Golfing accident leads music teacher to dedicate her life to charity work

Former music teacher Aileen Ong with some of the children living in Cambodia's Smile Village, which Madam Ong helped build.
Former music teacher Aileen Ong with some of the children living in Cambodia's Smile Village, which Madam Ong helped build. PHOTO: COURTESY OF AILEEN ONG

SINGAPORE (THE NEW PAPER) - She was playing golf with her husband when his tee shot sliced badly, causing the ball to hit her left cheek just under the eye.

Describing the horrific accident that happened 18 years ago, Madam Aileen Ong, 63, told The New Paper that her nose was also fractured.

"It took 4½ hours of plastic surgery to repair the cheek bones with titanium implants, followed by two procedures for the nose a few days later," she said.

The accident completely changed her life. It prompted the music teacher to give up her career of 30 years to concentrate on charity work.

Born into a privileged family in Malacca, Madam Ong, who became a Singapore citizen in 1980, told TNP that she was taught to give back to society from young.

"Before the accident, I was occasionally helping the less privileged through my church. But the accident made me rethink my purpose in life," she said.

"The surgeon said I was very lucky. If the ball had hit me just two inches away from where it did, it would have resulted in me having brain damage, or I could have died.

"Since then, I felt like my life was spared for a reason, and it was a wake-up call for me to live my life purposefully."

In 2007, while on a trip to the Philippines to feed malnourished children, Madam Ong found her calling - to improve the lives of the poor and eradicate poverty.

There, she volunteered her time - about 10 days every month - with a group known as Gawad Kalinga, a Philippine movement that helped the poor.

After five years of helping out in the Philippines, Madam Ong decided to move on to Cambodia.

In 2009, she set up GK Hope, an international charity organisation that aims to eradicate poverty. It was later renamed to Solutions To End Poverty (Step) in 2012.

Step teamed up with Pour un Sourire d'Enfant (PSE), a non-governmental organisation that provides free education to poor children, to start an initiative known as Smile Village (SV).


SV provides homes for poor families and teaches them life skills so they can eventually make a living for themselves. 

Madam Ong said: "The first time I was invited to Cambodia was in July 2011, and I visited nine non-governmental organisations with a friend. PSE was not on our list at all.

"It was only on the day we were supposed to head back to Singapore that a mutual friend came by and got us to have breakfast at the cafe in PSE."

PSE project director Ouk Sovan said: "We started discussing ideas and realised we had a common interest - to improve the livelihood of underprivileged families by providing proper homes for them."

Madam Ong had to spend the first two years building up trust with the Cambodians, and it took four years for the SV concept to come to fruition.

One of Madam Ong's four children, Ms Elizabeth Lee, 36, told TNP that their family is supportive of their mother. 

The health coach said: "Being a contributor is in my mother's blood, and I can't remember a time she wasn't involved in a project."

As there is not a stable stream of volunteers, Madam Ong is looking for long-term volunteers and funding.

"We hope to find people who can provide training for residents in SV to acquire entrepreneurial skills and technical consistency for product quality," she said.

"Expertise support is also needed for design, as well as local and overseas marketing."


Smile Village in Cambodia. PHOTO: OUK SOVAN/FACEBOOK

Smile Village, built in September 2015 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, houses 68 families who used to live in slums.

These residents stay for three years before moving out to make way for new families.

They learn jobs such as rug-making, woodcraft, sewing and childcare.

This is to ensure that they are equipped to make it on their own.

In November 2014, Madam Aileen Ong raised $200,000 to build the first 48 houses in consultation with residents.

She pumped in about half a million dollars for the project and believes she can make the money back.

The village also has a bed-and-breakfast package where travellers can immerse themselves in the Cambodian culture.

She said: "We have found ways to earn money to become financially stable, and then we plough back the rest of the profits to continue changing lives."

Madam Ong plans to expand the village to house 100 families next year.