Strengthening community partnerships to better serve families

(Last row, from right to left) Minister Desmond Lee, MP for Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC Zaqy Mohamad, Ms Gillian Peck (middle) and volunteers from BLESS at the first Shining Star Reads session conducted on 18 January 2020 at ComLink @ Marsiling

Marsiling is one of four HDB towns that have piloted the Community Link (ComLink) initiative, which aims to better support vulnerable families by bringing services closer to them. The focus is on rallying the community and bringing together corporate partners, volunteers, and even residents themselves, to co-create and co-deliver initiatives to address the unique needs of each local community.

Shining Star Reads, a community-based reading programme, run by non-profit organisation BLESS (Bringing Love to Every Single Soul), began its partnership with ComLink @ Marsiling in late 2019. Through ComLink, families with children aged four to nine years were referred to the reading programme.

A few years ago, when BLESS first started its reading programme in the South-West district, volunteers would wheel luggage full of books, before unpacking them on mats in spaces around void decks for children to read.

“There was a lack of conducive spaces to conduct Shining Star Reads. Space was very tight for larger families living in one- or two-room flats and, hence, sessions were held on mats at void deck spaces” says Ms Gillian Peck, BLESS’ Managing Director, who is also a third-year biological sciences student at Nanyang Technological University.

“We then heard about activity spaces being created near rental blocks, with rooms and tables. ComLink aligns completely with our model of delivery and there was even a storeroom that we could use at the site,” she adds.

With the opening of the new programme space in January 2020 at Block 182A, Woodlands Street 13 – BLESS is now able to serve more residents. BLESS held its first three reading sessions at ComLink @ Marsiling on weeknights with 15 volunteers, comprising mostly early childhood education undergraduates and polytechnic students, and about 30 children.

The children were assessed and grouped into four different reading levels, where they learnt the alphabet and were taught to recognise simple words, before progressing to phonics and reading storybooks.

Many of these children did not go to preschool and the focus was on “getting them up to speed on the basics,” says Gillian.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, BLESS had to figure out how Shining Star Reads could continue to serve children from rental households while adhering to safe distancing and other precautionary measures.

BLESS looked into the best ways of engaging students online, before it rolled out a revamped programme in June 2020, when schools reopened after the Circuit Breaker period.

BLESS went virtual, and held shorter reading sessions of about 30 to 40 minutes weekly, as opposed to the usual 1-hour face-to-face sessions, to keep children engaged.

Besides coming up with visually engaging and interactive PowerPoint slides and multiple-choice questions, BLESS volunteers were also open to other creative ways to improve their services, said Gillian.

“Going online has its advantages as sessions can now be recorded and volunteers are able to watch the recorded videos and tweak our delivery approaches if necessary.” she says, explaining how the team would replay recorded sessions to look out for children who had difficulty following lessons, before placing them in breakout groups that were better suited to their learning pace.   

Beyond reading programmes, BLESS volunteers also continued to serve families in other ways. They helped to direct families to places offering masks and alerted them to the Ministry of Education’s financial assistance schemes, which allowed children to borrow laptops for home-based learning.

Through a new Project Stable Staples (PSS) initiative co-helmed by BLESS and I Am Talented, a social empowerment initiative for youths, volunteers also launched a fundraising campaign for families in rental flats and conducted wellness checks on households with two or more children or dependents.

ComLink @ Marsiling referred eligible families to PSS and helped link BLESS with other ComLink communities to reach out to more families, beyond the Shining Star Reads’ participants.

In total, BLESS raised over S$160,000 worth of NTUC FairPrice vouchers for over 600 rental families across Singapore.

Moving forward, BLESS plans to launch a numeracy literacy programme, as well as parent-child reading and bonding sessions in Marsiling, on top of ComLink’s slated programmes which now include a children’s character-building programme, academic learning and enrichment programme.

Gillian hopes that the different programme providers at ComLink @ Marsiling will have a chance to interact and share their experiences.

“Coming together, we can share more about the beneficiaries we serve and better understand their complex family circumstances to collectively design better programmes.”

“I think a lot of sharing and knowledge can happen and I hope there will be more opportunities to collaborate and do better, even as we try to find a new normal.”