Causes

Gardening helps halfway house residents find release

From left: Former residents Anba and Mohan working in the eco-garden at the HEB-Ashram Halfway House. They were released from the home earlier this year but returned to volunteer their services. Mr Anba said working in the garden "brought us closer t
From left: Former residents Anba and Mohan working in the eco-garden at the HEB-Ashram Halfway House. They were released from the home earlier this year but returned to volunteer their services. Mr Anba said working in the garden "brought us closer to mother nature and relieved stress for me".ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR
Mr Mohan and Mr Anba working on food waste in the compost bin. Black soldier flies help to decompose the waste, turning it into fertiliser for use in the eco-garden. Mr Mohan said there was satisfaction in seeing the plants grow.
Mr Mohan and Mr Anba working on food waste in the compost bin. Black soldier flies help to decompose the waste, turning it into fertiliser for use in the eco-garden. Mr Mohan said there was satisfaction in seeing the plants grow.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

In fast-paced Singapore, there are those in need - and those who go out of their way to meet their needs. This is the latest in a series on noteworthy causes that The Straits Times is spotlighting.

It looks like a regular colonial bungalow from outside, but within the property in Sembawang, 15 residents are serving out the last few months of their jail terms for substance abuse.

And the home has had some recent additions - a rooster, two hens, eight chicks, bees and fish, as well as more than 30 types of fruit trees and vegetables.

The Hindu Endowments Board (HEB)-Ashram Halfway House is one of eight halfway houses here and the only one that caters exclusively to Indians.

With help from the Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises, HEB-Ashram houses select offenders without strong family support, who spend the last stage of their detention in the home.

Last August, the idea for an eco-garden was mooted by the chairman of the HEB management committee, Professor Narayanan Ganapathy.

A nature lover, Prof Ganapathy was motivated to initiate the eco-garden project after reading reports of the therapeutic benefits one can derive from gardening. He hoped HEB-Ashram's residents could reap similar benefits.

Over half a year, residents worked to create the garden out of a once-bare plot of land.

From a small patch in a corner of the property, the area under cultivation is now the size of half a football field, with a variety of fruit trees and vegetables, including bananas, eggplant, lime and curry leaves.

As the project began to take shape, volunteers from the community came on board, including local beekeeper Xavier Tan, 50, who helps to rear honey bees.

A fish pond was also constructed from scratch to breed tilapia, which residents can eat. Other volunteers donated chickens to the home.

Food waste is turned into fertiliser on-site for use in the garden. Black soldier flies help to decompose the waste and turn it into compost.

The eco-garden was officially opened on March 19 by Minister for Transport and MP for Sembawang GRC Khaw Boon Wan, just one day after the chicks hatched.

A former resident who wanted to be known only as Mohan, 60, said there was satisfaction in seeing the plants grow. He was released in the middle of last month, after spending four months in the home, and returned to volunteer his services. "It was stressful and tiring, but I felt happier as I watched the plants grow," he said.

Another former resident, who gave his name as Anba, 51, was involved in the development of the garden as well. He was released two months ago after a six-month stay and now volunteers at the home.

Working in the garden "brought us closer to mother nature and relieved stress for me", he said, adding that the vegetables from the organic garden "tasted good".

Both Mr Anba and Mr Mohan have even taken some of the vegetables home to share with their families.

Besides spending their time watering and weeding the garden, residents have many other activities from 8am to 9.30pm.

They go for individual and group counselling sessions to get guidance and learn skills such as anger management, or tips to abstain from drug use.

They also attend weekly yoga and information technology literacy classes, and participate in community engagement activities through visits to temples and charity projects like the Gift from the Heart.

Some 200 families benefit from the charity project, which provides monthly food rations packed and delivered by the home's residents.

Head of HEB-Ashram, Mr K. Subramaniam, said the role of the halfway house is to help rehabilitate and reintegrate substance abusers into society. The home was set up in 1999.

Under the current version of the Halfway House New Service Model, which provides a framework for the operation of halfway houses in Singapore, residents are likely to stay at the home for about eight months.

Staff try to help residents rebuild their bonds with their families through engagement sessions.

Mr Mohan, who has three children and three grandchildren, said the halfway house had helped to restore him to his family. "When I was in prison, no one visited me," he said.

Mr Subramaniam and Prof Ganapathy visited Mr Mohan's family and convinced them that he was willing to change.

The staff also invited his family to visit the home. It was only then that his family members began to visit him.

"I really appreciate HEB- Ashram," said Mr Mohan. "It has helped me a lot."

Mr Subramaniam said it is about the residents' determination. "They wanted change," he said. "So we helped them."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 04, 2017, with the headline 'Gardening helps halfway house residents find release'. Print Edition | Subscribe