Do you know the fable of the Little Red Hen?
When Madam Millie Tan tells the story to children at Pasir Ris Public Library, she whips out a stuffed version of the diligent fowl – one she knitted herself, using a pattern taken from a book she had borrowed from the very same library – to make the tale come alive.
The cuddly chicken is just one of a treasure trove of props that the 66-year-old retiree takes to her monthly storytelling sessions as a volunteer at the National Library Board (NLB).
Her storytelling inventory, stashed in her four-room flat, includes a black paper bird, paintings of peacocks, little creatures, statues and buildings, and two little dolls whose outfits she modified to match the Thumbelina fairy tale.
“Props are important because children cannot stay still for long,” she says. “You need something to entice them.”
A former operating theatre nurse, Madam Tan began her search for a retirement pastime when she entered her 50s. “When we work, we have friends, achievements, self-esteem – but once you retire, all this is disrupted,” she says. “I [wanted to] still find meaning and purpose in life.”
The enterprising mother of two – her sons are aged 35 and 36 – sought a role where she could still interact with and serve the community. Initially, she applied to pursue a counselling diploma at a private university. But while studying there, she saw a coursemate demonstrate the craft of storytelling at a class sharing and became enthralled with it.
“Hearing the story was so meaningful and touching… that memory stayed with me,” says Madam Tan, who read widely as a child. “For a person who likes hands-on activities and reading, it’s a good match.”
A Google search led her to join interest group The Storytellers’ Circle in 2013 and two years later, she began volunteering under NLB’s kidsREAD programme to tell stories at public libraries to children from less-privileged families.
Inspired by peers, she bought simple props – such as fruits and soft toys – for her sessions. But the craft-lover soon realised that her childhood interests in knitting and art could be employed to make her storytelling sessions more interesting.
“I was probably ten when I got interested in knitting,” she says with a laugh, adding: “As a student then, I was always more interested in arts and craft subjects.”
Pursuing past dreams for a passion-filled future
Now, in her later years, she is happily pursuing old passions. When storytelling sessions ground to a halt during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns, Madam Tan used the downtime to enrol in SkillsFuture courses, such as sketching, painting and children’s illustration, at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and Biz IQ Academy.
Having retired just last year, she now hopes to be a book writer and illustrator. “I want to do something that can last me into old age,” Madam Tan says. “It's good for me to continue sharpening my mental faculties.”
The satisfaction, she adds, comes from being a useful member of society: “I get to teach children something new about the world, give them that little bit of growth.”
With a new life focus that plays to her strengths, she is pleased with how her golden years are panning out, with days spent on joyful activities such as making crafts, painting and reading.
After all, she adds, it’s the season of life for personal time: “If you don’t enjoy it, who’s going to enjoy it for you?”
Visit https://go.gov.sg/ifeelyoungsg to read more about the 2023 Action Plan for Successful Ageing and discover how you can continue contributing your knowledge and expertise to society through inclusive opportunities to learn, volunteer and work.
This series is an initiative under the 2023 Action Plan for Successful Ageing.