Donors and volunteers lauded at annual President's Challenge ceremony at Istana

At the President's Challenge Appreciation Night held at the Istana on Thursday (Nov 23) were student Melissa Yuen, 18, and housewife Shirley Tan, 56.
At the President's Challenge Appreciation Night held at the Istana on Thursday (Nov 23) were student Melissa Yuen, 18, and housewife Shirley Tan, 56. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Since 2004, housewife Shirley Tan has been giving residents of nursing homes free haircuts.

She said to the elderly, it is not about vanity.

"Many people may think haircuts are insignificant, but a good haircut can actually make the seniors very happy. They are thankful that people bother, and it makes them feel respected and dignified," Madam Tan, 56, told The Straits Times.

For her efforts, Madam Tan was praised byPresident Halimah Yacob on Thursday evening (Nov 23), during the President's Challenge Appreciation Night held at the Istana.

During the event, 59 top volunteers and donors of the President's Challenge - an annual community outreach and fund-raising campaign - were lauded for their compassion.

Madam Tan said she first noticed how listless and sad some residents of nursing homes looked when she visited such homes in 1998.

She wanted to help, but did not know how.

Over time, she learnt that some of the senior citizens would get upset with the haircuts they received. This she noticed while visiting her mother, who had to be placed in a home for two years due to medical reasons.

So she decided to pick up hairstyling as a skill in 2003, spending $7,500 on the 18-month course. The fees were later offset by a skills upgrading grant offered by the National Trades Union Congress.

Madam Tan, who has been volunteering actively at various homes, including the All Saints Home, has been giving free haircuts since.

Saint Joseph's Institution (SJI) International School, which raised $48,888 for the President's Challenge, was also recognised as a donor at the event. Teacher Frances Powell received a token of appreciation from Madam Halimah.

One of SJI's projects - Walk A Mile In Your Shoes - was the brainchild of 18-year-old student Melissa Yuen.

The initiative involved 11 SJI students working with 11 beneficiaries aged between nine and 12 from Touch Young Arrows - a children's outreach programme of Touch Community Services - to design shoes based on what was special to them.

The 11 pairs of shoes were later auctioned off for $16,000 during the SJI 10th anniversary dinner.

The art student wanted to show how art can be used as a connection between donor and beneficiary.

For example, one of the beneficiaries designed, with the help of his SJI mentor, a pair of shoes featuring shooting stars, as they reminded him of a trip he once took to Malaysia with his parents.

Another beneficiary, who loves Singapore and aspires to be a teacher, worked with an SJI student on a design featuring the Singapore flag.

"I wanted to provide a more intimate connection between the beneficiary and donor, so the donor can see what matters to the beneficiary," Melissa said.

Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) also received a token of appreciation, for raising $213,888 through public donors and SPH staff.

Overall, a record number of over 12,000 volunteers participated in this year's President's Challenge.

The number of volunteers who contributed their skills - ranging from vocational skills such as hairstyling, to management or consultancy skills - has also doubled over the past two years, from 211 individuals in 2015 to 403 this year, said a spokesman for the President's Challenge.

In her speech, Madam Halimah said she was honoured to be able to carry on the good work initiated by former presidents Tony Tan Keng Yam and the late Mr S R Nathan.

She also thanked volunteers and donors for their efforts, saying that the President's Challenge is on track to raise over $11 million in 2017, which will go towards the 52 beneficiary organisations across various sectors.

Madam Halimah noted that the social service landscape in Singapore is ever-changing, and these needs have been reflected in the changing focuses of the President's Challenge.

In the first decade, it focused on consolidating fund-raising efforts, to provide direct support to what beneficiaries needed. Over the last five years or so, the focus was on creating a culture of giving, not just in a monetary sense but also in time and skills, said Madam Halimah.

Moving forward, she hopes the President's Challenge will "look into more customised and upstream support, so that we can help the most vulnerable change their circumstances".

"As the old saying goes, it is better to teach one to fish than to merely give him a fish. Whether it is through skills upgrading, capacity building or empowerment, I'm confident that together we can bring about more sustained changes to the lives of those we impact," she added.