Three women who overcame financial and physical adversity in their lives

Three people talk about how they overcame personal hardship, and their hopes for 2018

For some families and individuals, the past few years have been riddled with challenges and personal hardship.

The Sunday Times speaks to a once able-bodied chef who lost sensation in all her limbs after an operation went awry; a student who went to bed hungry for months when the family's financial situation was tight; and a single mother to four young children who survived some of the toughest moments of her life.

Their stories may be different, but they point to common themes: the resilience of the human spirit and the power of hope.

In spite of the obstacles faced, they have something to smile about in the year to come.

Here's to a new year filled with renewed hope.

She had no dinner for months

Polytechnic student Sheril Ameilda wants to become a teacher. PHOTO: ORANGEAID BY NTUC INCOME

Third-year polytechnic student Sheril Ameilda, 19, considers 2016 the worst year of her life.

I was always hungry, but I would try not to think about the hunger by distracting myself with other things.


For months, she went to bed hungry, having to skip dinners, and slept between just two and five hours a day because she wanted to finish her homework and household chores before bedtime.

Her parents are divorced and she lives with her mother, 55, an odd-job worker, and two siblings in a two-room flat in Toa Payoh. Her elder brother, 23, works as a cook, while her younger sister, 18, is in culinary school.

The family's financial situation was dire for much of last year because her mother was the sole breadwinner and they tried to minimise spending by getting by with one or two meals a day.

In school, Sheril says she would opt for the cheapest items in the canteen, such as a plate of chicken rice or a bowl of mee soto.

At home, meals typically consisted of plain rice with an egg, made tasty with some sambal.

"I was always hungry, but I would try not to think about the hunger by distracting myself with other things," she says.

The distractions came in the form of schoolwork and housework, which she would stay up to do into the wee hours of the night.

With much to juggle, she found herself physically and emotionally exhausted.

She was awarded financial bursaries from NTUC Income's OrangeAid Future Development Programme in September last year and this year. Each time, she received $3,000.

The programme supports tertiary students from the lowest income households by providing financial assistance for their school fees and living expenses and also equips them with financial literacy skills and career guidance.

Started in 2015, the programme has seen about 1,000 bursary awards amounting to $2.55 million being given out so far.

Sheril says the bursaries have helped to alleviate her family's financial burden and things are looking up. Her brother found work as a cook in May this year.

Of late, she has experienced fewer days where the family has just plain rice and eggs for their meals.

"It seems like a minor point, but to us, it's a big difference," she says.

There are now times when their meals consist of rice, vegetables and a meat dish. They sometimes go to hawker centres nearby for dinner.

Occasionally, the family gives themselves "a treat" in the form of a meal at Pizza Hut or KFC.

Next year, Sheril will graduate from polytechnic, while her sister will complete her studies at culinary school.

When they find jobs, it will mean greater financial stability for the family.

Sheril, who hopes to become a teacher, says: "Last year, I wanted to give up and quit school, but I'm glad I persevered.

"With perseverance, I can give my family a better life and I, too, can live a better life."

Surviving hard times

Madam Mary Yeo with her children (clockwise from left) Jonathan, Jacqueline, Joycelynn and Josephine. PHOTO: GIN TAY FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

Life is very hard, but I have hands and legs. My kids and I won't starve to death... People have suggested that I give up my children for adoption. But I don't want to because they are my responsibility and I want to care for them.


Stable is not a word that single mother Mary Yeo, 46, would use to describe her life since 2011.

Her life - and those of her four children aged between six and 10 - was thrown into disarray six years ago, when she gave birth to twins and her husband could not deal with their constant crying.

He vented his frustrations first by hitting their eldest child and then the other three.

Although she had no alternative housing arrangement, Madam Yeo decided to leave her husband, taking their four young children with her. Her twins were then just a few months old and her eldest child was five.

The couple are divorced.

An only child whose parents had died, she had no one to turn to after she left home, but knew she had to find shelter for herself and her brood.

Between 2012 and 2015, thanks to the help of social workers, they stayed in three homes run by various charities.

However, there were times in between staying in shelters when they would sleep at void decks and bus stops.

As an odd-job worker, she earns less than $500 a month.

To save money, mother and children get by on biscuits and plain water, sometimes for several days. On good days, she cooks them rice with canned baked beans or curry sauce.

They also receive food rations from time to time, but she says she would rather not be reliant on these. "Life is very hard, but I have hands and legs. My kids and I won't starve to death," she says.

Things got slightly better in 2015, when she managed to rent a one-room flat in Boon Lay, where the family now lives.

Besides social workers and financial assistance from the Ministry of Social and Family Development, other organisations have also stepped in to help her.

Club Rainbow (Singapore), which helps chronically ill children and their families, has volunteer tutors who give tuition to two of her children: Jonathan, 10, and Jacqueline, seven. Her twins Josephine and Joycelynn are six.

Jonathan was born with a cleft lip and palate and has gone through several operations to fix it.

He joined Club Rainbow in December 2015 and has since received two bursaries of between $300 and $400 because he achieved good academic results in school.

All these little blessings go towards relieving her financial burden, says Madam Yeo.

But the biggest ray of hope has come in the form of a job offer.

The former clinic assistant was recently offered a job to be a clinic assistant in a hospital here.

If she takes it up, she will be able to earn $2,000 a month.

One would think she would leap at this opportunity, but she says it all depends on whether she can find after-school care for her four children.

If there are no vacancies for her little ones, she will need to be home to care for them when they return from school.

Madam Yeo says: "People have suggested that I give up my children for adoption. But I don't want to because they are my responsibility and I want to care for them."

She lost all sensation in her limbs

Ms Jasmine Ho (with her sister Jennifer, right, and My NoNNa's founder Geraldine Tan) at the Wheelchair Workplace Friendly Cafe at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

I want to go back to as normal a life as quickly as possible. I don't want anyone to despise me or view me as useless.

CHEF JASMINE HO, who hopes to regain her ability to walk next year

For close to three decades, Ms Jasmine Ho led a contented life as a pastry chef and home economics consultant. She trained teachers on the subject and worked for various food and catering companies, including Singapore Food Industries and Sats.

But for the past 10 years, the 51-year-old had also been suffering from pains that stemmed from a compressed spine.

She injured her spine in her 20s due to the many heavy-lifting tasks in her early work life.

An operation last March at National University Hospital to decompress her spine was meant to relieve her pain.

But three days after it, she found herself in even greater pain.

She observed that the tubes that were meant to circulate blood around her body were found to be carrying black-instead of red-coloured blood.

Something had gone wrong.

Doctors later told her that the metal pipe they had inserted into her body to stabilise her spine had been improperly sterilised, resulting in a spinal bacterial infection.

She was rushed into a second operation to remove the bacteria, but lost all sensation in her limbs following this.

She says: "My limbs felt numb and I was very down, but I didn't want to give up hope. Why should I die because of someone else's mistake?"

She willed herself to press on with physiotherapy because she wanted to go back to work. After a few months, she regained some feeling in her limbs.

But because she suffered from persistent muscular spasms and has to use a wheelchair, she felt that she could not fulfil the requirements of her old job.

She also found it hard to find another job in the food and beverage industry.

Things started looking up in September this year, when the SPD - a charity that works in partnership with adults, youth and children with disabilities - linked her up with social enterprise My NoNNa's, which trains and employs people with special needs to prepare, cook and serve Italian food in schools.

The social enterprise was then about to open My NoNNa's Wheelchair Workplace Friendly Cafe at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).

Co-conceptualised and designed with the help of SUTD students, the cafe is equipped with features including a ramp and an automated pasta-cooking machine, to aid staff who are wheelchair users in carrying out their tasks.

My NoNNa's founder Geraldine Tan, 48, says she hired Ms Ho on the spot in spite of the latter not having cooked Italian food before.

"I could see in her a passion to cook for others. I wanted to help her live her dreams again," says Ms Tan.

She adds that Ms Ho's baked pasta, roast chicken and salmon dishes are popular with the cafe's customers.

Ms Ho says she is glad to be back in the workforce and is even happier seeing customers enjoy the food she cooks.

Besides having Ms Tan as her employer, she is also grateful for the unwavering support of her elder sister Jennifer, 57, who visited her daily during the months that she was hospitalised and felt the most dejected about life.

Ms Ho is hoping to regain her ability to walk next year, although she can take only a few unassisted steps at the moment.

"I want to go back to as normal a life as quickly as possible. I don't want anyone to despise me or view me as useless," she says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 31, 2017, with the headline 'Wind beneath their wings'. Print Edition | Subscribe