They say that you are a reflection of the company you keep. For Asher, who had his brush with being “a little bit delinquent” in his secondary school days, this couldn’t be more true.
“You know lah, like most boys, I had those days where I was a ‘wannabe beng (gangster)’,” Asher jested. Having a best friend with “a very beng perspective” and whose friends and family were all equally ‘beng’ rubbed off of him. He was on the path towards a similar lifestyle at that point. Those were the days where he would get into a lot of fights, just because.
Growing up in a single-parent household, things weren’t as simple back at home either. Due to conflicts he had with his mother, the animosity between them grew. Things escalated to the point where he decided to leave home. He lived with a friend, taking on multiple part-time jobs to cover his own school fees and personal expenses.
He was just a young polytechnic student at that point.
Then, he started to struggle with body dysmorphia: “I felt like I was ugly and that I was never good enough.” This feeling of inadequacy stuck with him well into his 20s and over time, developed into full-blown depression.
The turbulent emotions from dealing with the transitions in his life, coupled with the complications he faced with a dysfunctional family, led Asher down the path of self-harm. He had even attempted to take his own life as a way out.
“I was actually really good at hiding it—my depression. The ones closest to me know, but it still came as a shock when they know that I hurt myself, especially for my mentors.”
It didn’t help that socially, it was also “not cool to have mental health problems, and not cool to get panic attacks.”
Fortunately, Asher’s personal anchor with his religion helped him out of such a lifestyle that he was on track for: “what really did save me was when I saw how my friends were taking drugs and all, and I saw the kind of lifestyle they were falling into.”
In church, he was given opportunities to work with youth-in-need, which opened up his eyes to social work.
“I was also blessed with mentors, friends, and a community that cared and believed in me. Today I want to give the struggling youths out there the same opportunities that were created for me.”
With that motivation, Asher’s work with youths later culminated in Limitless—a Voluntary Welfare Organisation (VWO) he started.
“Imagine where will you be if all your boundaries are taken away. What can you achieve?”
Asher pitched, when I asked about how Limitless came about.
Together with his partner and a couple of like-minded friends, the initial concept of Project Imagine went through several changes before Limitless came to be today.
“We founded with the main mission of empowering youths, regardless of background, circumstances, or history, to fulfill their potential.”
Three years on today, the team has grown to include 40 volunteers with about 15 to 20 of them supporting Limitless with administration work, design, social media, web platforms, therapy and counselling work, and events.
Mental health is increasingly emphasised and not only do we hear of more people suffering from mental health disorders today, there are also increasingly younger Singaporeans seeking help for mental health issues.
But Why Is Our Younger Generation Facing Suffering?
Having gone through a difficult rite of passage himself, Asher explained that a lot of youths struggle with mental health issues because of the changes they face in their transition years: “It is where they are [susceptible to feeling lost and confused.]”
This is where Limitless steps in with various therapy work, befriending and counselling services, and a support helpline to provide a sort of ‘safe haven’ for youths to share their troubles. For youths who are born with disadvantaged circumstances especially, giving them that little boost goes a long way in empowering them to step out of their comfort zone and to fulfill their full potential.
“Say a youth who can’t focus in school because he has bipolar disorder and struggles with thoughts of killing himself. Or the youth who comes from a poor family and when she went to primary one, everyone else could do math already but she can’t because they went to preschool and she didn’t, and that caused her to be behind everyone else all the way into secondary school. So, we see our work as that of bridging that gap.”
Social programmes like dance, music and sport programmes are also avenues Limitless provides to facilitate their aim for the youths they serve.
With increasing focus on outreach and education on mental health, Limitless has also partnered with a network of organisations and companies to provide opportunities like subsidised tuition, internship, or even work for young adults.
It’s A Battle, But One Worth Fighting For
Although, running a VWO (charity) in Singapore is in itself the greatest challenge.
“To be honest for the first couple of years, the directors, including myself, were the primary [people funding the organisation]. Meaning I didn’t take a salary, and instead gave to the organisation whenever it was in the red. But it’s gotten better as more people hear about the work that we do.”
Today some of the funds that support their work include the Tote Board Shared Gifting Circle for Children and Youth Mental Health, the National Youth Fund, and private family led funds such as the Zen Dylan Koh Fund—which has been covered in a heartbreaking feature by Straits Times earlier this year.
For Asher, who finds privilege in being able to be surrounded by people in the ‘helping professions’, like counsellors, running Limitless is for himself as much as it is for the youths he champions for.
“When I meet young people who grew up with similar struggles to myself. Those who come from single parent or broken homes, and those who struggle with depression or come in telling me they hate themselves. I see myself in them.”
Although, working in such a social and service oriented industry still takes its toll on him. As someone who relates on a personal level with the many struggles his clients and youths go through, he has to keep steadfast to his vision. This, on top of having to sacrifice family time for work, and having to deal with problems of his own—his position makes it that much harder for him to share his problems freely.
However, he strongly believes that every youth have their own calling in life, regardless of circumstances, and all they need is the opportunity.
“These callings and destinies may right now be in the form of a dream, an aspiration, a strength, a passion, or quoting Marie Kondo: something that sparks joy in their life. I don’t want them to lose the opportunity to live out that potential.”
With a vision to continue advocating the concept of potential in youths, Asher hopes to train people to be able to stand through their struggles, and to be that friend to help others around call out the good in their life.
“If the youths get that support, a mentor, or opportunities in the most mouldable stage of their lives, I believe amazing things can happen. Because it happened for me.”
Also read: Paying It Forward: Why Volunteering During Chinese New Year Was More Valuable Than Any Angbao.
(All images used in header provided by Asher Low)