Causes Week 2017: Acorn Quest plants seeds of change for ex-offenders

Acorn Quest managing director Janet Wee (seated right) with three who have received support from the group - (clockwise from seated left) Ms Kasmawati Kali Ubi, Mr Mohammad Asyraf Mustafa and Mr Stan Silvester.
Acorn Quest managing director Janet Wee (seated right) with three who have received support from the group - (clockwise from seated left) Ms Kasmawati Kali Ubi, Mr Mohammad Asyraf Mustafa and Mr Stan Silvester.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

For many former drug offenders such as stroke therapist Kasmawati Kali Ubi, the road to recovery may take a lifetime.

The 55-year-old, who went to prison six times from 1981 for using heroin, said it was meeting counsellor Janet Wee four years ago that changed her life for the better.

Ms Kasmawati, who has two sons aged 18 and 31, and whose husband is also a former offender, said: "She helped me a lot, in my housing debt, finding a new job. Even my children respect 'Auntie Janet' a lot."

Ms Wee, 43, is managing director of social enterprise Acorn Quest, which provides counselling and services like job referrals to people including former offenders.

Of the firm's name, she said: "We wanted to turn all the 'acorns' that we find into oak trees - which are tall, strong, resilient and valuable to society - because the wood can be made into many things."

Ms Wee, formerly a senior counsellor at the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association, said one thing that sets Acorn Quest apart from other organisations is how it provides long-term, even lifelong support.

Going the extra mile to help clients, such as attending to family crises after midnight, is how trust is earned, she added.

Although it charges a nominal fee so that clients have a sense of ownership in their recovery journey, Acorn Quest does not turn away those who cannot pay.

"If I turn them away and say, 'I am doing business', then the chance is for them to go back to drugs and end up in prison again," said Ms Wee, who is the only full-time employee of the company.

 
 
 

Acorn Quest has given more than 400 hours of pro bono counselling to low-income and needy families since it was started in August last year.

But the help is not just a one-way street. Many of those who have been helped by the firm become facilitators themselves, creating a support network for newcomers. There are currently about 10 clients, including five who are also unpaid facilitators.

One of them, Mr Stan Silvester, 49, said: " We have gone through a lot together, and it is a family thing, the camaraderie that we share."

The telemarketer spent a total of 22 years in prison for various crimes, including drug offences.

Other than having fortnightly sharing sessions, the group also takes part in community events. The hope is for more former convicts who need help to step forward.

"For ex-offenders, till the day we die, we are still fighting this recovery battle," said Mr Silvester.

One of the youngest of the group is engineering technician Mohammad Asyraf Mustafa, 30.

Grateful for the moral support he has received from Ms Wee and the facilitators at Acorn Quest, he said: "It is very lucky for me to have peers like them, because they have been through what I have been through many times more, and I feel I can turn to them for anything."

•For more information, e-mail janet@acornquest.com

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2017, with the headline 'Acorn Quest plants seeds of change for ex-offenders'. Print Edition | Subscribe