Photo credit: DAVID YIP

Why youths volunteer: Developing a passion to serve the community after an eye-opening trip

Seeing youths with special needs go from hesitant and disengaged to smiling and looking forward to future sessions gave Aaron the motivation to continue volunteering.

Farhana Subuhan

Published: 22 January 2023, 10:18 AM

  • In this Why Youths Volunteer series, we hear from Youth Corps Singapore volunteers about how they got involved with volunteerism and what motivates them to continue serving the community.
  • Starting off this series is Aaron See, who found the conviction to serve those with special needs regularly while on a short-term overseas volunteering trip.

While he was studying in Victoria Junior College (VJC), Aaron See was given the opportunity to visit Vietnam as part of a school trip to teach English and Math lessons in a rural primary school.

During his week-long trip, the group also volunteered in an orphanage for a day, serving the second-generation victims of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War.

The eye-opening visit to the orphanage did not just give him an insight into the history of the Vietnam War and how it has affected the quality of life for locals, but set him on a path towards more intentional volunteerism.

Reflecting on the short one to two hours they had with the orphans, Aaron began to question if it made a difference to the people served.

“After this experience, I was firm with my belief that I shouldn’t volunteer for the sake of myself, but rather the community. Focus on exactly what they want to achieve – that is very important,” says Aaron.

Upon completing his mandatory National Service, Aaron was encouraged by his peers from VJC to sign up for the Youth Corps Leaders Programme (YCLP). He did so, with the idea of growing as a leader and making full use of his nine-month long break before starting his studies in university, Aaron did so.

“The fact that I could customise my own leadership journey in Youth Corps by picking a social cause or project pathway prompted me to venture into this cause,” says the current Nanyang Technological University (NTU) undergraduate.

Aaron was successfully enrolled in the programme after a few rounds of interviews. He would be tasked to run activities with Project Shine, a youth-led project under the Youth Corps, across two terms each lasting three months.

Under YCLP, participants are tasked with conceptualising and implementing a service-learning project to address real needs on the ground with a National Agency or a Community Partner.

Aaron, along with four other participants in YCLP, formed a team to serve the special needs community through the Rainbow Centre Young Adults Programme, a special education programme for persons with disabilities aged 18 to 40.

“After they turn 18, there are no specific Government-funded Special Education (SPED) schools for them to be enrolled in. So this is kind of a club that they can look forward to and be involved in,” Aaron explains.

Aaron and his team trained the youths with special needs in fine motor and soft skills, as well as prepared lessons centred around a jungle book storyline to educate them about animals that exist in the ecosystem.

He shared that hosting activities with the special needs community initially proved challenging as many participants were not comfortable opening up to the volunteers. But, through regular engagements, Aaron noticed they started to join in the activities.

In one of the sessions, Aaron and his team exposed them to different textures that involved slime and feathers. Some of them were initially hesitant to touch the slime, but eventually touched it with one of their fingers with encouragement from the volunteers.

“At the end of the session, one of them did not want to leave the venue as she wanted to continue playing with the slime. She even refused to put it in her Tupperware box,” adds Aaron.

However, things took two steps back when activities were shifted online for the second term in 2021 due to COVID-19. They were told by the Rainbow Centre staff that there were some difficulties faced while engaging participants online, so the team had to slowly build up rapport with them again.

 

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Aaron and his team had to make changes to their original physical programme for it to work over Zoom. PHOTO CREDIT: AARON SEE

 

With no time to spare, Aaron had to adapt to the virtual sessions by ensuring that the main highlights of their activities were still retained. For the second term, the team continued with the jungle book storyline and stuck to their routine dance warm-ups that they did in-person prior to every Zoom session.

“We also had to replace certain activities like baking with more doable at-home activities like arts and crafts.”

Aaron explained that the youths were also split into breakout rooms of three to have a more personal session. He said doing so gave them a sense of familiarity and recollection from past sessions.

“To witness the participants eventually wearing a smile during the weekly and fortnightly sessions motivated me to continue conducting the activities for them.”

Through his stint with the Rainbow Centre, Aaron shared that he aimed to raise awareness that people with special needs are not very different from the able-bodied.

Recognising their skills and talents, he cited that his team addresses them as people with “different abilities” rather than labelling them as people with “disabilities”.

“There are some things we do better than them, but there are also some things they do better than us.”

Aaron also served as the team’s publicity head, where he strategised and designed content to raise awareness on the special needs community on Instagram.

 

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Aaron designed publicity materials that featured items done by his clients from the Rainbow Centre. PHOTO CREDIT: INSTAGRAM/@YCS.PROJECTSHINE

 

The materials exhibited the artistic talents of special needs youths that debunked myths about the community.

While his team had to plan two terms of activities with Project Shine as part of their requirements to be conferred as youth leaders, Aaron believed that the duration was barely sufficient to bring about the changes he wants to see.

Feeling unsatisfied, he approached his mentor to brainstorm steps he could take to extend his stint beyond the six months he was expected to serve.

As the collaboration with the Rainbow Centre was a relatively new project, Aaron and his team were not able to secure regular funding as an official Youth Corps project. However, as each conferred Youth Corps leader is given the Pay it Forward Award (PIFA) of $3,000 to sustain their projects, the team made use of each of their awards to sustain their partnership with the special needs centre. Most of this is spent on logistics, as well as the materials that are needed for their fortnightly sessions.

Aaron’s team eventually succeeded in extending the partnership for two additional terms and hopes future runs will also get funded to bring the project to more communities.

While each fortnightly session lasts only two hours, he shared that planning the activities was intense and took up a fair bit of his time.

“I had to chair weekly and fortnightly meetings online and also had to run errands beyond the meetings which took up at least four hours of my time each week,” says Aaron.

With all the sacrifices he makes in volunteering, some of Aaron’s peers asked if his efforts were having an actual impact, especially since the number of people they could reach was small – 12 out of the entire special needs community.

Aaron, who started volunteering with the hopes of raising awareness about youths with special needs, initially struggled to answer this question and had some doubts of his own.

However, one of his team members reminded him that their motivation was not on the number of people they worked with, but on the quality of the activities and the difference it makes in people’s lives.

“Over time, our clients realise that it is actually okay to open up to others and express how they feel to others,” he explains.

“Things like this have a long-term impact.”

 

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Aaron believes that one shouldn’t volunteer for themselves, but instead to serve the community and enrich the lives of the vulnerable. PHOTO CREDIT: DAVID YIP

 

Currently an economics major, Aaron intends to work for a government body to benefit people through policy work.

He believes that doing so would not only add meaning to his life, but the lives of others in the future.

“Volunteering taught me to dedicate my time to things that truly matter. I now want to live a more purposeful life and focus my time on my academics, family and volunteering,” he says.

“Each of us only has one life. No matter how much we do, no matter how much we earn, we all eventually die. The only way to make the best out of your life is to benefit the lives of others.”

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