The ABCs of keeping COVID-Safe in preschools

Educators playing COVID-Safe Snakes and Ladders with our young ones @ MY World @ Tampines North

The sense of anticipation was palpable as MY World Preschool reopened its doors in the first week of June, after exiting from the Circuit Breaker.

“Our whole community was excited and ready for the first day back,” says Ms Jane Choy, MY World Preschool’s Head of Operations. “Our preschoolers were delighted to reunite with their friends, and parents were happy to see that their children were in safe hands.”

MY World Preschool had begun preparing the children and their parents well ahead of the reopening.

In the lead-up, parents were briefed on the COVID-Safe ABCs, a series of safe management measures outlined by the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA). The ABC letters stand for Access, Behaviours and Classrooms.

Under COVID-Safe Access, anyone who is unwell or poses a risk of transmission is not allowed to enter, and strict temperature and health checks are conducted upon arrival and through the day. To minimise visitors into the centres’ premises, centres conduct parent-teacher meetings online and hold virtual tours for prospective parents looking to enroll their children.

COVID-Safe Behaviours focus on cultivating the right norms and habitsamong staff, children and parents to reduce the risk of transmission. They include the use of face masks or shields, keeping groups small, disinfecting high touch points like door handles frequently, and avoiding the sharing of equipment.

As for maintaining COVID-Safe Classrooms, centres adopt classroom management strategies to reduce interactions between different groups of children and staff, such as staggering pick-up and drop-off times, and segregating children by classes. Large group activities like assemblies are also suspended.

By keeping parents informed of such measures ahead of their implementation, MY World Preschool has been able to assure concerned parents like Mr Hadlin Bin Jimin, whose Nursery 2 daughter attends MY World @ Tampines North.

“We were initially a bit nervous about sending our child back to preschool because of COVID-19, but MY World Preschool prepared so much material and information for us that by the time the first day came around, our nerves were gone.”

MY World Preschool centres have creatively adapted everyday routines to remind preschoolers of the COVID-Safe ABCs and engaged them through singing the COVID-Safe ABCs jingle.

“Explaining safe distancing to very young preschoolers can be challenging, so we’ve come up with innovative ways to help them understand the need for the ABCs,” says Ms Choy.

Safe distancing wings help preschoolers at My World @ Tampines Changkat keep a safe distance from their friends

For example, one of their centres has reminded preschoolers to keep a one-metre distance from their friends through safe-distancing wings made from recycled cardboard and decorated by the children. The children were excited to put on their very own safe-distancing wings during lessons.

At other MY World Preschool centres, teachers have incorporated games like Simon Says into lessons, with children following instructions on why they should avoid touching one another. Other games include COVID-Safe ABCs Bingo and a special version of Snakes and Ladders.

Besides engaging preschoolers with games, MY World Preschool has also encouraged them to take responsibility for one another’s well-being by appointing the older pupils as safety ambassadors.

“My job is to make sure that we keep a safe distance from our friends and remind them to wash their hands and wear masks all the time,” explains Wee Shi Xuan, a Kindergarten 2 pupil and safety ambassador at MY World @ Sun Natura.

Safety ambassadors can appoint their classmates for the role by giving them stickers and bracelets. This way, every child has an opportunity to take the lead on safety measures.

“I am happy to be appointed as a safety ambassador, because I can teach my friends how to stay safe,” says Rayan Oh, a Kindergarten 2 safety ambassador at MY World @ Yishun Palm Breeze.

“Working together with everyone across the MY World Preschool community is imperative. It does take a village to raise a child and involving parents in our safe management measures is really important,” says Ms Choy. “This is why we prepared materials beforehand, so that parents can have conversations with their kids and equip them to take care of themselves in school.”

Find out more about the COVID-Safe ABCs at go.gov.sg/BacktoSchoolABCs and get your child involved by singing the COVID-Safe ABCs jingle with them.

Caring in a time of crisis

Ms Vivienne Ng, Chief Psychologist, Ministry of Social and Family Development

Since its launch on 10 April 2020, the National CARE Hotline has managed 20,900 calls from the community. Behind the setting up and operations of the hotline is a huge amount of coordination required across various parties including Ms Vivienne Ng.

The Chief Psychologist of MSF and her team had only about a week to rally volunteers because of the urgency to provide emotional and psychological support to those facing difficulties with the stressors brought about by COVID-19. They quickly reached out to the multi-agency National CARE Management System (NCMS), led by the Ministry of Health, to tap on CARE officers who are trained to provide emotional support during crises.

As of June 2020, over 770 Duty CARE officers from government agencies, community partners and in private practice, have stepped forward to man the Hotline. “We are encouraged by the sheer number of volunteers who offered their help, with everyone understanding the urgency of the Hotline and wanting to help fellow Singaporeans in need,” says Vivienne.

Professional bodies like the Singapore Psychological Society (SPS), the Singapore Association for Counselling (SAC) and the Singapore Association of Social Workers (SASW) also reached out to their members to volunteer for the Hotline.

On the rallying of volunteers, Vivienne said, “It was truly a public-private-people partnership that went beyond our wildest hopes.”

Besides being the CARE coordinator at MSF, Vivienne oversees National CARE Hotline’s volunteer recruitment, briefing and rostering, management of supervisors, call centre operations, data analysis and research. When she needed help with understanding what goes into setting up a hotline and managing telephony records, she reached out to experienced colleagues handling MSF’s other Hotline operations such as ComCare.

She and her team also relied on community partners for technical support. The social enterprise Agape Connecting People provided a call system and customer service officers to prioritise calls for the Hotline.

The major concerns of callers to the National CARE Hotline relate to mental health, emotional support, family issues and employment. Duty CARE Officers are the first line of assistance, providing a listening ear to callers. If callers require longer-term specialised support, the officers link them to community partners, such as the Institute of Mental Health, Samaritans of Singapore, Temasek Foundation’s My Mental Health, Agency for Integrated Care, Community Psychology Hub’s Online Counselling Platform and Viriya Community Services.

Coordinating the various aspects of the Hotline to ensure smooth operations can be intense and Vivienne says that she worked late into the night during the first few weeks following the launch of the Hotline. Nevertheless, she enjoys the fast pace and quick problem-solving aspects of crisis and disaster-related work. Most of all, she is motivated by the impact made by National CARE Hotline.

“I’m always so encouraged when I read shift reports and hear about the different people the Duty CARE officers have helped, the tragedies we averted and lives touched,” she says. “Some even call back to compliment the service and thank our Duty CARE officers.”

Working on National CARE Hotline has reminded Vivienne of her post-graduate days, when she studied for a Master’s degree in Psychology at the University of Western Australia and volunteered weekly at the Samaritans’ suicide helpline.

She handled calls in the middle of the night and “de-escalated strong emotions of people in severe crisis, including people holding guns to their heads”. Three decades later, she says she is again reflecting on the “hidden lives of people”, such as those who suffer from mental health problems that have been exacerbated with COVID-19 and others who have experienced a change of fortunes because of COVID-19.

“While we can’t solve all their problems, people need a listening ear, an empathetic response – they need to feel cared for and less alone. We can also point them in the right direction to get more help.”

In this regard, you need not be a clinical professional or part of the National CARE Hotline to help, says Vivienne. “If we all reach out to our neighbours, friends and relatives around us, ask them how they are doing and really listen, there will be less isolation, more community spirit and building of relationships. 

“In this way, we can all help one another.”      

TIP BOX
Here are some tips from Vivienne on dealing with fears of COVID-19 and adapting to life after the Circuit Breaker:

– Take time to ease yourself back into a work and family routine, expecting some disorganisation and adjustment.
– While fears about COVID-19 still abound, remind yourself that community spread is currently very low and the probability of contracting the virus is very low, too, as long as necessary safety precautions are taken.
– Do not be consumed with worries about the illness, but re-engage with life, family, friends and the community while exercising care.
– Exercise regularly, eat healthily, maintain a regular sleep cycle, engage in hobbies and learn new things.
– Spend time talking and interacting with family and friends, either in person where possible or via video conferencing platforms.

If you need or know of someone who needs help, please contact the National CARE Hotline at 1800-202-6868.

If you are a mental health professional and would like to volunteer for the hotline, email the National CARE Hotline at nationalcarehotline@msf.gov.sg

Community partners ramp up support for the homeless

While most Singaporeans are staying at home during the Circuit Breaker to minimise the spread of COVID-19, some are unable to do so because they lack a roof over their heads. Others need help with their essential needs, such as getting food and groceries.

To help our homeless friends, MSF’s Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers (PEERS) Office has worked with its community partners to set up more Safe Sound Sleeping Places (S3Ps).

Yio Chu Kang Chapel, headed by Pastor Rick Toh, is one such community partner which started operating an S3P before this crisis. In addition to providing shelter to homeless friends, the church also collaborates with other community partners to offer holistic support to those in need during this challenging period.

At Yio Chu Kang Chapel, homeless friends can stay overnight with light refreshments and use its shower facilities and washing machines. Help is also provided to help these individuals get back on their feet.

Pastor Rick_photo3(final)2Pastor Rick Toh from Yio Chu Kang Chapel which runs a Safe Sound Sleeping Place (S3P)

“We help them gain independence through placing them in long-term shelters or rental homes, and helping them to find a job,” says Pastor Rick, who added that the church also provides food vouchers, pro-bono counselling and legal advice.

The shelter currently has 5 permanent staff and 10 volunteers. Teams of two volunteers visit the shelter each day to befriend shelter residents, while observing safe distancing measures.

“We want our homeless friends to know that they’re not alone and we want to empower them to contribute to society,” says Pastor Rick. “Some are even helping us to look after the daily operations of the shelter and are happy to give back in this way.”

As Yio Chu Kang Chapel’s S3P has reached its capacity, Pastor Rick and his team are redirecting new queries for shelter to the PEERS Office.

“If we receive requests to stay at our shelter, and are unable to accommodate them, we direct callers to MSF,” says Pastor Rick. “MSF has been very responsive − having found shelters for many homeless friends whom we’ve put them in touch with.”

Also, the church is sharing its knowledge on S3P operations and processes with new partners which have started operating shelters during the Circuit Breaker. Many new organisations came forward to set up S3Ps quickly, despite the limitations faced during Circuit Breaker. During the Circuit Breaker period, there were 46 S3Ps, an increase of 40 new S3Ps. Some of the new partners include Tao One Ltd, Tung Ling Community Services, Assyakirin Mosque and Faith Methodist Church.

Many more homeless friends have come forward to seek shelter as a result of COVID-19 and the Circuit Breaker measures. MSF has received more than 500 referrals to the 46 S3Ps since the Circuit Breaker started on 7 April 2020, compared to about 40 referrals to 6 S3Ps in December 2019. Many of our homeless friends have indicated they are willing to be further assisted, and this has given community-based agencies and social service agencies the opportunity to better understand their circumstances and offer further assistance.

On the importance of caring for the needy during this pandemic, Pastor Rick says: “We must do what we can to support those who cannot fend for themselves.”

He is thankful that more are receiving assistance, including those who were “under the radar” because they “bunked with friends or moved around in public spaces”.

Besides the PEERS Network for homeless individuals, other groups are also working hard to help the vulnerable. This includes Food from the Heart, Food Bank and Willing Hearts – food charities that have come together to ensure that vulnerable households continue to receive support during this challenging period.

One such recipient is 85-year-old Mr Leong Leong Ho, who has been living alone in a Redhill rental flat after the death of his flatmate a few years ago.

During the Circuit Breaker period, he was linked up with Food from the Heart, which provides monthly food packs to 8,500 households, including seniors like him. The food packs include fresh eggs, fruit, vegetables and canned food.

“I am very thankful to Food from the Heart, as the Circuit Breaker has made it difficult for me to step out and buy food,” says Mr Leong. “My friends in the area have also received food packs, and we are touched by all the help.”

To find out where to donate, contribute food and other items, or volunteer your time, please visit sgunited.gov.sg.

Listen to MONEYFM 89.3’s podcast where Claressa Monteiro chats
with Minister Desmond Lee on the support MSF and our partners are extending to vulnerable individuals and families.

 

Stepping forward to do good

Since the start of COVID-19 Support Grant (CSG) applications on 4 May 2020, MSF received about 48,000 applications from those whose jobs have been affected by the COVID-19 crisis.

While applications are mostly done online, there are some who need help with their applications and apply directly at MSF’s Social Service Offices (SSOs).  Volunteers like Ms Crystal Choy have stepped forward to help these applicants alongside our MSF colleagues.

Crystal photo (final)
Ms Crystal Choy volunteering to help applicants for the COVID-19 Support Grant

“The applications can be done entirely online, but some older Singaporeans still prefer to come down to the SSOs for assistance as they don’t have the technological skills to use phones or laptops,” she says. “As I’m more tech-savvy, I want to give back to society by helping our seniors and others who may need help applying for the help schemes.”

The 24-year-old is a programme management executive at the Civil Service College who responded to an email call for volunteers, because she wanted to do something meaningful for those in need during this uncertain economic period.

Stationed at the SSO @ Bukit Merah, Crystal helps five to ten individuals per day to apply for the CSG. After first checking if they are eligible for the Grant and their supporting documents, she walks them through the online application process.

As some of these applicants did not qualify for CSG, Crystal promptly directed them to our SSO colleagues who supported them through other assistance, such as the ComCare scheme. ComCare provides financial assistance and holistic support to low-income individuals and families to help them through difficult times and regain stability.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the SSOs are exercising greater flexibility to support those in need. For example, since April 2020, new ComCare beneficiaries receive at least six months of assistance to help tide them through their financial challenges.

Households, whose ComCare assistance expires from now till July 2020, will also have their assistance automatically extended for a further six months without having to approach the SSOs.

Crystal is thankful for every success story in her volunteering stint. “Seeing people who are financially vulnerable receive help to support their families is very encouraging,” she says.

And though this period has proved to be a difficult one for Singaporeans, it has not stopped Crystal from stepping out of her comfort zone to volunteer.

“Being deployed to an SSO, I’ve encountered people from all walks of life whom I don’t usually meet in the course of my work,” she says.

Crystal encourages other Singaporeans to seek out volunteering opportunities in our collective fight against COVID-19.

“This is a time when Singaporeans need to be there for one another, and stand united,” says Crystal.

If you want to join Crystal in supporting fellow Singaporeans, visit sgunited.gov.sg.

More on COVID-19 help schemes at supportgowhere.gov.sg.

Inclusivity begins in the classroom

Dr Jacqueline Chung believes that inculcating inclusivity starts from young, as early as in preschool. As Senior Principal and Academic Director of St James’ Church Kindergarten (SJCK)and Little Seeds Preschool (LSP), Dr Chung encourages children at both schools to discover connections and relationships with others from diverse backgrounds through healthy conversations. Through such interactions, young minds are nurtured to accept others who may be different. The children are taught to embrace ‘From Me to We’.

For Dr Chung, who is also an Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) Fellow, keeping the doors open to parents of children with developmental needs is crucial in achieving inclusivity. “When we meet the parents of children with developmental needs to discuss the possibility of their child being part of our preschool community, it’s important to understand the needs and aspirations of both the child and parents,” she shares.

To better support inclusion of children with developmental needs, SJCK’s Harding Road campus has been partnering the Lien Foundation and Rainbow Centre, a social service agency operating three special education (SPED) schools, in the Making Every Preschool Inclusive (MEPI) project.

Launched in July 2019, the 3.5 year-long initiative focuses on training programmes for Early Childhood (EC) educators and Early Intervention (EI) teachers. MEPI aims to deepen EC educators’ competencies in co-teaching and supporting a class of diverse learners. Part of this involves differentiated learning, where teachers tailor teaching methods and approaches to suit individual needs.

The MEPI project is already showing promise. For example, teachers involved in the project are beginning to be more aware of the potential in children with developmental needs.

“They are also beginning to understand the reasons behind certain behaviours of these children. As a result, they are now more intentional in how they involve children with developmental needs in their lesson activities,” adds Dr Chung.

SJCK’s and LSP’s collaborative approach chimes with national efforts like the Enabling Masterplan, which aims to build an inclusive society where persons with disabilities are recognised, empowered and given every opportunity to be integral and contributing members of society. In 2019, MSF set up three cross-sectoral Enabling Masterplan workgroups to delve deeper into the areas of inclusive preschools, employment and independent living for persons with disabilities. The workgroups have been working closely with government and community partners to organise a series of engagement sessions with various stakeholders, including persons with disabilities, caregivers, and staff of social service agencies, to co-create and co-deliver solutions in these focus areas. The Inclusive Preschool Workgroup, which involves public, private and people sector partners such as Dr Chung, is focusing on ways to support children with moderate to severe developmental needs in preschools.

National efforts have helped to heighten the awareness of people with developmental needs.  Dr Chung however believes that there is still much work to be done to achieve a truly inclusive society, especially at the preschool level.

To Dr Chung, this includes a positive shift in educators’ mindsets in mainstream preschools, and more on-ground exposure to instil confidence in Early Childhood leaders and teachers in managing children with developmental needs. Beyond regular training and meetings, the “little interactions and conversations” with parents help teachers to build up their skills and confidence.

“It is crucial to provide integrated support from the preschool, therapists and Early Intervention educators,” stresses Dr Chung.

“At the end of the day, children with developmental needs and their families will need to feel welcomed and, most importantly, accepted by the community.” (Click here for more information on support for children with developmental needs).

Social assistance officers: Helping people everyday

From financial assistance appeals to requests for adult diapers, these are just some of the requests received at Desmond Lim’s office, where he strives to get help for Singaporeans in need.

desmondSAO_1

In January 2020, Social Assistance Officer (SAO) Desmond Lim helped an 80-year-old lady who was looking for adult diapers.

“She walked in and was gesturing, to communicate to me that she really needed adult diapers. Her usual store had run out of stock, and she thought we had diapers since we also serve the elderly. In addition to helping her with her request, we went a step further to assess if she needed financial assistance or other areas of support,” recounted Desmond.

That was just one of many encounters Desmond has had with Singaporeans from all walks of life. Now with MSF’s Social Service Office (SSO) for almost two years, the 29-year-old’s job has been to help clients get holistic support for their different needs.

With his team at SSO @ Bukit Panjang, he uncovers why some individuals may be unable to provide for themselves. To customise the assistance, he has to consider various factors – such as each family’s needs and challenges – before ensuring they receive comprehensive, convenient and coordinated help.

For example, in some cases, families rely on sole breadwinners because some members of the family are unable to work, which affects the household income.

desmondSAO_2
Home visits are part of Desmond’s job as a social assistance officer.

Not all cases are straightforward. He has come across physical, emotional or psychological abuse of some family members in some of his more complex cases. He recalled one where a man controlled his wife financially.

Such cases are not new to Desmond, who was previously a child protection officer.

In many cases, the team coordinates with other agencies and community partners such as family service centres, town councils and social service agencies to address the clients’ needs in a timely and integrated manner. The agencies work together towards a common goal: to help the family get back on their feet eventually.

What’s a typical work day like?

Desmond’s day starts at 9am. The SAOs take turns to be the duty officer of the day, whose responsibility is to attend to clients who turn up at the office. On a regular day, they see up to six clients.

On days when he is not scheduled as the duty officer, Desmond will follow up with his existing clients by examining their financial status through their CPF statements, bank statements and payslips.

desmondSAO_3
Meticulousness is important, as Desmond has to carefully consider the needs of his
clients, and effectively coordinate help across multiple agencies and community
partners.

“While we may not be able to do everything here, we work at the backend with other agencies and facilitate the right assistance to meet the clients’ needs. We want to make it convenient for clients to get the help they need. For example, we sometimes utilise video conferencing with HDB for some clients facing issues with housing,” said Desmond.

It can be tiring at times, but meaningful

Sometimes, being both a case worker and counsellor to his clients can be emotionally draining. Nevertheless, Desmond says it is all part of the job.

desmondSAO_4
Desmond is also pursuing part time postgraduate studies in counselling as he believes it will equip him with the soft skills required to support his clients.

“Being in the social service (sector) requires empathy and the desire to help, whether it is on the ground or at the policy level. Ultimately, what makes a good social assistance officer is not just the experience and skills to assist and advocate for families, but the passion to want to make a difference to the lives of the most vulnerable,” he said.

Does Desmond’s job interest you? Join us as a Social Assistance Officer!

New SG United Portal

On Valentine’s Day, some 20 of our MSF colleagues showed care and concern by giving back to the community.

Assistant Director Benedict Seowand Executive Nur Atiqah Bte Abdul Malek were some of our volunteers who spent the afternoon sorting and preparing food packs, which included items such as rice and canned goods, at The Food Bank. These food packs will be delivered to various social service agencies who serve vulnerable segments in the community including our seniors.

So, why did Benedict and Nur Atiqah step out at a time when we hear of many Singaporeans preferring to stay in?

“We found out that some colleagues were helping out at The Food Bank. We also heard that charities, especially those that depended heavily on volunteers, were badly affected by COVID-19,” Benedict says. “We wanted to contribute in our own way to support these charities so that their beneficiaries would not be affected.”

Benedict and Nur Atiqah are among many Singaporeans who have been volunteering with charities and social service agencies. Amid public health concerns, these organisations had reported a drop in volunteers, making it challenging for them to continue providing services such as food delivery.

During the packing, the volunteers practised good personal hygiene with frequent hand washing and sanitation. They also knew they were in good hands as The Food Bank had put in place all the necessary measures, from temperature screenings to travel declarations for all volunteers.

The session also served as a team-bonding session for Benedict, who credited his colleagues for making his experience fun and memorable. This certainly won’t be their last time at The Food Bank.

Nur Atiqah said, “I don’t think we should let COVID-19 stop us from caring about each other. It is precisely during such times that we should stand together as one.”

Want to help? You can visit the SG United Portal, which lists volunteering and other opportunities related to COVID-19, as well as community-led initiatives that you can support. If you would like to kick-start your own projects, you can find links to resources at the portal too.

 

 

 

 

ComLink – Government and partners coming together to support families

Thomas (not his real name) has been battling with a slew of medical issues, such as diabetes, gout, high blood cholesterol and sleep apnea.

In March 2019, the father of three was dealt another blow – he lost his job at a laundry delivery business because his employer felt he was taking sick leave too often. His wife, a cashier, ended up as the family’s sole breadwinner, bringing home just over S$1,500 a month.

This meant that the family of five, who has been living in a two-room rental flat in Marsiling for the past five years, had to shelve their dreams of buying a new home.

With the launch of Community Link (ComLink), more help is now on the way to Thomas and his family.

ComLink was introduced by the Ministry of Social and Family Development and the Ministry of National Development to provide proactive, collaborative and community-driven support to families in need, and to empower them to lead better lives. There are various programmes under ComLink, which are run by different community and corporate partners and tailored to the needs of the local community. For example, reading and numeracy programmes for young children, sports activities for students, Community Scouting for youths, as well as skills upgrading and job matching services for residents.

These programmes were curated based on suggestions by residents at several focus group discussions. Thomas was one of the participants in a 2019 discussion on homeownership. Held in Marsiling, the discussion was conducted by National University of Singapore undergraduates from the Chua Thian Poh Community Leadership Centre, together with the Social Service Office (SSO) @ Woodlands, Housing and Development Board (HDB) and Care Corner Family Service Centre (Woodlands) who also reached out to residents from rental flats to find out and address their needs.

Some of the fellow residents in Marsiling whom Thomas met struggled with bankruptcy while others had to sell their flats as part of divorce settlements. “Many have their own family problems. Each had their stories to share and we got to know one another better,” he says.

He was pleased that the small group format of the discussion facilitated personal sharing. “In a small group, we could talk about whatever we wanted and get advice on what to do. It can be very hard to talk if the group is too big.”

One of the major issues raised by participants in that discussion was employment. As Thomas experienced firsthand, a family’s plan for a brighter future can be quickly derailed with the loss of a job.  After hearing the residents’ struggles with this issue, SSO @ Woodlands worked with employment-related agencies like FastJobs and Workforce Singapore to develop targeted job programmes for Marsiling residents.

Another important point that emerged during the discussion was the need for easy access to assistance. Thomas shared that it could be confusing to navigate the services offered by different agencies. Thanks to the initiatives by Marsiling ComLink in bringing together multiple partners to address residents’ needs, he is now more aware of where he can seek financial assistance, what kind of HDB loans are available and how he can seek help from other community partners and Members of Parliament.

Recognising the aspirations of residents to own their own homes, the SSO @ Woodlands will be working closely with HDB’s Home ownership Support Team (HST) to help families on their journeys towards buying a flat.

HST was launched in 2019 to provide dedicated and more personalised services for rental households who are ready for homeownership. HST guides these households, from application to key collection, and will be a consistent point of contact to address all HDB-related issues.

Besides MSF, HST also works with other social service agencies and partners, such as the Ministry of Manpower, Family Service Centres (FSCs), and The Institute of Financial Literacy to provide holistic support for rental tenants along their home ownership journeys.

Two of Thomas’ children, aged 14 and 12, attended a trial session on basic money management at the new newly launched ComLink programme space in Marsiling. They shared that the session was both fun and useful.  They are eager to participate in other ComLink programmes where they can get to know their neighbours better. With the support provided through ComLink, Thomas is actively searching for a job with the goal of stabilising his family’s finances and working towards the family’s dream of home ownership again.

Student volunteers engage vulnerable families to curate customised programmes for ComLink

When the National University of Singapore’s Chua Thian Poh Community Leadership Centre (CTPCLC) released the list of organisations that its undergraduates could volunteer with, Mr Yeo Qin-Liang and Ms Valerie Phua were instantly drawn to Community Link (ComLink).

“I thought it was a really good chance for me to learn more about how the government is moving towards involving residents more in designing programmes and services,” said Mr Yeo, 22.

Along with Ms Phua, Mr Yeo and two other CTPCLC volunteers conducted six focus group discussions (FGDs) to better understand the perspectives of the families living in rental flats in Marsiling and Bedok.

As ComLink is designed to provide targeted and concerted interventions to better support vulnerable families with children, the findings from the discussions helped in the curation of customised programmes at the ComLink sites.

SSO@Bedok General Manager, Mr Shawn Koh said, “I want to appreciate our volunteers for doing a wonderful job in facilitating the FGDs. Through the FGDs, we developed a greater appreciation of the needs and challenges of our families living in the rental flats and also how we can work more closely with our community partners on specific programmes to address these needs.”

An example of the kind of programmes that will be conducted is, social enterprise Preschool Market’s programme to expose children aged 4 to 9 to Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math. Several other initiatives focusing on employment, homeownership and caregiving concerns, that were highlighted during the FGDs, will also be jointly developed with corporates and other community partners and implemented in 2020.

Hearing how a single father had to weigh the costs of feeding his family and travelling to a job interview made Mr Yeo realise the difficult choices people from low-income households often encountered.

During these discussions, participants also shared stories of how they came up with creative solutions to their problems. For instance, Ms Phua recounted the tale of a young mother and job-seeker who scoured the Yellow Pages to find the contact details of various companies so that she could contact their human resource departments directly, instead of through an intermediary, such as a recruitment agency. She eventually found a job this way.

As a social work undergraduate, Ms Phua said people often hear stories of the disadvantaged and vulnerable people from second-hand sources, like a professor.

“But actually seeing people in the flesh and hearing their stories …gives me a whole new appreciation for them as individuals,” she said.

“And I think that will be invaluable to my practice later on, when I become a social worker.”

A community effort to help the homeless and rough sleepers

When the Catholic Welfare Services (CWS) started their first night mission to help the homeless and rough sleepers about five and a half years ago, the 16 buns and drinks their volunteers bought for distribution were all snapped up in a short while.

Today, CWS volunteers run Night Missions twice a week, distributing on average 120 meals each night, according to its CEO Mr James Chew.

While there may be a perception that the homeless and rough sleepers are lazy, Mr Chew shared how he encountered a man who had a job but was sleeping in the open so that he could give the money he saved on rent to his two teenage children.

“He has been separated from his wife and his children have no idea that he’s homeless,” said Mr Chew.

To better support the homeless and the rough sleepers, CWS worked with the churches to open their premises at night to provide what is now termed “Safe-Sound-Sleeping Places” for the homeless and rough sleepers to have a hot meal and good night’s rest.

CWS, along with New Hope Community Services (NHCS) and Homeless Hearts of Singapore (HHOS), was among 15 community partners feted for their tireless work on the ground when they received the Community Cares Award at the MSF Volunteer and Partner Awards 2019 on 1 st November. The Award recognises individuals, community and corporate partners who drive social change passionately, and who strive to do good for society and, in so doing, inspire those around them.

These three organisations are also part of the 26 that have come together under the PEERS (Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers) Network to pool expertise and resources to better help the homeless and rough sleepers.

Like CWS, the efforts of NHCS and HHOS in helping the homeless and rough sleepers were modest at the beginning.

NHCS, led by Pastor Andrew Khoo, started its operations 16 years ago as a shelter for men in challenging circumstances, such as ex-offenders looking to re-enter society. The organisation’s Shelter for Men-in-Crisis has since been renamed Transit Point.

As part of its partnership with the PEERS Network, the NHCS operates a safe-sound-sleeping place at its Transitional Shelter. Social workers then follow up with those who are ready to accept referral to shelters and other assistance the next day.

Pastor Khoo said: “Homeless people have faced very challenging life circumstances that have led them to feel helpless over a long period of time.

“They may not have the resources or support network to negotiate these circumstances.”

Similarly, the HHOS started as a four-man team in 2014 and has since expanded to about 25 committed volunteers today. Founded by Mr Abraham Yeo, the organisation helps homeless people re-integrate into society by befriending them, through avenues such as festival and birthday celebrations. It also encourages the public to start homeless befriending groups in their own neighbourhoods.

Mr Yeo says the issue of homelessness and rough sleeping receives more publicity in the media today than in the past, with groups like the PEERS Network helping them. “Five years ago it was almost impossible to find groups that did homeless outreaches in Singapore. There was also scant information and statistics available on the internet regarding homelessness.”

Understandably, befriending the homeless and rough sleepers has its challenges, such as gaining their trust. Mr Chew said: “Sometimes, you will find out a few months later that some of them did not tell you their real names. There’s always the fear that the police will come and ask for their identity cards or put them in a home.”

These organisations have persevered despite the challenges and even increased their outreach to the homeless and rough sleepers. Aiding this effort, MSF is working with the PEERS Network to build an interim shelter that would provide temporary accommodation for the homeless and rough sleepers before they move to long-term housing.

With the involvement of HDB in the PEERS Network, social workers are able to speed up the process of matching homeless individuals and rough sleepers to a suitable flat.

Pastor Khoo says his team is “especially delighted” when clients move into a HDB rental flat or purchase their own flat. “The joy and excitement you see on their faces is invaluable.”

He urged Singaporeans to volunteer their time and help build a more inclusive society, added: “Be a befriender. So our homeless friends will not be invisible but have a friend.”

About the PEERS Network
MSF works closely with social service agencies and community groups to support ground-up initiatives. Since late-2017, we have stepped up our partnerships with different voluntary community groups, many of which are at the forefront of engaging, befriending, and looking out for the well-being of rough sleepers. Collectively, we call this partnership the PEERS (Partners Engaging and Empowering Rough Sleepers) Network. The name PEERS was coined by one of our community partners.

MSF has joined our partners’ regular outreach walks, helped to move willing rough sleepers into “Safe Sound Sleeping Places”, and brought agencies such as the HDB, NParks, Agency for Integrated Care (AIC) and Family Service Centres (FSCs) together to work on solving rough sleepers’ longer-term issues. While deepening the partnerships within PEERS Network, MSF is also continually looking out for new partners to join the PEERS Network. MSF has worked with owners of community premises to set up Safe Sound Sleeping Places and community groups to start befriending in more areas. Some of our other PEERS partners are Paya Lebar Methodist Church, Masjid Sultan and Buddha Tooth Relic Temple.