Singapore underprivileged
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Her family was torn apart by a big family dispute over property. Today, 65-year-old Mdm Rebecca only has her 76-year-old cousin as family. To avoid getting embroiled in the disputes, Mdm Rebecca decided to sever all ties with her family. The last time she spoke to her only brother was more than 40 years ago.

Today, she lives in a one-room rental flat in Punggol. Her 76-year-old cousin whom she cares for is bedridden and suffering from Parkinson’s and stroke among other ailments.

In her heyday more than 10 years ago, Mdm Rebecca dabbled in PR, secretarial work, and was once a housing agent. However, a severe respiratory problem left her with no choice but to stop working. Life got more challenging since then.

Most of her household ‘income’, which comes from her cousin and her retirement funds, as well as her cousin’s social welfare payout, is spent on her cousin’s medical necessities like medicine and bandages. Then, there’s the struggle of being unemployed and being the only caregiver to her bedridden cousin.

Mdm Rebecca’s daily routine includes feeding her cousin milk through a tube seven times through the day, changing his diapers several times, giving him the medications he needs for different conditions, repositioning his body every two hours, and stretching his limbs to prevent his muscles from atrophy and shortening.

She also has to monitor him throughout the day for any signs of discomfort. She would then have to use a vacuum-cleaner-like machine and a tube to manually suck the phlegm out from his lungs – a painful but critical process for her cousin that has to be done a few times a day.

With the bulk of her time dedicated to caring for her cousin, what little time she has left is spent on reading and praying. A ‘vacation’ for her today is as simple as being able to go out for a meal with a friend. Even so, she has to return home within three hours to care for her cousin.

Hiring a caretaker or a maid to do her job is out of the question and it isn’t just the lack of finances. Having had maids who have told her lies, stole from her, and even cursed her with black magic, she could no longer trust them.

Bad experiences with nursing homes that led to the passing of her comatose mother and the close-to-death state that her cousin returned in after a 2-day respite care have also left a bad taste in her mouth.

Since then, Mdm Rebecca resolved to taking care of her cousin herself.

“My mother had already suffered. I don’t want my cousin to go through the pain of what my mother had to go through.”

Attributing her strength to her religion, Mdm Rebecca emphasised on how a positive mindset helped tide her through the hardships.

“Life is temporary and all these challenges are part of life. I don’t cry easily because crying doesn’t change anything. I just do my best with what I have and I pray for the best.”

As I chatted with Mdm Rebecca at her doorstep while volunteers from the Young NTUC- North East CDC Project Refresh were cleaning up her unit and giving the walls a fresh coat of paint, I couldn’t help but admire her for her resilience.

Project Refresh
Volunteers painting the walls of Mdm Rebecca’s flat

Her fizzy, greyed hair and gaunt face tells of a woman who is still facing adversity, but Mdm Rebecca’s strong spirit is refreshing and humbling. She spoke about helping neighbours in need and counselling her friends and their children. Her empathy in prioritising other people’s problems above so many of her own made me feel a mix of guilt and respect.  

Having come from a relatively privileged middle-class background, I couldn’t comprehend the significance of her struggles until I stepped into her home.

Mdm Rebecca’s home is about as big as a typical HDB flat’s living room, with a small corner as kitchen and a toilet right beside it. The only bed in the flat is taken up by her cousin.

Project Refresh
Volunteers painting the walls and tidying up the kitchen area of Mdm Rebecca’s flat

As such, volunteers from Project Refresh brought in a foldable mattress for her and a desk fan. Part of the project’s efforts to improve the standards of living for the underprivileged, volunteers also helped to clean the flat, paint the walls, tidy up the home, and change the flat’s light bulbs to more cost-efficient ones as part of the ‘Switch and Save – Use LED initiative’.

Project Refresh’s first session in 2016 started off with just 30 volunteers covering five units. With more and more volunteers coming onboard, the Project Refresh session I was at on 18 August saw more than 350 volunteers coming together to spruce up 38 rental units.

Many think that millennials are a strawberry generation of entitled and spoilt ‘kids’. That day, however, 60% of the volunteers I saw were millennials.

Project Refresh
The group of volunteers working on Mdm Rebecca’s flat

For 23-Year-Old Jamie*, what they do “may not change the whole world but at least we’re able to impact someone’s life directly.”

As her full-time job requires her to deal with wealthy people who live in luxury and never having to worry about basic necessities, volunteering with Project Refresh and learning about the lives of underprivileged people like Mdm Rebecca is a way for her to “feel like human again.”

Year 2 student at Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP), Kelvan, was another volunteer I spoke to.

Kelvan and four of his NYP classmates were painting the walls of Mdm Latifah’s unit (another resident) when I chatted with them.

Still recovering from an operation to treat her osteoarthritis of the knee, 56-Year-Old Mdm Latifah is living on just $210 a month from financial assistance, and food rations from a mosque. Divorced for 30 years, she brought up her only son, who was four back then, all by herself. On some days, Mdm Latifah would even go without food so she can save money.

Project Refresh
Mdm Latifah outside her unit while volunteers were sprucing up her home

Like many elderly and the underprivileged, loneliness is one of the many challenges for her. With no one to talk to or help her with problems, she could only cope with the struggles of a single mother without child support from the father by going for religious classes.

“I have 9 siblings and my father, but I don’t want (to bother them). Everyone’s got their own problem.”

Volunteering projects like Project Refresh goes beyond the physical act of cleaning up the home. It is showing the beneficiaries that there are people out there who do care for them. The interaction among the volunteers and the beneficiaries could create strong emotional bonds too.

Volunteering with Project Refresh for the second time on his own accord, Kelvan decided to sign up again because of the sense of accomplishment and the appreciation he got from the family he helped the first time round.

“A couple of us from the last project even went back to visit the family. The children and the parents were just so appreciative and warm. It’s back-breaking work, but I came back because it’s very heartwarming and fulfilling.”

Project Refresh
Mdm Latifah’s living room

Mdm Latifah and Mdm Rebecca are just two of the many underprivileged who live in completely different worlds that most Singaporeans will never experience.

“Seeing the conditions they live in, it makes us appreciate the things we have,” Kelvan added.

Growing up in a comfortable era where we got to enjoy quality education, a stable economy, and a generally more privileged lifestyle compared to our earlier generations, it is hard to dispute the fact that millennials do demand more. However, we are also a generation that wants to do more.

Volunteer with Young NTUC

As millennials, we tend to procrastinate volunteering as much as we want to give back to society. But today, there are many volunteering opportunities available.

Besides Project Refresh, there is also the Young NTUC U Heart, which lets you decide your own do-good projects for low-income families, the environment, for workers, the elderly or people with disabilities, and children or youth-at-risk. So you get to dictate the kind of change you want to make!

Learn more about Young NTUC’s volunteering programmes here!

* Name has been changed for privacy reasons

This post is written in partnership with Young NTUC.

Also read: To The Generations Before Us – Trust The Millennials With Singapore’s Future.