SGCARES: Through the Eyes of Youths with "Special Needs".
My Volunteering Background
Back in 2011, due to being disillusioned with work and life in general, I started looking for meaningful things to do and embarked on my journey of volunteering with SGCARES.
SGCARES is a non-profit organisation authorized by the government and modeled after successful organisations such as New York Cares as well as Boston Cares. Essentially, it was conceptualized to enable caring but busy people in Singapore to volunteer as and when they can with a range of Volunteer Host Organisations(VHO) for different sectors.
Over the course of one year, I volunteered over 300 hours in a range of sectors such as the elderly, environmental awareness as well as special needs etc. In particular, I would like to share my experiences of volunteering in a vocational institute catering to teenagers with special needs such as lower IQ, disabilities such as permanent loss of hearing, etc.
In the early stages of interaction with the youths.
The roles of the volunteers were to facilitate in activities such as physical education, outings, sports and interaction. In the first briefing made by the assistant head teacher of the school, our roles were to show the students that the 'outside' world was not different from their and in a sense, serve as a bridge for them to cross over to our world.
When I first started volunteering there and interacting with the students, I felt that other then their obvious disabilities, they were in fact no different from any of us.Those students were pretty much typical teenagers, forming cliques in school, face book addicts, fans of Korean Dramas etc.
It was only after prolonged interaction with them when I found out that much of the perceived differences they had with 'normal' teenagers were socially constructed and forced upon them. It was only then when I realized the true meaning behind the words the teacher said.
After establishing a rapport and entering their cliques.
After my 6 or 7th visit, I became an unofficial friend of the students and was constantly invited into their gossip and chats. As my rapport and interaction with the students increased, I realized that the students of different cliques were beginning to fight and bicker just to have the right to invite me to join them for the activity. This was also compounded by the fact that they started to look to me for approval for the things they do, openly defying their teachers just to hang out with me.
As one of the final year students, Jane said, " Of course, all of us like you, you are like one of the few normal people who care and hang out with us". She continued her speech by saying, "Its quite hard to find people who care and because we are graduating soon; working as waitresses or cooks, there is not much time left."
On another occasion, she slapped another student for trying to pull me away while I was helping another clique and told me happily, " Desmond Kor (endearing term for brother); anyone bully or disturb you, let me know, I will whack them for you!" And as I struggled to explain to her that violence was not necessary for my attention. She recounted to me of how she got bullied in primary school, beaten and teased by groups of students, intent on forcing her to admit that she had a low IQ and was stupid. She had to fight back for survival or die.
After volunteering over 8 months, I gradually withdrew myself from volunteering to prepare for further studies. During my last activity there, I wished Jane the best and told her that she was a true friend and better then many "normal" people around.
Reflections & Conclusion
Ending my volunteering stint there, I felt mixed emotions. As much as I wanted to "bask" in satisfaction for a job well done, I realized that it was a mutually beneficial experience and I had as much to take away as I thought I had given.
If society as a whole could change their views of this group of people who were wrongfully denied and the students with special needs were brought up and treated as "normal" kids, would they be different? Or rather would the peer discrimination that tormented Jane's childhood be less or even removed?
Food for thought.. With the trust they gave freely to me, the authority and influence I had over them was something that scared me as this 'power' comes with great responsibility as Uncle Ben from Spider man would say. I shudder to think if they trusted the wrong people..
Hoping to continue volunteering during my summer holidays:)