Tag Archive | Community

Giving and Garrulousness

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Floodwaters over a pavement along Jalan Ubi, right next to the Willing Hearts Soup Kitchen

Thankfully, I’d sought shelter long before the flash floods hit eastern Singapore on Monday morning. January had rolled around, and again I found myself at Willing Hearts. Maybe it was the announcement I’d heard over the radio that they had a shortage of volunteers on the weekdays, or the odd calm of being immersed in manual work. The kitchen was emptier than usual – the food preparation area seemed to be quiet, and the packing stations were filled mainly with the same kinds of people you’d expect to see on a January weekday morning. Retirees, university students on break, and younger students waiting for the release of ‘O’ or ‘A’ Level results.

Next to me scooping rice was a middle-aged Indonesian Chinese lady, one of the regular volunteer leaders whom everyone knew by face but not by name. (We just never felt the need to ask.) She had small twinkling eyes and a hearty voice, easily heard in cries of “Brother!” and “Sister!” to the other volunteers even at the busiest of times. My mother, who had come to help out with me a couple of times, always thought she was being too bossy and crass. I’d never talked to her. During a lull in the packing, I felt her lean over towards me.

“Eh girl, now you waiting for prelims results ah?”

“No lah Auntie, I’m in my second year of university already.”

She started, a big grin forming on her wide, round face. “Wah, university already ah!” Suddenly she pulled me in for a hug. “Auntie thought you still so young. You like chili padi! Small, but hot.”

This was nothing new for me – being small and slight for my age, I’ve often been mistaken for a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old. Nevertheless, hearing that I was in university brought to mind her own children, and she placed me in confidence in one of the unlikeliest places to hold a deep conversation. Below is an abridged version of what she told me.

“When I went to Johor in the car, I got lost. Then got one motorcycle pull up next to me, show me the way to the shopping mall. So Auntie said to herself, ‘Thank God!’ He sent me an angel. God is really good, ah. But we need to treat these old people well, because next time when old people must take care of us also. Like you put the veggie separately, then the meat won’t get soggy and become not nice to eat.”

“I have one daughter in NTU, studying Biochemistry. My third son now in NUS Law. My youngest, at first he fail Higher Chinese in secondary school, then he told me: “Mummy I don’t want to go JC anymore, I want to go poly (polytechnics).” I tell him, must still try, because go poly then very hard to go uni. Then later he said, “Mummy I want to go JC again. So he went to Victoria Junior College. Now he’s in army, next year will go university. And I felt very proud. His mummy not good at speaking, but then he can do good enough to go to the good school.”

Now I’m an ah ma (southern Chinese dialect phrase for ‘grandmother’) already! Two grand-daughters, one nine years, the other three months. My three-months-old grand-daughter so cute! Both are from my 33-year-old son. Girl, your family is girl-boy-girl, right? Maybe you pampered at home because you’re the youngest. Mine is boy, girl, boy, boy. But my girl very independent. She plays rugby. Over the holidays she played in Scotland, then she fly to Hong Kong.”

“Auntie recently went for checkup, and the doctor said: ‘Your only problem is you are over-weight.’ That’s because I used to take hormones for birth control. Better to have a larger age gap between the kids. Otherwise you every two years, every three years, you have one, it’s not good.”

The afternoon culminated with her eagerly showing me a photograph of the aforementioned baby grand-daughter. It seemed odd that she should open up to me so quickly, but the conversation we had was a gesture that touched me. Once again, it had, beyond volunteerism’s tangible social benefits and the dressed-up allure of charitableness it could bestow, reminded me of its lively human face.

Serving.

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“It’ll be good for you to come along. Then you’ll see the reason why we do all this nonsense.”

A woman in her thirties standing next to me frowned. “No lah, this can’t be called nonsense.”

The man smirked. “Tony always calls this ‘nonsense’, so I just call it ‘nonsense’ too.”

The man who spoke was Mr Tay. He was a tall bespectacled man in his fifties, with a head of frizzy black hair and a general demeanour of whimsical belligerence. In front of us were a pair of white vans and one red Audi, their boots open and waiting. Stacks of styrofoam boxes lounged in big plastic bags on the floor, each labelled hastily in black marker with the names of various housing estates. From packing food the previous day, I had been placed on delivery duty. “Most of the volunteers today are children,” someone else had explained, and by virtue of being the next oldest (but not by a long stretch), I was their next candidate.

What he had called ‘nonsense’ was, in fact, the under-estimated task of making sure that the food the Willing Hearts Soup Kitchen produced went to its recipients – each box contained a combination of rice, stir-fried vegetables and meat that had been cooked the previous day. Two other volunteers and I were assigned to distribute food to four destinations around Singapore: Jalan Kukoh, Chin Swee Road, York Hill and Banda Street. Some of the deliveries were needed urgently: after all, this would be the only way many of the recipients could obtain a meal at all. Armed with a lengthy set of verbal instructions from the seasoned volunteers, Google Maps and sheets of addresses, we set off in the Audi. The car was driven by the woman in her thirties. Her name was Hui Yi, and I noticed from the miniature statue suspended from her front-view mirror that she was a Buddhist. It was heartening that she had no qualms about volunteering with a Christian organisation – though the act of service itself could be said to transcend religious boundaries and unite us all in our human desire to do good.

Jalan Kukoh and Chin Swee were two of Singapore’s oldest housing estates. Unlike other more populated estates with their fresh coats of bright paint and publicised community gatherings, these estates looked largely like they had ten years ago. We toted bags of food boxes past speckled stone columns and grey tiled floors. A pair of old men, faces ruddy and bronzed, leaned back onto stone benches under a pavilion and smiled at us when they realised what we were here to do. When we left the first batch of boxes for the estates’ elderly at a distribution point, I saw them edge forward expectantly. Further ahead, a younger man lurked in an alleyway, shirtless, reeking of cigarette smoke.

After returning to the car for the next batch of boxes, we proceeded to the door-to-door deliveries. The elevators smelled musty, and we shuffled for space behind octogenarians in wheelchairs and a skimpily-dressed woman with her young child. I got out first, and stepped into a dark corridor.

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Though it was the middle of the afternoon, the landings were still shrouded in darkness. Dated Chinese New Year decorations, greyed at the edges, clung to the walls. A faded cross would appear on one worn pastel-yellow door, facing the remnants of burned-out incense sticks from tiny Taoist altars on the ground. Dried cat faeces sat at the foot of a flight of stairs and filled the air with a sharp odour. Sofas and chairs sat abandoned under spirals of dust motes caught in the sunlight filtering from windows in the side of each floor.

Many of those who answered the door were old men. Cursory peeks behind them into the front room of their apartment units showed bare beige floors, with often only a small shelf or an electric fan placed against the wall. Some would smile and thank us in low raspy voices, but many received their packages wordlessly. It was an all-too regular occurrence for them; one that they, unhappily, had no choice but to depend on. Sometimes it would be answered by a relative of the beneficiary. One was answered by a middle-aged woman, who smiled at me bracingly before turning to her mother, lying immobile on a mattress next to the door. Many of them had lost their jobs or were mired in debt, falling through the cracks.

One of them struck me more than the others. Another old man walked up to our car at our third destination. He moaned, gestured to his mouth, and shook his hands: no food. He fumbled in his wallet for his registration card, waving it before us imploringly. We pointed to the address sheets, asking him to identify his so that we could bring it to him. Again, he pointed to his card and grunted in some frustration. The employees of a nearby lumber shop watched with a benevolent exasperation, and told us about his situation. He was both deaf and mute, and lived alone.

In a bustling metropolis like Singapore, it can be easy to forget that there are very much still people who need our help. The poor, the destitute, the homeless. Even when we do interact with them – often in somewhat contrived settings, to satisfy ‘service hours’ or fulfil some corporate social responsibility component – it can be easy to ignore the humanity we share instead of viewing them as objects of our benefaction. But at the same time, it can be hard not to pain for those you have felt the suffering of.

We finished our shift beleaguered, but satisfied. On the drive back, we were no longer on a mission. Our shift was done, and the three of us now had other things to deal with and worry about.

If only the people we were serving had the luxury to do the same.

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Christmas at the SOSD Adoption Drive

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The spirit of giving extends not just to fellow humans, but also our four-legged friends. This was evidenced by the huge crowd that had gathered outside Paya Lebar Square on Sunday afternoon, all there to offer various forms of support to dogs still waiting for a home of their very own. There were dogs in brown, beige and black; feisty or greedy or shy; but what all of them needed that day was a chance at a new life.

Not a single dog I saw was lacking any measure of human attention. Even before I saw any dogs, I saw their supporters, bristling in a huge crowd at an open courtyard outside Paya Lebar Square. Each potential adoptee from Save our Street Dogs Singapore (SOSD) had a circle of volunteers, supporters, and potential adopters around them. Hands reached out to pet them, fingers extended dog treats, and voices were raised to praise them–or, in rare cases, issue warning shouts when any of the dogs got out of line. “They get very excited because there’s a lot of dogs and people around,” a volunteer confessed breathlessly, after having to break up a pair of puppies who had tried to snap at each other.

Everywhere, dogs were straining at their leashes, playfully nipping at fingers, jumping onto people, yapping at other dogs or jostling with them for crumbs. Yet in spite of the chaos and stress of having to deal with the large crowds, the shelter volunteers never seemed to skip a beat. Every sudden disturbance was met with a patient smile and a calm explanation, and in their tolerance it was easy to see the devotion they had towards the animals they were trying to save. Many of them talked as fondly of the dogs as if they were speaking about their own children. “They’re all very pretty. They’re all very cute. They’re all very smart. The boys are just big, big, dumb,” quipped one volunteer good-naturedly about the female puppies. Amid the good humour and laughter were more strident, deeper declarations of dog–an impulsive hug or a kiss from person to pooch, or a verbal testament to their hope for these canines’ new lives. “I heard the black dogs are the most unadoptable,” stated a lady who was looking for a dark-furred dog. “I think they should make all HDB owners have a dog. That would solve the problem,” she added firmly, referring to the spectre of homelessness that continues to plague many strays on the island today.

There were far too many dogs for me to learn about in that one afternoon. But I have tried to tease out the unique backgrounds of each dog I attempted to get to know. Animals cannot speak as we do, and it is up to their personalities and backgrounds–as well as the people who have worked with them, of course–to tell their story. Hopefully through this they and their furry friends may be able to reach out, too, to someone who might be able to change their fate for the better.

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Fides (1.5 years old)

“We found him at Jurong Island. He has white hairs and also a white spot on his chest. He has two or three other siblings, but he’s the only one here. We have 50 dogs here, and our shelter can hold up to about 80.”

“He eats a lot, but he’s very strong!”

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Baba (5.5 months old)

“Oh, he just wants to play with the other dogs. He was found on Jurong Island. We use a metal leash because he kept biting the plastic ones. He had a yeast infection, so we had to shave his tail to make it easier to apply the cream. He has another sister named Nana who’s also here.”

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Falco (3.5 months)

“We don’t ask where they come from, because they’re for a new beginning. It’s another team that brings them in. He actually has another sister somewhere around here–yes, a lot of them are related. He’s quite big already; not HDB-approved. Waah, he’s so greedy.”

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Hector (3.5 months old)

“The bare patches are the result of a skin condition. He’s on a normal diet, but I think it’s allergies caused from eating grass and things like these.”

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Haely (3.5 months old)

“She’s actually not this calm most of the time. Usually she’s also very active. She’s not trained yet because she’s just arrived at the shelter; about a month ago.”

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Kyoto (5.5 months old)

“Oh yeah, there are a lot of other ‘K’s too. We have a Kobe, a Katy… I think we’re going to run out of the thesaurus soon! Usually the people who find them get to name them. Yeah, he’s very playful. At least he’s food-motivated, so he’s easy to train.”

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Scooby (2 years old)

“He’s not for adoption. We brought our dog here because we were here to collect something from the SOSD booth. He’s a stray but his legs are naturally like that; his mother was shorter actually. He can run around normally because he’s born with it, so he’s used to it.”

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Bibi (4.5 months old)

“She was found on a nature reserve on Jurong–I think it was Sungei something, can’t remember. Her siblings are with another welfare group because the officers took pity on them and called the group. Another guy found her and contacted SOSD. I’m actually a fosterer; I have her and another dog. She’s trained on a pee pad, but likes to go on the grass. This one, she’s very greedy. She’s a chi huo (Mandarin for ‘foodie’)!”

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Hannah (3 years old) 

“I’m the volunteer; those two are her owners. We found her when she was one-and-a-half years old, in a factory. They had no parents; they were just running around. I wish I had pictures from back then but I don’t! Her coat is very wiry, isn’t it. Sometimes, you just need to come here for some puppy therapy.”

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Dawn (1.5 years old)

“Her tail is between her legs all the time because she’s scared. Since there’s a lot of dogs and a lot of people here and she doesn’t like crowded places. It used to be worse; last time she would go hide in a corner. With other dogs she’s okay, but she takes a bit of time to warm up. Her siblings are all like her: shy, and they have the long body. She was found at a factory at Pasir Ris, actually, with four or five other siblings. This is our biggest adoption drive because it’s Christmas, and it’s the last one of the year. There are a lot of dogs we have here who still need a home. Oh, uh, you can touch her from the front. She gets nervous when you touch her from the back.”

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Griffin (7.5 months old)

“He’s… a very unique dog. He can be very sweet, and very energetic. I ran 37 k with him yesterday. Normally we run 15 kilometres a day. He needs someone willing to exercise with him.  He will go chase birds, and play with the dogs he’s familiar with. He’ll wake me up at 4.30 in the morning, and we go running at 5. He doesn’t open up easily to strangers and doesn’t like to be petted, but he will play with the other dogs that he knows around here. He doesn’t like to be in areas with a lot of other people and dogs, but he’s observing them. He and his siblings were found in a drain at Paya Lebar, all covered in mud. He squats the same way he did as a puppy. His two other siblings were more charming, so they got adopted before him. I raised him from when he was this small until now. Like I said, he’s very sweet, and he can be very energetic.”