Coronavirus: MPs, volunteers find new ways of reaching out

Grassroots teams call to check on residents, delivering free meals and offering advice to those who need help

Mr Lim Chin Kiat, 74, with a packet of food he had just received from volunteers Joel Tan, 44, and Gracia Yap, 45, at his Ang Mo Kio Avenue 4 rental flat yesterday. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN
Mr Lim Chin Kiat, 74, with a packet of food he had just received from volunteers Joel Tan, 44, and Gracia Yap, 45, at his Ang Mo Kio Avenue 4 rental flat yesterday. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN
Mr Lim Chin Kiat, 74, with a packet of food he had just received from volunteers Joel Tan, 44, and Gracia Yap, 45, at his Ang Mo Kio Avenue 4 rental flat yesterday. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Coping during the circuit breaker period could be sometimes lonely and difficult for Madam Izamzamah Kusmon, 49, a single mother and caregiver to her 68-year-old mother, who suffers from a heart disease.

"I don't have many friends that I can talk to, and my mother and I don't really talk or share so much with each other," she said.

As a stroke survivor, she is at greater risk of complications like pneumonia if she contracts the coronavirus, which means she should try to stay home as much as possible.

But her mother and children, aged 11 and 12, rely on her to obtain groceries and meals, as there is no other adult in the house who can settle these errands.

Though restrictions that limit social gatherings and interactions are in place, grassroots volunteers and MPs have found new ways to reach out swiftly to residents like Madam Izam, who may be more vulnerable during the circuit breaker period.

These include regular phone or video calls, expanded free meal delivery programmes or grocery voucher schemes, as well as care hotlines that residents can call if they need help.

In Kebun Baru, Ang Mo Kio, where Madam Izam lives, meals have been delivered to her family of four twice a day since early last month.

At least 70 other households with frail seniors, most of whom are not on meal programmes run by social service agencies, have also been receiving meals from grassroots volunteers and partners as part of efforts to encourage them to stay home as much as possible, said Nee Soon GRC MP Henry Kwek, who oversees Kebun Baru ward.

Retired taxi driver Lim Chin Kiat, 74, who lives in a rental flat, said: "It's hard for me to go out because I have difficulty walking, so these meals help a lot."

Madam Edna Tan, 59, a grassroots volunteer, also calls Madam Izam at least once a week to check in on her family's needs.

She is part of a team of about five volunteers who reach out to 150 to 200 seniors a week, many of whom have been befriended by volunteers in Kebun Baru over the years as part of long-term outreach efforts in the constituency.

The volunteers in Kebun Baru have also been distributing food rations and toiletries such as soap and shampoo to about 70 elderly residents.

This also helps the seniors make fewer trips outside the house, said Madam Tan.

Three months ago, Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Christopher de Souza set up a dedicated hotline for residents in his Ulu Pandan ward to call or send messages to if they need help.

Requests for things like laptops or food rations can be made through the hotline. So far, volunteers and donors have loaned 21 laptops to students for their home-based learning, he said, and some of these laptops may be given to the students depending on their family circumstances.

"There are already government schemes in place to help these families, but if you need a laptop, for instance, it can take a certain number of days to process. So this is an additional way of filling the gap quickly," said Mr de Souza.

West Coast GRC MP Patrick Tay and Tanjong Pagar GRC MP Joan Pereira have also worked with volunteers in their wards to help provide meals to vulnerable residents during the circuit breaker.

In Ms Pereira's Henderson-Dawson constituency, about 50 elderly residents have been put on a grocery and daily meal delivery programme.

The hawker committee at Bukit Merah View food centre helps to coordinate orders to ensure that meals are bought from all the stalls, so as to help vendors whose businesses have also been affected by the Covid-19 situation.

Volunteers then collect the food from the stalls and deliver the meals to elderly residents, while observing safe distancing measures, she said.

Grassroots volunteers in Mr Tay's Boon Lay ward have raised close to $23,000 to provide about 100 families who have been financially affected by the Covid-19 situation with food vouchers for meals from Boon Lay Place Food Village.

The vouchers were sent by post to the families over the past two weeks, and can provide them support for about a month, said business transformation analyst Sim Cheng Yu, 26, a grassroots volunteer in Boon Lay.

Mr Kwek also recently formed a jobs and livelihoods task force in Kebun Baru, which aims to be a one-stop platform for residents whose income or jobs have been affected by Covid-19.

A team of 10 to 15 volunteers will counsel residents on financial assistance schemes, or legal remedies that are available, via video-conferencing or phone calls, and also look out for jobs or training opportunities.

Such help for residents has to continue even past the circuit breaker period or Covid-19 pandemic, said Mr Kwek, who has brought together volunteers, welfare organisations and government agencies under an initiative called Hope Collective, which allows these groups to collaborate and draw up programmes.

A platform that comes under Hope Collective is community space Onesimus Village in Kebun Baru, at a Housing Board block in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 4, where a majority of the rental blocks in Kebun Baru are located.

Onesimus Village includes a cafe and a community farm, which can be a training ground for those who are physically, intellectually or socially disadvantaged, and is run in collaboration with Salem Chapel, a church in Thomson Hills Drive.

"For families and residents who have complex needs, what matters is not just financial assistance. What matters is that they have fellow Singaporeans they can count on, who can provide advice and a listening ear.

"What also matters is that we organise ourselves as a community to provide a holistic and integrated system so that we can travel the distance with them," said Mr Kwek.

One resident who has benefited from the community at Onesimus Village is Mr Lee Chin Tuan, 60.

He had been in and out of jail for drug-related offences over the past few decades, and was referred to Onesimus Village by Mr Kwek late last year.

He is going through a six-month training programme at the community farm, where he learnt to grow vegetables.

Pastor Neo Ban Hui from Salem Chapel said special arrangements have been made for Mr Lee to continue to look after the farm even during the circuit breaker period.

Mr Lee, who has primary school qualifications, said that he has been spurred on by the support and encouragement of volunteers at the farm, and is determined to turn over a new leaf.

"I spent most of my adult life in jail. I've never worked in a proper job before. Working on the farm every day like this has taught me patience, resilience and gratitude, and I hope to be able to give back and help others next time."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 10, 2020, with the headline Coronavirus: MPs, volunteers find new ways of reaching out. Subscribe