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.

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Three months ago, 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 across all walks of life, young and old. 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.

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

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

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 his clients’ financial status through their CPF statements, bank statements and payslips.

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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 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.

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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.

ECDA Scholarship recipient champions active learning

Mr Mohammad Aizat Bin Hashim can still remember his first class as an early childhood educator as if it was yesterday. More than four years ago, Mr Aizat, now 31, brought a fish to class and dissected it in front of his 4-year-old pupils to teach them where their food comes from.

Understandably, his colleagues were a tad wary initially. After all, it is not common to see teachers getting their hands dirty with food specimens.

Mr Aizat believes, though, that kids should have real-life exposure to things they are learning about. Till today, he still uses food specimens during some lessons.

“I try to educate parents about the need to allow their kids to explore safely and have hands-on experiences,” says Mr Aizat, who is now the principal of Mosaic Kindergarten. “This way, kids can better relate to concepts they’ve been taught.”

To recognise Mr Aizat’s commitment in engaging his students in active learning, he was awarded the 2019 Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) Scholarship for the Master of Education (Early Childhood) at the National Institute of Education. The scholarship is awarded to outstanding in-service early childhood educators who wish to pursue further studies.

Mr Aizat has found fulfilment and success as an early childhood educator although this was not his original career path.

He had graduated with a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering from Nanyang Technological University but after a stint as an engineer, he realised the job did not suit him and sought a career change.

“I was giving tuition to primary and secondary school students during my university days,” Mr Aizat says. “Even then, it dawned on me that I had a disposition and aptitude for teaching.”

In 2013, he came across a job advertisement for a Place-and-Train programme in the early childhood sector. He was accepted into the programme − a full-time 18-month course that included three days of study and two days of work at My First Skool (Wellington Circle).

The first few years in the field, Mr Aizat shares, were sometimes challenging but meaningful. Like other teachers, Mr Aizat had to learn how best to build rapport and earn the trust of parents. He is thankful for the constant support from his then-colleagues at My First Skool, where he taught for almost two years after completing the course.

Being a male educator, he was not involved in routine care like toileting and showering children. But his role was still significant, as Mr Aizat would support his female colleagues by keeping the children engaged through songs, hands-on activities and storytelling.

Mr Aizat then joined Mosaic Kindergarten in late 2016 and was promoted to Principal in January 2019. He hopes to be a trusted mentor to younger educators and advises aspiring early childhood educators that this career involves so much more than just teaching.

“Some people tend to think that early childhood education is about teaching ABCs and 123s, but it involves many other responsibilities beyond academics,” he notes. “These tiny human beings need constant nurturing and the care of teachers and we have to be comfortable establishing close relationships with parents too.”

Simply being around children brings Mr Aizat much joy and sometimes brings out the inner child in him. Nurturing children in their learning journey and growth, and seeing his efforts pay off has made his journey fulfilling and rewarding.

He is not content to affect lives just at the individual level. With the ECDA Scholarship, he hopes to continue developing professionally and to help enhance Singapore’s early childhood landscape.

“I hope to do this through being involved in focus-group discussions at the sector level, engaging in research within my kindergarten and sharing my expertise with others.”

The deal behind the meal: An inclusive partnership between MINDS and Holiday Inn

The MSF Volunteer and Partner Awards 2019 on 1st November was a celebration of the extraordinary, and the occasion was matched by a 4-course dinner with a difference.

MSF brought together students from two MINDS schools and Holiday Inn Singapore Orchard City Centre to curate and prepare a meal for 400 guests. For the students aged between 16 and 18, this was their first experience in a professional kitchen setting.

As MINDS’ Woodlands Gardens School teacher Mdm Vijeya Maniam and MINDS’ Towner Gardens School teacher Ms Chan Mei Ling noted, the kitchens in their respective schools are akin to those found in homes and do not have industrial-grade equipment.

“When I first saw Holiday Inn’s kitchen, I was worried for the students but they coped and performed so well,” said Mdm Vijeya.

This was in part because of the careful guidance and mentorship of Executive Chef Bobby Saravanan from Holiday Inn, who conducted thorough training sessions with the students on topics like grooming and hygiene.

He also ensured that students had a say in the brainstorming, naming, preparation and the cooking of dishes. “Each kitchen assistant is talented in his or her own way and has something to bring to the table,” he said.

“Our job is to ensure we provide them with the necessary support so that their hidden talents can shine through.”

One student told Ms Chan that he was nervous about cutting ingredients to the specific dimensions required. He overcame his nerves by paying careful attention to instructions and watching the demonstrations closely.

Another student said he was initially overwhelmed by the need to multi-task in the kitchen. To keep up with the fast working pace, he checked frequently with Executive Chef Bobby to ensure he was completing his tasks correctly.

Both teachers noted that the students were excited to have their kitchen assistant uniforms fitted and to be working under the close guidance of a professional chef from the hotel industry.

The uniforms made the students proud to be part of a team, they said.

Ms Chan commended Executive Chef Bobby for being patient and kind towards the students. She noted that he had customised the tasks for the students to cater to their abilities.

She hopes that more employers would also be willing to design and tailor jobs to match the skills of persons with intellectual disabilities (PWID). This would help them to optimise their work performance.

Executive Chef Bobby, too, urged the food and beverage, and hospitality industries to give PWIDs opportunities to develop their full potential “to become the culinary leaders of tomorrow”.

Mdm Vijeya said that MINDS has been teaching students relevant and in-demand skills such as inventory management and housekeeping to help them find jobs in supermarkets and hotels. The teachers also work closely with the students’ families.

“I see our students grow whenever we encourage them to step out of their comfort zones in employment or attachments,” Ms Chan said.

Cooking for an event like the MSF Volunteer and Partner Awards, Mdm Vijeya and Ms Chan agreed, is an experience that cannot be replicated by mere training in school.

Check out the exclusive behind-the-scenes video and find out more about the winners of the MSF Volunteer and Partner Awards here