Reflections on Bringing Change in Community
By Esther Yeo, Social Worker
The headline caught my eye – “Woman, 69, found dead after neighbour reported stench” (Straits Times, January 13, 2023). A quick scan found that it happened at Blk 100, Aljunied Crescent. Memories flooded back of home visits made with friends to this block to reach out to the seniors. One year we even put together a Christmas celebration at the void deck!
I used to live nearby at Circuit Road for about 30 years before my family joined the upgrading trend and moved to a bigger flat in the 90s. Growing up in this area, we were often warned not to wander off because of the “samseng” (Hokkien for gangster) who operated in certain blocks nearby. Today, Macpherson comprising mostly 2-3 rooms flats and rental blocks still house some of the lower income households in the nation. Much work has been done by the government to spruce up the district - covered walkways, colourful paintwork on the blocks, and murals in the void decks, etc. There were even nice cafes that decidedly gave it a more genteel feel, but I can’t help but feel that the need of the community is just as pressing as before.
Being on-staff with Cornerstone Community Services (CCS) brought me back to MacPherson and Aljunied Crescent to visit beneficiaries receiving help from our Food Care Programme.
Through our efforts, we hope to provide some stability as they sort out their financial difficulties.
Many of our beneficiaries are beset with a myriad of problems. Some of them are from single parent households and may have young or sickly children. The parent struggles with finding work and attending to the child’s needs. In some instances, the parents themselves are sickly and much as they desire to work, they are physically unable to. For those who have jobs, their jobs often require them to work long hours or in shifts. It is almost impossible for them to be there for their children as their focus is survival. Then there are the lonely seniors who live on their own, estranged from their children or spouse which are becoming quite common as our population ages.
I would sometimes ask our beneficiaries about their hopes and aspirations. One parent shared with me that she hoped to put her daughter through some specialized school in arts because her daughter was really good with drawing. I asked her how she planned to do it, and she replied somehow she would try to get the money. She is a single mother with a spine problem that sometimes leave her in extreme pain. She could not keep her job because she had taken too many medical leave.
CCS placed her on the Food Care Programme to support her basic needs. Meanwhile she worked part-time and managed her pain issue. She could not pay the medical bill and took a loan. The pain medication she had been on was no longer effective for her. Faced with financial, mental and emotional stress, she was really struggling. However, with the support of the befriender and our monthly financial assistance, she plowed on.
Our befrienders provide them with social and emotional support as they journey with them. We want our beneficiaries to know that they do not have to struggle alone. Poverty can be very isolating.
When I visited her late last year, she thanked me for the help and support we had given her. We gave her the strength to press on. Now her pain is manageable, and she found a full-time job. Although it is a demanding job, but I could sense her satisfaction and fulfillment to be able to provide for her family. We are glad that as she regains independence, we could transit her out of the Food Care Programme. The best thing we can do for them is, beyond giving them a fish, is to empower them to fish.
Back to my question on hopes and aspirations - in the midst of extreme struggle, the beneficiaries may have what we would consider unrealistic hopes and dreams. Yet I have learnt not to be too quick to dismiss them. Perhaps these aspirations were all they had to cling on to for a better future, these are what helped them to keep on trying.
Through our continual engagement with the stakeholders, doors were opened for CCS to set up Pop Up Barn to bless the lower income families with pre-loved clothing, children items and household goods. We were able to organise outreach events for the families with the corporate donations and volunteers’ support. Many of these families have children that struggle with school. We know that education* is a key to break out of the poverty circle. These children often lack parental supervision or do not have the environment or resources to develop their language and literacy at an early age. This would inevitably affect their learning and interest in school.
Hearing the needs from the Resident Committee at Aljunied Crescent, we started Cornerstone Achievement Programme (CAPE), a reading club for children. The objective is to provide the children with a safe and conducive environment to learn and grow. Creating a community that celebrates every child and encourages learning is vital to keep them in school and on the right path. Change does not happen overnight, but we believe that the time spent with the children will leave an impact in their hearts.
Many of us love the national day song “Home”. We would often join in the chorus and tears might even flow. This community in Macpherson is home to 28,360 people**. With the income disparity widening with economic conditions over the years, there is much to be done and much more that we can do. With the Forward SG mandate to move from social assistance to social empowerment, it will require many helping hands working together to uplift families and individuals in need, and to provide opportunities for all to progress in life. It takes commitment and effort not just from CCS alone but from all the stakeholders involved.
Just as the pebbles in a stream are smoothen through the constant flow of water over them over time, I believe if we commit ourselves to see change in this community, it will happen, one life at a time.
Partner us to uplift this community as we continue to reach out in words and deeds with love and compassion.
* Education is one of the five pillars of the Singapore’s Social Safety Net (The Social Service Sector in Singapore, NUS, Department of Social Work, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, 2015).