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Food for 5,000

Willing Hearts, with volunteers' ready hands, provides meals to the needy 365 days a year

It is 4.30am. In a kitchen about the size of two badminton courts, Mr Tony Tay, 69, and three staff members perform a well-drilled daily routine. They fill two giant woks with vegetables and start to stir-fry.

Come 5.30am and the kitchen becomes livelier with a team of 30 volunteers from Sita, a company specialising in IT and communications in air transport. Donning aprons and caps, they help to churn out meals .

"We are doing our first delivery at 6.30am," says Mr Tay with a hint of urgency. Everyone gets down to work: some cook while others pack the food into boxes.

Willing Hearts, a charity started by Mr Tay, cooks and distributes meals to 5,000 needy people in more than 40 locations across the island, 365 days a year.

It is run mainly by volunteers from all walks of life, among them CEOs, professionals, blue-collar workers, retirees and students.

Each day, at least 10 volunteers are needed to do the cooking, 30 to pack and 20 to prepare the food. In addition, 15 drivers are needed to send the food to 50 locations. Because of volunteers and donors, Willing Hearts can run the operation on less than $2,000 a day.

Vegetable importer Lim Hiok Chuan, 65, hands out sacks of potatoes to an employee of Willing Hearts at the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre. Mr Lim, who has been giving his products to Willing Hearts regularly for the last 10 years, has never turned do
Vegetable importer Lim Hiok Chuan, 65, hands out sacks of potatoes to an employee of Willing Hearts at the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre. Mr Lim, who has been giving his products to Willing Hearts regularly for the last 10 years, has never turned down emergency requests from the group. ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

The charity started in 2003 when Mr Tay and his wife, Mary, helped a Canossian nun collect bread for needy students from a bakery. After the nun took the bread she needed, she gave a carload of bread to the couple, telling them: "You should know what to do."

The couple gave the bread to migrant workers and the poor.

They later collected donated vegetables to give to the needy. Soon, a group of individuals started helping them with the collection and distribution of bread and vegetables.

Willing Hearts was formed with this group of 11 in 2003.

In 2004, Mrs Tay got to know of an elderly gentleman who needed help and offered to cook for him.

The requests for a cooked meal soon grew and multiplied.

In 2005, they fed 500. In 2010 it was 2,000 and now, it is 5,000.

DELIVERY

I am in the car of commercial pilot Francis Tay, 61, who flies the A-380 plane for a living. Today, his task is to deliver food to the doors of 20 needy residents in Clementi in the morning.

As all his children are grown up, he devotes almost all his free time to helping at the charity, something he has been doing for five years.

He says: "It is very fulfilling to hand out food to those who need it. I want to share my blessings. You don't need training to help here, just have a willing heart."

On another day last month, I was in a van with the pilot on our way to a distribution point at Block 4, North Bridge Road.

As our van approached slightly past 9am, I saw a group of mostly elderly people waiting. They saw us and started to queue up. In a minute, all 280 packs of food were snapped up.

As I was about to leave, I saw an elderly woman in a wheelchair eating the food she had just received .

"Today there is chicken, nice to eat," said Madam Lee Ah Choo, 82, who has been living alone in her rented flat for 20 years.

Collecting the food is a highlight of her daily routine. After the meal, she usually stays at the void deck, as there is no TV and not much to do in her house, she said.

Besides the elderly and disabled, Willing Hearts help the poor, jobless, sick, single-parent families, ex-convicts and migrant workers.

The organisation also provides its beneficiaries with tuition services, traditional Chinese medicine treatment, dental care, optical aid, legal aid and bereavement services.

Some 70 migrant workers from India volunteer at Willing Hearts.

One of them is Mr Gopalan Chenthil Kumar, 38, an electrical maintenance supervisor, who was in a lorry with me on the way to a workers' dormitory on another Sunday last month. On the lorry were 200 sacks of rice from Willing Hearts, to be given to foreign workers who earn no more than $18 a day.

For Mr Tay, the founder of Willing Hearts, the question he inevitably gets asked is: "Why do all this?"

"I do not know," the retired businessman replied.

After some hesitation, he said: "I was eating donated food up to when I was 15 years old. I come from a single-parent family and was put in a convent when I was five to 10 years old. They gave me food, clothing and love.

"When I left the convent, I had nothing. I have been working since I was 12. Sometimes I do get tired doing all this but the volunteers give me the spirit and energy."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2016, with the headline 'Food for 5,000'. Print Edition | Subscribe