Being practical delivers the goods, say volunteers from Keeping Hope Alive

Keeping Hope Alive's founder, Ms Phua (centre), and her fellow volunteers visit estates around the island, spending a few weeks at each. If flats need cleaning, they roll up their sleeves and get started. If light bulbs need to be changed, they do it
Keeping Hope Alive's founder, Ms Phua (centre), and her fellow volunteers visit estates around the island, spending a few weeks at each. If flats need cleaning, they roll up their sleeves and get started. If light bulbs need to be changed, they do it on the spot. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

Volunteers from Keeping Hope Alive focus on meeting actual needs of those they help

From a painting firm boss who uses his supplies to spruce up formerly bedbug-infested flats to a manicurist who clips the toenails of elderly wheelchair users, the members of informal volunteer network Keeping Hope Alive are a varied lot.

What unites them, they say, is a practical focus on meeting actual needs - not assumed ones.

Volunteer May Soo, 50, said: "We started off with grocery distribution and house-cleaning, but found that a lot of old folks don't cook, so the groceries they received would just expire without being used."

So they decided to distribute groceries only to households which did cook, such as families with young children, said the regional office director, who has been volunteering with the group's founder, Ms Fion Phua, for the past 14 years.

Last October, Keeping Hope Alive was one of the groups to receive the President's Volunteerism and Philanthropy Award.

SPOT ON

If you see an elderly person fall down, there's no need to register a group to lift her up. You just lift her up automatically.

FION PHUA, a club membership broker and Keeping Hope Alive founder, on the group's informal way of working.

But Ms Phua, 45, is keen to stress the informal nature of the network.

Its method of contacting volunteers has evolved from pagers and faxes to e-mail, SMSes, WhatsApp, and a Facebook group with more than 3,700 members. Yet, it is not a registered society and, for many years, did not even have a name.

"If you see an elderly person fall down, there's no need to register a group to lift her up. You just lift her up automatically," said Ms Phua, a club membership broker.

The name Keeping Hope Alive was adopted about seven years ago when volunteers pointed out that since the group had grown so big, it was time to make it a proper entity.

Every Sunday morning, a core team of about 50 volunteers will visit one- and two-room flats, distributing porridge - sponsored by Goodwood Park Hotel - and asking after the residents. "We find out their needs first, then we see how we can help," said Ms Soo.

Madam Wee Kim Lian, 90, said: "They are very kind. They always come and visit me and ask me what I need." As a wheelchair user, she finds it hard to get around, so the volunteers occasionally help her buy groceries, Madam Wee said.

The needs-based approach is what attracted marketing executive Elaine Tan, 55, to join the group some four years ago.

Not all volunteer work is targeted, she noted: "Sometimes we do not know whether what we give is really relevant to them or not."

But when she saw the volunteers going door to door with books, toys and children's clothes, letting families pick what they wanted, she felt that was the way to go.

The volunteers visit estates around the island, spending a few weeks at each. If flats need cleaning, they roll up their sleeves and get started. If light bulbs need to be changed, they do it on the spot.

They have cleaned bedbug-ridden homes and replaced old furniture. They even took an elderly woman to visit her son in prison.

A current project is adding LED lights to doorbells for residents who may be hard of hearing. Volunteer Wilson Tan, 40, noticed that some residents could not hear the volunteers' knocks on their doors.

He and his wife, both engineers, decided to put their expertise to use. "We want to do what we can for those who need it, in a very real way," he said.

It is exactly the philosophy that drives Keeping Hope Alive.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 07, 2016, with the headline 'Being practical delivers the goods'. Print Edition | Subscribe