On Being Singaporean

Paying It Forward: Why Volunteering During Chinese New Year Was More Valuable Than Any Angbao

Project Refresh

Two weeks before Chinese New Year, the festival was already in full swing. Shops were all decked out in the auspicious colour of red, traditional Chinese snacks filled the markets, and many homes had started on their spring cleaning efforts.

On the Sunday morning of 20th January, however, about a thousand volunteers were at the homes of low-income seniors in Tampines, spring cleaning the one-room rental flats to get them ready for the festive celebrations ahead.

Project Refresh

Some of the 1000 volunteers who were spring cleaning the homes of a group of low-income senior residents

As part of the 12th edition of Project Refresh by Young NTUC (YNTUC) and the North East Community Development Council (CDC), volunteers from unions, schools, corporate organisations, grassroots, and fellow residents spruced up the homes with handmade Chinese New Year decor. Red packets and batik paintings of ‘福’, which means happiness in Chinese, were also prepared for them.

“When they put [the decorations] up, many people tell me [that it will remain] there until Christmas,” said one of the volunteers Madam Molly, 63, as she deftly folded and stapled red packets into a lantern.

To Molly, Chinese New Year isn’t just a family affair but also a community one.

“Folding these (lanterns) is a small gesture, but Chinese New Year is nothing without the atmosphere. It makes me happy knowing that my lanterns will brighten up my neighbours’ home.”

Project Refresh

Molly (second from left) and the volunteers with their handmade red packet lanterns.

Project Refresh

Project Refresh

Other volunteers painting batik ‘福’ posters.

A Reunion Under Lanterns

Molly’s lanterns were later hung at the entrance of Mdm Celeste’s home. The 69-year-old retiree said as she looked up at the lanterns, “I don’t usually put these up,” as she shared about the several falls she has had, and how her bad knee prevents her from taking on any chores that require her to climb or lift heavy loads.

Which was why she was especially grateful when a group of bustling volunteers came by to clean her windows, change her curtains, and decorate her home. All of those she had been wanting to do, but are too physically strenuous for her.

Project Refresh

Molly’s handmade lanterns were put up in Mdm Celeste’s home.

As a retiree who has been living alone for the past five years, Mdm Celeste isn’t used to the crowd in her living room. However, she welcomed the change.

“I usually like my house to be peaceful and quiet, but Chinese New Year is different.”

The spring cleaning and decorating was perfect for Mdm Celeste, as she looked forward to surprising her three daughters with the change when they visit during Chinese New Year.

“They (the volunteers) really came just in time. Because of my injury, I don’t usually prepare much for Chinese New Year.” This year however, “everyone would be here at the same spot,” Mdm Celeste smiled as she shared how this will be the first time in awhile that her home is all tidied up and ready for the festive season.

“Talking to people feels very ‘shiok’ you know?”

Beyond lending their helping hand, the company of the Project Refresh volunteers were also a significant part of the project to some of the senior residents, and vice versa.

“We came here expecting a lot of clutter and many things to do, but her home is actually quite organised already. I think it’s the company that she really misses,” said 29-year-old Zaki. He volunteered expecting a physically taxing morning, but found himself enjoying the conversations with his 67-year-old resident, Madam Mariam.

As the secondary school volunteers moved her carpet and mopped the floor, Madam Mariam spoke heartily about her younger days when she ran a food stall. Her sprightly movements left no hint that she had suffered a stroke just two years ago.

Project Refresh

Madam Mariam and her volunteers

Like Mdm Celeste, Madam Mariam lives alone and seldom have so many people in her house. Having the volunteers around that day brought back a familiar sense of warmth.

“I grew up in a big family. I was always the energetic and talkative one,” said Mariam. “It’s really nice of them (the volunteers) to help with the cleaning, but really, just having them around makes a difference. Talking to people feels very ‘shiok’ you know?”

Having gotten a glimpse of Mariam’s life that day, Zaki shared the realisation of how important it is for these seniors living alone to have company during festive seasons.

“It’s during celebrations and festive periods that people living alone can feel even lonelier. And sometimes, just being there to be a listening ear can be more important than physical help.”

Picking Something Up From The Senior Residents

While the project was directed at giving support to the senior residents, some of the volunteers also found themselves taking away something from the residents they helped.

“I have only painted once in my life, for my own house. But it’s patchy,” said Gan, a lecturer and first-time volunteer at Project Refresh. Looking at the patchy paintwork he did for his resident, Abdul Malik’s house walls, he added sheepishly, “just like that.”

Little did he know, 64-year-old Malik was actually an apartment painter himself, but has had his movements limited ever since he got a stroke just a few years before. And soon enough, Malik became a painting teacher to Gan and the other volunteers in his home.

As he muttered ‘aiyo’s and ‘aiya’s at the inexperienced painters (volunteers) getting paint on their own clothes and even faces, he patiently guided them with technical tips like painting with ‘W’ shaped strokes.

“They might not know how to paint properly, but they have the heart. It’s very heartwarming knowing that they can use their morning for anything else but they chose to come here to help. They are very willing to learn also,” said Malik.

Project Refresh

Malik and Gan

Throughout the morning, Gan gradually developed a mentor-mentee relationship with Malik.

“I feel like I’m the one who actually got more out of it. From just anyhow painting, at least now I know some basic techniques. This is actually nothing. Malik said that last time, he had to paint a whole apartment all by himself in just one day.”

Inspired, Gan also decided to bring his students along for the next Project Refresh to gear them up for their Youth Expedition Project overseas.

Filling Homes With Warmth

By the end of the day, 96 households received the Project Refresh treatment.

In action, the volunteers are there to declutter, clean, paint, and decorate. However, the significance of them there is more than just the physical help. For these senior residents living in isolation, the commotion and presence of volunteers are rare occasions that fills their home with conversations and laughter that they otherwise lack.

And for these residents, it was also a perfect start to their Chinese New Year.

“They make my house feel like a home,” said Madam Mariam.

This article is contributed by Young NTUC.

Also read: 65-Year-Old Mdm Rebecca’s Life: A Look At The Reality Of Singapore’s Privilege Gap.

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