Singaporean volunteer group gives more than money to help needy

Keeping Hope Alive continues its volunteer work during coronavirus lockdowns by distributing groceries, doing repair work, and helping those in need in other ways. “We support social distancing, not social isolation,” said the group's founder.

Ee Ming Toh/AP
Members of Keeping Hope Alive, an informal network of volunteers, pack grocery items for a resident in an apartment building, Oct. 4, 2020, in Singapore. The volunteer group makes weekly visits to deliver goods or provide services to help those in need.

Fion Phua has been volunteering for so long, she is nicknamed Robin Hood for her efforts helping the poor. Singapore’s partial lockdown as the coronavirus was spreading in April left her fretting over how the blind, bedridden, and elderly living alone would cope.

She had to stop her volunteer activities for a month, but Ms. Phua decided to keep going in May with visits every two weeks. Her core team of volunteers met urgent needs – plumbers, handymen, and people who could dispense medicine or tap on government resources.

“We support social distancing, not social isolation,” Ms. Phua said.

The informal network she founded, Keeping Hope Alive, has toiled tirelessly for over two decades to reach Singapore’s less fortunate in different neighborhoods. Its model is built on people offering their time and unique skills rather than donating money.

They’ve resumed their weekly visits now, and on a recent Sunday morning, suited up in personal protective gear, masks, and face shields despite the tropical heat. Then small teams fanned out to knock on doors at the Henderson rental flats.

Once the residents’ most-pressing needs were identified, the volunteers acted immediately – installing bicycle bells on wheelchairs, trimming nails, cleaning bed bug-infested homes, and checking if household items need replacement.

Trained hairdresser Mark Yuen is one of the volunteers. “To some people, a haircut is more than beauty and hygiene, it also provides comfort. It makes one feel that they are not alone … that someone cares,” he said.

An array of donated items was arranged for distribution to the residents – rice, cooking oil, eggs, boxes of fresh produce, vitamins, and children’s toys. Residents eagerly queued to stock up on essential or eyed big-ticket items like washing machines, hospital beds, and sofas.

One resident’s refrigerator broke down a month ago. Volunteers verified her situation, then carted a new fridge straight to her kitchen and provided a stash of supermarket vouchers, garlic, onions, and vegetables. As a gesture of thanks, she made tea for the volunteers.

“I felt happy and very appreciative as they helped me. It is hard as I am the only person working and my salary is $1,300 (Singapore; US$965). I need to pay the house bills and my son needs study materials,” Sukkuriya Beevi, a cleaner from India, said.

During Singapore’s partial lockdown, senior-centric activities were suspended to protect vulnerable elderly. Ms. Phua’s network handed out donated smartphones and taught the recipients how to video call and access government services online.

They were overjoyed to see their loved ones through the screen, even if they couldn’t hug, Ms. Phua recalled. “In this digital world, it’s a new form of caring, a new form of love. … It’s cyber love,” she said.

Ms. Phua hopes during a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic that people retain their sense of empathy.

“COVID will not be over in one, two days and not one, two months, even not one, two years. So we ought to adjust our living lifestyle so that we look after the weak, the poor, the sick, and people who are in depression and are unable to find a solution to it. We ought to be there for them.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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