Budget debate: Befrienders support and advise needy families on ways to improve their lives

Ms Irene Soh, a befriender, said she was inspired to serve the community as she came from a needy family herself. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

SINGAPORE - Jess is a 50-year-old divorced mother of four who turns to her friend Irene Soh when she needs help and guidance.

The warehouse assistant earns about $2,000 a month and her children are aged between 17 and 27. Two of them are working in the customer service sector while the other two are still studying.

Jess, who declined to give her surname, said in Mandarin: "Irene is very friendly and helpful.

"Anything I'm not sure, I ask her to teach me what to do. I can't really speak English so Irene also helps me to communicate with government agencies."

Ms Soh, 43, was matched to Jess' family last year as part of a pilot befriending initiative under Community Link (ComLink).

Jess has sought her help on matters ranging from a faulty tap to job opportunities for her daughter who was bullied at work.

ComLink provides comprehensive and coordinated support that aims to meet the needs of low-income families with children, who are living in highly subsidised Housing Board rental flats.

In the debate on the Ministry of Social and Family Development's (MSF) budget on Thursday (March 10), Minister-in-charge of Social Services Integration Desmond Lee said each family under ComLink will be matched with a pair of befrienders.

The befrienders, who are volunteers, will help provide support to these families and work with Social Service Office staff, who will coordinate efforts from various government, community and grassroots groups to help the family.

Mr Lee said: "These befrienders journey with the family, celebrating their achievements and encouraging them through setbacks.

"Over time, they build rapport and trust, allowing them to better understand the family's unique circumstances and encourage the family towards their goals."

Mr Lee added that the befrienders are trained to have the "skills, knowledge and tact" to support families.

An MSF spokesman said only ComLink families who are not receiving support from social workers will be matched with befrienders.

The Social Service Office, which administers the Government's financial aid schemes, will match befrienders to ComLink families on a small scale in these early days, before expanding it to more families, the spokesman added.

Ms Soh - a mother of three who runs a student care centre - said she was inspired to serve the community as she came from a needy family herself, and benefited from the guidance of her godmother, who helped with her studies.

She said: "Jess would call me and tell me her problems. I would advise her and alert the relevant government agencies to help her."

Ms Soh, a grassroots leader, said one piece of advice she gave was for Jess' daughter, an undergraduate, to apply for a study grant worth $2,000 from the Boon Lay Community Club to ease Jess' financial burden.

Jess is now working towards buying a flat for her family, so that the five of them will not have to squeeze into one bedroom in their two-room HDB rental flat.

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