Children and youth need face-to-face human interaction to process complex emotions or risk developmental challenges as they grow up.

A visit. A chat. A person sitting next to you when you feel alone. Digital interactions that replaced these encounters during Covid-19’s Circuit Breaker could not offer the value of these encounters for social work, especially when it comes to the needs of children

So as the economy reopened, social service agencies brightened, despite hits to their own incomes. After months, they could restore frequency and consistency in their programmes, conducting activities in ways that were lost during the lockdown. 

Older youth volunteers, who tend to have a command of online platforms, led the way in helping organisations harness teleconferencing. With their own plans for internships and the start of their overseas education cancelled or delayed, they set to work cultivating relationships online.

One-to-one Sessions Can Overcome Less-than-conducive Home Environments

Above: Noah Tang from Hwa Chong Institute is a volunteer with Heartware Network. 

At Heartware Network, youth helped move the Heartware Tuition Programme online — it has been run face-to-face since 2009 — for upper primary pupils in need. 

Its executive director, Ms Tan See Leng, said the organisation came up with the Heartware Learning Together Programme during the Covid-19 Circuit Breaker, to help primary school children feel less alone, closely working with the Ministry of Education (MOE) to help lower primary pupils with English literacy.

Heartware’s youth volunteers provided three kinds of reading sessions a week, at about 20 to 30 minutes each, with up to 124 youth matched to more than 120 children.

Above: Rasyidah Mudzzaffar a volunteer of Heartware from Raffles Institution providing tuition to Primary 5 beneficiaries.

Older youths, through its Heartware Tuition Programme, are trained to give tuition to needy families, usually one on one, meeting at their schools for help sessions.  

Moving the training and engagement sessions to platforms such as Zoom and Google meets over just two weeks, she noted, called for a lot more participation from volunteers, because these sessions had to become more interactive. Youth tutors had to help primary schoolers facing less-than-conducive environments at home, and a lack of support. “When they are in lower primary, they learn better when they know they have company to learn together with them.” 

Now, its youth are running the new programme weekly, maintaining its ratio of one-to-one. Heartware is constantly seeking more young people with the heart to volunteer. 

In addition, it is looking to acquire more IT equipment such as laptops and is seeking volunteers to match its needs at its volunteer management portal (Youthbank). (Among its pre-lockdown activities were physical training sessions, which it had conducted for more than 20 years, with a few thousands of young people attending.)

“We realise through this that there are many youths who would like to step up and contribute to support in different ways,” Ms Tan said. “[I’m touched] by the tenacity and resilience, and giving hearts, shown by current volunteers to continue and want to contribute to the community by volunteering with our programmes.” 

Emotional Expression is the Start of a Beautiful Relationship

Above: CampusImpact engage children, aged seven to 14 through storytelling, artistic and self-expression. 

Mr Zack Pang, 21, is one such youth. He teamed up with experienced speech and drama trainers, Ms Serene Martin, 37, and Ms Marie Gabriel, 40, to lead a special four-week workshop at CampusImpact’s Theatre Thursdays.

CampusImpact provides education for the young from low-income and disadvantaged families, and its regular fixture, Theatre Thursdays, is focused on developing speech, confidence and presentation skills. 

Its executive director Ms Elysa Chen reached out to Pangdemonium to collaborate on a Covid-19 four-part workshop, receiving a $3,000 grant from the WeCare Arts Fund. “The kids rarely get to have that much fun, so the big benefit is for them to be free, to play with one another and to have their creativity challenged and pushed.”

Online Tuition is a Poor Substitute for Younger Children, and Those Going Through Critical Exams Such as PSLE and O-Levels

Above: Speech therapist Ms Sephine Goh, 31, working with a student who has developmental delay. She has gone from saying single words to constructing full sentences and shown progress in language and communication skills.

Among other aspects of childhood development, Club Rainbow Singapore (CRS) too, needs youth volunteers to provide tuition services for children preparing for PSLE and O-Level exams, which are critical year exams.

CRS provides compassionate relevant services to children with chronic illnesses and their families in their journey towards an enriching life. 

Ms Sophya Lim, Head of Community Partnership and Marketing, said going digital is no panacea for all learning issues. 

“We hope to be able to resume face-to-face engagements for them to continue their physiological (through therapy), psycho-social (through social integration activities), educational (through tuition), arts (through training and mentorship programmes) and vocational (through hands-on training) developments.” 

One pressing challenge it has is to find sufficient funds to support the increase in demand for financial assistance for children with chronic illnesses from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

It is putting its limited resources towards psycho-social support to caregivers experiencing additional Covid-19-related stress because of lost incomes. They are also worried about their children, who have weaker immunity or have to manage increased household conflicts.

Its beneficiaries are referred by attending physicians and their applications to join CRS are assessed by the medical advisory committee before they are accepted. Each beneficiary is then assigned to a social worker who will assess theirs and their families’ needs and jointly craft an Individual Care Plan with them where their needs are prioritised.

“Our children suffer from a large variety of health challenges, we have been cautious and have yet to resume the majority of our programmes and services,” said Ms Lim. 

Despite being able to pivot in response to restrictions caused by the pandemic, she notes: “We are having mostly online tuition, therapy and workshops, which are poor substitutes of the physical versions of these programmes and services.”

What has had to move online too is CRS’ fundraising activities. 

With an objective to support children with chronic illnesses, while encouraging a healthy lifestyle, CRS converted its annual night-cycling event, Ride for Rainbows, into a virtual format.

Family Time Helping Mum at the Shop 

Above: Madam Jasmin Chin, 45 raised her children Jack Ng, now 22, and Jess Ng, 19, on the salary of a food stall assistant for nearly 20 years. With the consistent help from PromisedLand Community Services after-school care services that helped Madam Chin’s family resolve its challenges and help her children through school. 

Helping children in their formative years determines how they live as adults. 

A better life for them, to vegetarian stall owner Madam Jasmine Chin, is a vision of their being able to grow up to be good people. 

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Madam Chin, 45, had help from her children, Mr Jack and Miss Jess Ng, cleaning up her stall at the close of the day. 

But it’s not a usual sight, said Ms June Tan, PromisedLand Community Service’s educational foundation manager, who, after working with the family for the past nine years, is as close to a co-parent Jack and Jess have.

“She usually tells them not to come because they slow down her work,” says Ms Tan, with a smile. But it’s really because she wants better assignments for them, having had to raise them on the salary of a food stall assistant for nearly 20 years. 

For years, she was concerned about her daughter’s mischievous nature, and her son’s introversion, traits that she attributes to them growing up with their share of pain.

As a boy, Jack witnessed loan sharks spray paint his grandfather through their home gate, as they harassed the family to settle his father’s debts. He retreated into himself. 

Jess, on the other hand, became strong-willed and rebellious in her teens, struggling with discrimination from adults and peers who shamed her for her background.

After her divorce, Madam Chin credits the consistent help she got from PromisedLand’s after-school care services, which began nine years ago, in helping her resolve these problems.

Then Jess asked her one day if she could go out on Sunday with some friends. Madam Chin recalls: “She said mum, they’re ‘Amen’ people, is it okay? But I was totally all right with it, and told her to go.” To her mind, it wasn’t top grades that mattered as much as her children having positive influence to shape good character. Today, Madam Chin and her children are Christians.

Jack is now 22, and Jess is 19. Jess is pursuing her Nanyang Polytechnic Diploma in Applied Food Science while working at a food colouring manufacturer, and Jack is an intern at an IT firm as he waits to start National Service. 

Both have become mentors to younger children too.

Things had begun to look up when in March, Madam Chin was finally able to take over the vegetarian food stall at Kimly Coffee Shop at Tradehub 21 (18 Boon Lay Way) from her former boss, working six days a week.

Then, the Circuit Breaker began and shuttered all businesses in the area. 

Somehow, her olive rice, mock tom yam fish and mutton specialities continued to yield a modest $500 a month from essential service workers seeking non-meat options. 

“I didn’t cook at home. My children were working there, and I’d come home and go straight to wash up,” she said. Now, at least, she’s starting to see improvement, with her income rising to about $1,500 in the month since businesses were allowed to reopen in Phase II.

“God is looking after me,” she said.

PromisedLand is challenged to continue its work with families such as Madam Chin’s, as it has already lost up to 80 percent in donations. It is concerned with sustaining overheads and keeping staff morale up. 

“There will be more issues arising as some parents experience loss of income. Stress will occur at homes,” said PromisedLand’s executive director, Mr Andy Tan. “Much more groundwork is needed and staff is relevant in this.” 

Catch our final episode of The City of Good Show, Episode 7, on Facebook. Support Children & Youth charities with the Dream Academy gang on HOME IMPROVment. As Nelson Mandela once said, “Children are our greatest treasure. They are our future.” Your giving will empower them to overcome challenges and blossom to excel in life; to become the next generation that builds our nation. Support these charities here: www.giving.sg/cityofgood/ep7

Photos by: Bryan van der Beek and Caroline Chia | Words by: Serene Goh

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