarin).

CARE Singapore is grappling with its own challenges, which it shares with many other social organisations: Drop in donations, loss of corporate sponsors, and physical distancing restrictions in carrying out its work. 

To counter these issues, it tried to reduce its expenses, and staff volunteered to double up on tasks, such as delivering food to needy families of students.

“Singaporeans are very resilient. They don’t reach out until they are in dire straits, and they are also very introspective, they internalise and solve problems themselves,” he observed.

“But sometimes they need a voice to tell them that this too will pass, everyone is in this together. Being part of a bigger community is an important tenet of psychological help; knowing that we will journey together, that society has not forgotten about you.” 

Catch our online fundraiser “The City of Good Show” which features the stars of Dream Academy. Episode 6 and 7 are in support of children and youth charities such as the ones mentioned in the article above. Support these charities here: www.giving.sg/cityofgood

Photos by: Bryan van der Beek | Words by Serene Goh

In partnership with What Are You Doing SG, a platform capturing the stories of people in Singapore, their challenges, collaborative nature and problem-solving spirit.