A social enterprise on a mission to nurture individuals with special needs

For husband and wife duo Soek Ying and Barry, giving differently-abled individuals a space to grow and develop skills for gainful employment motivated their founding of social enterprise Mustard Tree. Their son, Ryan Koh, an autistic young artisan with an affinity for arts and crafts, was the main reason why Soek Ying and Barry started Mustard Tree. Now, an omni-channel retail platform, Mustard Tree shows no signs of slowing down on its mission to empower its beneficiaries to make a dignified living.

We speak to Barry about Mustard Tree, his philosophy, and hopes for the enterprise.

Could you tell us more about Mustard Tree? 

Mustard Tree was founded by my wife, Soek Ying, and I. We run an omni-channel retail platform (Bricks & Mortar & Online) and a modest training outfit in the hope that we can better target and enable those who have fallen behind (above 18 years old & unable to land a permanent job). We aim to build capabilities in art/craftwork and retailing and to help our clients regain self-worth.

What inspired Mustard Tree to give people with special needs a space to shine?

Soek Ying and I are parents to Ryan, now 22 years old. What started as a mummy’s pride to showcase her son’s work on Facebook quickly transformed into a little enterprise. People were reaching out to ask about his work and how to go about purchasing them. In fact, some of his initial craft work which were so rough and not well made at all were snapped up quickly. One of the buyers shared this: “”Everyone leaves different fingerprints on a piece of work. If this is his style, you can’t ask him to change.” We were so touched and inspired by these encouraging words that it bolstered our confidence to part with his very first batch of felt frogs. Spurred by this experience, we continued exposing him to different forms of materials and craft work. A dear friend of ours also volunteered to come over to our house once a week to teach Ryan how to sew. Although we were wary of his sensory issues to certain noise, we ventured to buy him a sewing machine. We were all amazed by the results. Today, our aim is to impact lives of people with special needs just like Ryan – who did not have the opportunity to uncover their God-given talents or offered a chance to showcase their talents. With like-minded partners, we develop customised training courses for people with special needs, so that they can be empowered with industry standard skills, which will either enable them to seek gainful employment or set up shop as a home-based entrepreneur like Ryan.

How are these individuals empowered through your enterprise?

We train them, we hire some of them, refer them for job placements if possible. If they cannot be placed at that time, they would continue to pursue their craft with us, as we curate these products and retail these items on their behalf.

Could you share more about a few of your artists and how they have been empowered by Mustard Tree?

Madam Tay, a 68 year-old physically handicapped artisan, has been with us the longest. We met her during an SG Enable training session. After Madam Tay attended a floral arrangement trial in Mustard Tree and was accepted into the class, she said that she was very appreciative that she was able to fulfil her childhood dream of learning how to do flower arrangements.

50709910_2326630474036724_9134586262458466304_n
Madam Tay joined Mustard Tree two years ago to show that her physical disabilities will not stand in the way of getting a job

Before we met Madam Tay, she was staying at home and did not have much to occupy her thoughts as she was unable to find work. When our physical retail store at Ng Teng Fong Hospital opened two years ago, she joined us to prove to naysayers that her physical disability will not stand in the way of her getting a job.

Another artisan with Mustard Tree is 28-year-old trainee Madelene Tan, who has learning delay and hearing impairment as a result of a brain tumour. She attended SPED Schools and was working at her father’s company for eight years. She first started attending our weekly craft classes around middle of last year. In Oct 2018, she joined us as a full-time trainee. Since then, she has progressed well. From a relatively quiet, less confident individual she has now blossomed to be more independent and vocal. She helps us to tend to the huge amounts of flowers that pass through Mustard Tree on a weekly basis – she carries, stores, conditions, trims these flowers and is now able to do simple flower bouquets. She also adds the finishing touches on our products.

50831177_2326630424036729_6971385289012936704_n
Madelene Tan tends to the large volumes of flowers that pass through Mustard Tree every week, and even puts together simple flower bouquets for sale]

Support Mustard Tree in training people with special needs and empowering them with skills to seek gainful employment by checking out their  online store and physical store located at Ng Teng Fong Hospital at Jurong East, Level 2.

Stay-at-home Mom with Peace of Mind

Lee Siok Hong’s family is one of 5,000 households slated to benefit from enhanced child care subsidies. As a non-working mother, the increase in subsidies will allow her to focus on raising her two young children.

Sitting on the couch in her living room, Siok Hong is surrounded by the trappings of home. For most of the day, she tends to her six-month-old baby, Mavis, while her older child, Oscar spends his day at a child care centre.

The 38-year-old put her career in admin and customer service on hold to focus on raising her two children in their crucial early years. With her husband as the sole breadwinner, Siok Hong and her family fall under the middle income category – they do not have to worry about making ends meet, but still feel the pinch of raising a child.

Siok Hong estimates that monthly child care costs for Oscar alone reach up to $450. This adds to the family’s expenses, which include necessities such as diapers for Mavis.

The increase in child care subsidies which Siok Hong will receive from the Early Childhood Development Agency will go a long way in helping her defray some of these costs.

From 1 March 2019, thanks to the Government’s enhanced support for non-working mothers, families like Siok Hong’s can enjoy a further boost in subsidies ranging from $100 to $440, subject to means testing.  It is on top of a $300 monthly basic subsidy.

Besides higher subsidies, Siok Hong can also enjoy these subsidies until her younger child turns 24 months, up from 18 months previously.

Siok Hong recalls that when she took care of Oscar as an infant, she often had to wake up in the middle of the night to tend to his needs. Going to work the next day was exhausting. While Oscar was at infant care, he often got sick and this brought Siok Hong constant worry and stress at work, as she was unable to leave to pick him up.

Instead of having to repeat this tiring routine for Mavis, Siok Hong feels reassured that she can stay home to focus on caring for her.

Read more about ECDA’s announcements here.

More on MSF’s announcements here.

Want to join social work? Be a ‘fool’ like this social worker

Ian Peterson has worked for 18 years as a social worker, without losing his resolve. His secret? Faith, openness, optimism and love.

When Ian became a social worker 18 years ago, people sometimes called him a fool. His profession was not well understood then and he was seen to be just a “paid volunteer”.

Now, though, “fool” has taken on a new meaning in his life.

Each letter of the epithet stands for one of his ideals.
“F” is for faith – in people and their assets.
“O” is for openness to the experiences of clients and their families.
“O” is for optimism in the face of difficulties.
“L” is love for social work.

The 46-year-old’s sense of purpose is an integral part of fulfilling his daily responsibilities as the Cluster Director (Northwest) of Care Corner Singapore Ltd.

He works with vulnerable clients and fellow social workers, overseeing three family service centres at Admiralty, Queenstown and Woodlands. In his time, he has helped those struggling with family violence, gambling and drug addiction. A proponent of an integrated approach to social service, Ian coordinates with his colleagues to identify common issues that clients face. Based on these findings, together they might launch targeted and group programmes for these clients.

Ian is now working with MSF, applying his knack for community-based care to launch Community Link (ComLink) at Marsiling. As part of this initiative, social service hubs will be launched in four areas: Jalan Kukoh, Marsiling, Kembangan-Chai Chee and Boon Lay. Overall, ComLink will benefit some 1,000 families staying in rental flats. While ComLink is new, Ian says it builds on current support networks.

“I believe that in every community so far that I’ve worked with, there is some level of community participation already.  You are just enhancing what’s existing to see whether you can take it to the next level.”

Ian-2420
Ian having discussion with his colleague

For Ian, the relationship between social workers and clients is a collaborative journey. Clients do not simply have deficits but bring their own assets to the table, he says. His work involves collaborating with clients and “helping them to reach that level of motivation, where they can move on in life and to increase their social mobility”.

For example, Ian once worked with a family going through a painful divorce. In “journeying” together with the mother and her three children, Ian saw them create new meaning in their adjusted lives. “They became strong pillars of support for each other, especially when they were able to open up and share how difficult it was to lose the dad.” The older children had to step up to help with housework, and for the youngest, the challenge was homework.

Community, it seems, is never far from Ian’s musings on social work. As the “fool” says: “Always know that there’s always a lot of team support and community network that exists.”

MSF will be working with community partners to launch ComLink in four estates to provide more integrated and coordinated support for families in rental flats. Read more about this here.

More on MSF’s announcements here.

70-year-old Colours Her Way to Health

At the Fei Yue Senior Activity Centre in Hougang, a fellow resident passes Mdm Jaya Lidya d/o Samuel  an outline of a house overlooked by trees. Beaming, Mdm Jaya gets to work, shading the branches brown. This is part of a typical day for the 70-year-old who, like the scene she is colouring, is a picture of exuberance.

When she was young, though, Mdm Jaya contracted polio, which has affected her mobility. In spite of her condition, she is determined to live a full life, enjoying wheelchair dancing, flower making, cooking and bingo, – among other activities at Fei Yue Senior Activity Centre.

Mdm Jaya is also close to her family. She lives with her sister in a HDB studio apartment. She has a big extended family, too, including nephews and nieces who like to share jokes with her whenever they visit.

Besides this crucial family support, she receives cash assistance as part of ComCare Long Term Assistance (LTA). Since 2016, this scheme has helped to defray some of her living and medical expenses.

From 1 July 2019, Mdm Jaya, along with other ComCare LTA beneficiaries, will receive an increase in cash assistance.

Mdm Jaya cites her family and her social service officer from Social Service Office @ Hougang, Priya d/o Sreetharan, as her pillars of support.  Having worked together over the past two years, Mdm Jaya and Priya have grown particularly close. This connection is important, says Priya, for understanding and meeting the needs of those they serve.

Mdm Jaya_3
Mdm Jaya with Priya from Social Service Office @ Hougang and Moses from Fei Yue Cluster Support

Apart from ComCare LTA, Mdm Jaya receives aid from the Silver Support Scheme and the Pioneer Generation package. Helping Mdm Jaya get the best support from the network of support, Priya says, requires coordination between various agencies, like Fei Yue Senior Activity Centre and Tan Tock Seng Hospital, where Mdm Jaya receives her medical treatment.

For Mdm Jaya, volunteering is all part of quality living. She takes part in various events by organisations for the disabled, and is helping to raise funds for the Singapore Cancer Society.

“I do a lot of activities,” says this pioneer who has become an invaluable member of her community. “You can say I’m quite busy!”

For more information on the ComCare enhancements, see here.

More on MSF’s announcements here.

Changing lives with a PoP

After an enviable medical and corporate career, Dr Rajeshree Nimish Parekh has dedicated her life to empowering women. Her method of choice: empowering women through the intricacies of beading and braiding.

Bracelet-making involves a rhythm. “Left, right, in, out, again and again,” says Dr Parekh, affectionately known as Gina by her colleagues, who has found the looping of strings into knots to be a “soothing influence”. Since turning this hobby into a charitable enterprise, she has introduced other women to its joys—and its empowering effects.

As part of her PoPstrings Project, residents at the Star Shelter bond through learning to make bracelets. PoP stand for “Power of Positivity”. For these survivors of domestic violence, braiding and beading are a means of earning supplementary income when the finished products are eventually sold.

Before turning her hands to beads and threads, Dr Parekh had applied her dexterity to surgery.

In India, where she was born, Dr Parekh was the chief operating officer and medical director at UnitedHealthcare India. She was also consulting and working for various companies from her time in India to Singapore. The corporate world, though, left her with the nagging feeling that “there was something missing in my life”.

She took a break from work and started braiding as a hobby. Along the way, she would gift family and friends her creations.

 Her bracelet-making hobby would evolve after a chance meeting with mutual acquaintances at a wedding in Kenya. One was a Star Shelter employee. They chatted and met up with fellow women at the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO), which founded the shelter in 1999. At that meeting, Dr Parekh offered her medical skills. To her surprise, SCWO was most drawn to her PoPstrings Project.

Dr Gina-1746

When asked what empowerment means to her, she says it is a level playing field for everyone, and the ability to express yourself. “It doesn’t necessarily have to mean that women must have corporate careers or be at the workplace. Empowerment can even be having equal footing in the home environment, where you are respected for who you are and your opinion is valued.”

Looking back at her career, Dr Parekh recalls often being the only woman at meetings between senior leaders. With PoPstrings however, she is intent on keeping the project as inclusive as possible.

Residents sometimes will bring their children along for braiding classes. When a resident’s nine-year-old son asked if he could learn how to braid, Dr Parekh’s answer was obvious.

“I said ‘sure’. I’m not setting gender stereotypes here.”

 

Working together to support children with developmental needs

Iyad Perdaus, the childcare department of voluntary-welfare organization Perdaus, has a Learning and Development Support Unit (LDSU) that runs the MSF-funded Development Support and Learning Support (DS-LS) programmes. This programme, run by therapists and specially-trained Learning Support Educators (LSEds), provide targeted support for pre-school children with mild developmental needs.

As shared in MSF’s Committee of Supply debates 2017, MSF will expand the development support programme to more preschools and build up a pool of 200 LSEds. We speak to Mdm Zaiton Mohd Ali, Head of Iyad Perdaus, on how they are running the DS-LS programme in their centre. Also read about LSEds here and other support services for children with special needs here.


Q: Tell us about Iyad DS-LS

Iyad Perdaus was appointed by MSF on 1 April 2017 as one of the centres providing the Development Support and Learning Support (DS-LS) programmes. We aim to improve children’s developmental outcomes and achieve better school-readiness. Currently, all three of our centres are running the programme to benefit more children.

LDSU Briefing and Sharing
 LSEds doing a briefing and sharing session for our kindergarten teachers on tools for screening.

Q: Share with us about your learning support programmes.

The form teacher uses the Ecological Congruence Assessment to assess if any K1 and K2 children may require additional learning support. Our LSEds will conduct further screening using multiple sets of assessment tools. The children will be referred to a MSF-contracted Educational Psychologist and the consultant team from KKH and NUH.

Based on the child’s needs, a Development Support or Learning Support programme will then be offered to the child once his/her parents have given their consent. Priority will be given to a K2 child as he/she has a shorter runway to start primary school.

In 2018, we have served over 35 children. We are glad that most parents are very supportive of the programme to help the child to be more ready for Primary 1.

Teaching Materials 3
Activities to help children learn to read lower-case letters.

Q: Any memorable stories about students?

Teachers noticed that one child struggled to stay engaged during large group lessons and required one-to-one guidance during writing and reading classes. The LSEd identified that he needed Learning Support in the area of Literacy, and worked with him on areas such as how to write letters, read by sight, and construct sentences.

The child has since shown progress. He can read all lowercase letters and more than 10 common words, and construct at least 4- to 5-word sentences about a picture. In the classroom setting, the child is now more engaged during literacy and writing activities. This is made possible with the collaboration of the class teachers who incorporated some of the strategies shared by the LSEd.

Parents play an important role in the child’s progress and development. His parents were involved through the Home Programme, where the child continues to practice the skills and strategies learned during the sessions and utilise the resources shared by the LSEd through hands-on games or activities at home.

Q: Any key takeaways from running the programme?

With consistency and collaboration from all the stakeholders – parents, teachers and LSEds, children receiving DS-LS will be able to acquire the skills and knowledge, increase their level of engagement, participation and independence, as well as strengthen their social interaction and relationship. It makes our team proud and happy when our students make progress and adjust better transiting to primary school.