Wanting to make a difference isn’t easy, especially if you’re already juggling a career and a busy social life. But there are still ways you can help those in need. Here’s how three women make it work.
Nicole Carmen Tan, 26
Volunteer, Women on a Mission’s Big Sister Programme
You would think that a young lawyer at the start of a burgeoning career would have little time for anything else, but Nicole makes it a point to volunteer with Women On A Mission’s Big Sister Programme with Pertapis Children’s Home. She acts as a “big sister” to underprivileged and abused teenage girls.
While her experience has been smooth-sailing so far, it hasn’t been without its challenges. “The toughest part is finding a balance between wanting the ‘little sisters’ to enjoy the time we share, and ensuring that the session is meaningful for their personal development.”
“There will always be this temptation to take them out for activities that they have on their wish list because we want them to be happy and enjoy their time with us. But the danger with that is we might lose sight of the purpose of our involvement in their lives,” she says.
She shares that she also struggles with finding a balance between when she should intervene, and when she shouldn’t, especially when it comes to how the girls lead their lives.
“We want to ensure non-ideal behaviours can be ‘corrected’, and that the girls can grow up living ‘wholesome’ lives. But we run the risk of assuming that we know what’s best for them when there may be inherent cultural differences and circumstances in their lives that we’re not aware of,” she explains.
Nonetheless, Nicole finds her time with her ‘little sisters’ nothing short of rewarding. “The feel-good moments come when they share things they hold very close to their hearts. These can range from the skeletons in their closet to teenage-girl secrets, such as crushes and boyfriends or even struggles within themselves or their lives,” she says.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to know you’ve earned their trust, and that they’re comfortable sharing their innermost thoughts and secrets with you.”
She also finds it fulfilling that the programme allows her to make a difference in these young girls’ lives. “When the girls tell me they find my advice and the exercises useful, it assures me that my presence in their lives makes a real difference, no matter how small it may be.”
How she does it
Nicole also volunteers with the Singapore Association of Women Lawyers, Law Society Pro Bono Services and HER Planet Earth. And on top of volunteering, she engages in various interests and hobbies—she’s on the fight team of her Muay Thai gym and recently picked up golf. So if you think it’s impossible to fit volunteering into a busy work and social life, she’s a great example of how, with some careful planning, it can be done.
“Part of my personal philosophy, which I also apply to volunteering, is to always give things that intuitively feel like part of your life purpose a go,” she shares.
“And when you do something, give it your best, so no matter how things eventually turn out, you’ll have no regrets since there was nothing further you could have done.”
Lim Xiu Xuan, 29
Case Manager, AWARE’s Sexual Assault Centre
Because Xiu Xuan sees troubled women on a daily basis, there are days when she finds herself very emotionally drained. Thankfully, there’s a lot that keeps her going, even when the going gets tough.
“Stories about sexual violence make us question humanity, but as a colleague said, hidden within these stories is also one about strength, courage and resilience,” she says.
AWARE supports survivors of sexual violence in their journey of recovery through counselling and legal consultations. They also lend emotional support by accompanying women to the police station, hospital and court. As a case manager, Xiu Xuan facilitates these efforts.
“Apart from providing resources, this work involves helping survivors make sense of the trauma and learn about the things they can do to move forward,” she says. “It helps them to take back control of their lives and fulfill their potential as human beings.”
Xiu Xuan actually majored in finance and political science in university, but it didn’t take her long to realise that her calling lies elsewhere. “After completing an internship, it became glaringly apparent that a career in business wasn’t for me.”
“I want to be able to help people in need. But more than that, I want to protect the human rights and dignity of those who are vulnerable in society,” she adds.
However, applying for a job in social work took a lot of courage. “I was often asked: ‘Why don’t you earn a lot of money first before contributing to the social sector?’”
“I was constantly hammered with the narrative that I should be ‘practical’. As such, the prospect of working in the social sector became quite scary.”
Nevertheless, she persisted, and she’s been working in this field for five years now.
“Mean girl” myth
And while she has learnt a lot from her time at AWARE, the one thing that stands out to her is that women help other women a lot more than we might think.
“There’s a myth that women are mean or obnoxious to other women—that we’re competitive with one another. But I’ve seen plenty of women support other women,” she says.
She points out that as women, our actions are often scrutinised and magnified: when we call out other women, we’re seen as catty; and when we call out men, we’re thought to be vindictive and hysterical. In a way, we can never win, so it’s even more important that we help each other.
“When women support other women, everyone is lifted up,” she says. “And when that happens, we pave the way for progress for our gender.”
Ida Supahart, 28
Communications Manager, Aidha
Ida never planned on working at Aidha, a non-profit organisation that provides foreign domestic workers and lower-income women with self-development training programmes—she was simply looking to do volunteer work with a women’s organisation. But then she met the CEO and everything changed.
“During the interview, she told me, ‘When we educate a student here, we impact nine other lives. The student will not only transfer her knowledge to her family, but also to her friends and community back home.’”
“She was so full of vigour and passion, and I just knew I had to join this amazing team.”
What she does
As a communications manager, Ida handles Aidha’s marketing and PR. But that doesn’t mean she’s cooped up in an office all day.
“People usually think that an NPO has a slow-paced working environment. But it’s not true at all! I’m always on the lookout for interesting stories of our students and alumni, and the only way to get to know their stories is to befriend and interact with them.”
Aidha has been in operation since 2006 and has worked with more than 4,000 women to date. It has roughly 500 students enrolled in its programmes at any given time, and sometimes partners with companies such as Facebook and Google to offer free workshops.
“There have been tonnes of success stories, but my favourite is a story about Nilu. She had been a foreign domestic worker in Singapore for 14 years when she enrolled into a course here,” she says. “Today, she owns a tea brand called Nilu Tea, which is available on RedMart and in several restaurants. She’s also a motivational speaker that has spoken at TedX Singapore Women and founded an NPO in Sri Lanka.”
Ida may have a lot on her plate, but she finds the time to volunteer at Be Kind SG and cat rescue group Love Kuching Project. Plus, she also manages a small business: a modern batik wear brand called Pakai.
Her advice for anyone looking to get into her line of work? “Do your research. Connect with people on the team and take the time to volunteer with them first.”
“But keep in mind that at the end of the day, working full-time for an NPO is very different from volunteering, because you’ll have to deal with challenges such as a lack of funds, manpower and logistics.”