Poverty spurs youth award winner to become a shining, selfless star

The search is on for youth who are making a difference. What does it take to make the cut and win the Singapore Youth Award? Take a leaf from some of last year’s winners...

National Youth Council Singapore Youth Award 2019 Francesca Wah
The Shining Star Reads programme is one of four initiatives by Bless, a non-profit organisation founded by Ms Francesca Wah (centre) in 2014. PHOTO: BRINGING LOVE TO EVERY SINGLE SOUL

Parents often fret when their children are labelled "talkative", "noisy" or "distracting". Ms Nur Khairiah Kamarulzaman had a different concern.

The 23-year-old clinic assistant was anxious because her son could not speak at the age of three when he was enrolled at My First Skool in 2017.

"I was worried that he might not be able to keep up or fit in with the other children," she said.

She found hope in Ms Francesca Wah, who encouraged Ms Khairiah to enrol her son in a community-based reading programme called Shining Star Reads. While it has only been three months since her son joined the programme, she is already surprised by the friends he has made and his improved communication skills.

This is not the first person that Ms Wah has helped. The 28-year-old is the founder of Bringing Love to Every Single Soul (Bless), a non-profit organisation that empowers the community to help the less fortunate in society.

She is one of seven recipients of last year's Singapore Youth Award, which honours Singaporean youths aged 18 to 35 for their courage, leadership, resilience and spirit of service.

National Youth Council Singapore Youth Award 2019
(From left) Ms Francesca Wah, Ms Sujatha Selvakumar, Mr Cho Ming Xiu, Dr Neo Mei Lin and Ms Alecia Neo were among seven recipients of the prestigious Singapore Youth Award in 2019. PHOTO: NATIONAL YOUTH COUNCIL

Ms Wah came up with the idea for Bless in 2014 after noticing that children from lower-income families often had trouble attending reading programmes as they were not held in convenient locations. This compelled her to take the reading programmes closer to the children's homes.

Passing on blessings

Bless has helped almost 7,000 children in the last six years.

After launching Shining Star Reads, the organisation started three other programmes: Small Soul Blessings, an online gifting portal that lets the public "shop" for the less privileged; a student engagement programme that inculcates values of caring for the community; and a fund-raising movement to further develop Bless.

Small Soul Blessings has collected more than $44,000 in donations to buy essential items and gifts for 6,415 beneficiaries so far.

Shining Star Reads, which was first held at the void deck of a Housing Board rental block in Clementi with four volunteers, a mat and borrowed National Library books, will be expanded to 13 community centres by the end of this year.

Like many of the children she helps, Ms Wah came from an underprivileged background. She relied on financial assistance and struggled with subjects through most of her school years.

She was inspired by dedicated teachers to work harder and do better at school, and eventually landed a scholarship to study at the National University of Singapore (NUS). There, she met Dr Sudha Nair, a professor from the Department of Social Work at NUS, who encouraged her foray into community work.

National Youth Council Singapore Youth Award BLESS NUS
(From left) Ms Wah first met Dr Sudha Nair at an introductory module on social work in NUS. PHOTO: NATIONAL YOUTH COUNCIL

A social worker since 1987, Dr Nair has received many commendations for her work on family violence. She founded the Centre for Promoting Alternatives to Violence (Pave), the nation's first family violence specialist centre, in 1999.

Said Ms Wah: "She is my role model. Despite the challenges and dangers she is subjected to in her work, she always puts the victims' needs first and sees the good in people."

Dr Nair, who received her doctorate in social work from NUS in 2006, was the first social worker to be elected a member of the Public Service Commission. She is also the chairperson of the Singapore Youth Award panel.

She pointed out that the Singapore Youth Award panel was impressed with how Ms Wah tapped her life experiences to help children and appreciated Ms Wah's passion and keenness to help the vulnerable through education.

"Coming from an underprivileged background herself, she was able to use her educational knowledge to reach out to children and develop materials for those who did not have the same opportunities and lacked literacy and numerical skills," Dr Nair added.

All fight, never flight

National Youth Council Singapore Youth Award 2019 Silat
Two-time silat world champion Sheik Farhan Sheik Alau'ddin (right) is gunning for a third win at this year's World Pencak Silat Championships in Sarawak, Malaysia. PHOTO: SINGAPORE SILAT FEDERATION

At just 17 years old, Mr Sheik Farhan Sheik Alau'ddin became a world silat champion in his weight class - following in the footsteps of his father, pencak silat legend Mr Sheik Alau'ddin Yacoob Marican.

Under his father's tutelage, Mr Farhan started training in the martial art and was competing competitively by the age of seven. His athleticism and outstanding skills in silat gained him admission to the Singapore Sports School in 2010. Despite being the son of a two-time silat world champion, Mr Farhan never let the added pressure get the better of him.

"I knew people had high expectations, but I never let it bother me. The only pressure I had was pushing myself to be better and to believe in myself," he added.

A serious knee injury sustained during a training session did not get in his way at the 2016 World Pencak Silat Championships.

"A week before the championships, I modified my training and worked with a physiotherapist. I told myself that when it was time, I will be confident in myself and that I have enough to win this."

Mr Farhan went on to clinch his second world championship title at the event.

Last year, the 23-year-old received the nation's highest accolade for youth, the Singapore Youth Award, and takes it as an affirmation of his hard work and dedication to the sport.

"You can get caught up in the training. The award serves as a reminder that I am on the right track."

Raising the bar in volunteerism

National Youth Council Singapore Youth Award 2019 Lawyer Sujatha Selvakumar
Ms Sujatha Selvakumar helps vulnerable families access the legal justice system and hopes to effect meaningful changes for Indian youth in Singapore. PHOTO: NATIONAL YOUTH COUNCIL

While most parents would want their children to pursue a career in law, Ms Sujatha Selvakumar's parents felt otherwise.

The 34-year-old said they were "not very keen on a girl becoming a lawyer".

"I was drawn to the notion of fairness, treating people equitably. The curiosity led me to want to learn more about laws that everyone abided by," she added.

To develop her interest in law, and driven by a desire to help others, Ms Sujatha pursued an undergraduate degree and a master's degree in law at the University of Manchester in Britain, before returning to Singapore in 2007.

Aside from doing pro bono work as a volunteer with the Law Society, Ms Sujatha was also one of the first few full-time lawyers to join the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme Fellowship in 2015 - a year-long stint that provides free legal representation for the needy.

"I started volunteering because I wanted to effect change in my immediate community spaces," she said. "What was the point in complaining? It was not going to do anything. But if I rolled up my sleeves, then there was a better chance of making a difference."

Ms Sujatha has spent more than 4,000 hours on pro-bono cases over the last nine years and continues to volunteer at the Community Justice Centre. She is also the first female chairperson of the Singapore Indian Development Association (Sinda) Youth Club, which she says gives her a large national platform to raise the concerns of Indian youths in Singapore.

On receiving the Singapore Youth Award last year, Ms Sujatha said: "It was a powerful sense of accomplishment and recognition. But most importantly it will motivate me to keep contributing for the next decade."

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