Why youths volunteer: How serving the special needs community helped her find her calling
26-year-old Lai Pei Jun is a special needs educator who volunteers with the community after work hours.
- 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.
- We spoke to Lai Pei Jun, a special education teacher who found her calling by chance after volunteering with the community through her CCA in her junior college.
She works as a teacher in the special education field. But beyond her work hours, 26-year-old Lai Pei Jun continues to help the special needs community through her volunteer work with the Youth Corps Singapore.
It’s a noble intention, especially in a world where those with special needs are often marginalised.
But it also comes with a challenge: trying to draw boundaries between her full-time job and voluntary work.
“I am serving the same community in both instances, so I try to strike a balance between the two,” she shares.
“I try to take a different perspective to see what are some things that I can bring over from my work and value add to my voluntary work itself.”
Interestingly, it was her experience as a volunteer that steered her towards her career.
Her first brush with volunteer work came while she was still studying in junior college.
As part of her co-curricular activity (CCA), she organised an activity at one of the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled’s (MINDS) training centres. It was also her first time interacting with the special needs community. Admitting that she had no idea how best to approach them, Pei Jun found herself taken aback by some of the interactions she had with them.
“Sometimes, their responses are not what I anticipated or expected… Later on, as I interacted more with them, I enjoyed the process and had fun with them,” she shares.
As she continued to organise activities at the centre, she learnt more about those with special needs, particularly how they found joy in little things like music and dancing to nursery rhymes. She also realised that what they appreciated was the companionship, and that initial positive experience prompted Pei Jun to take on an internship at a special education school in 2016, a recommendation given by her CCA teacher-in-charge.
It gave her even more valuable experience working with children of varying disabilities, and the positive experience helped Pei Jun realise she found her calling – to serve the special needs community.
After completing her undergraduate studies at the Singapore University of Social Sciences in an unrelated field in 2021, Pei Jun returned to the same special education school, this time as a full-time special needs educator. She also joined the Youth Corps Singapore while completing her studies to serve, to no one’s surprise, for the special needs community.
In her one-and-a-half-year stint as a teacher, Pei Jun has learnt that individuals with autism are no different from others – some love socialising, some prefer to be alone.
“It’s just about understanding them as their perspective is different from ours, and taking effort to be in their shoes,” she shares.
There have been occasions when she questioned her ability as a teacher, particularly when the students have their meltdown or escalations of emotions. But she has come to learn that there are times when things go beyond her control, and the best way to deal with it is to be patient and remember what led her to choose this career.
These experiences have also value-added to her voluntary work.
As a volunteer with the Youth Corps over the past five years, Pei Jun has worn multiple hats. She organised events that provide respite care to families with special needs children, and took part in all five editions of the Youth Corps’ Big Brother, Big Sister project that see youth volunteers plan activities to befriend children or teenagers with special needs.
In the most recent edition, Pei Jun and her team involved youths with special needs in planning the activities, venue and logistics required for the playdate. The idea behind it was to make volunteering inclusive and allow the youths to “contribute back to the community”.
“It was something new that we tried and we started the project small. The overall experience was insightful and it was the first time we had such an empowerment project,” Pei Jun says.
“It was great to see the youths being able to make decisions on their own, such as where they want the activity to take place, the food they wanted to cater. Even though the mentors guided them along, it was great to see them grow throughout the sessions.”
Volunteering has given her plenty of memorable experiences. But it’s moments like the heartwarming thank you messages she receives from caregivers and seeing the smiles on faces of the children that keeps her going.
She has learnt to “appreciate the simple things in life”, and it’s a joy that she’s keen to share, so much so that she roped in a friend to join the Big Brother, Big Sister project.
Pei Jun hopes that through her job and voluntary work, she can inspire more people to be more understanding of those with special needs.
“We need to place ourselves in their shoes, as not all disabilities are visible. Autism or intellectual disabilities are one of those. It is not something we can spot,” she states.
“Being more understanding also means seeing things from a different perspective, especially from a caregiver’s point of view because I do hear of stories that caregivers sometimes are hesitant to bring their children outside, even just to a supermarket, afraid that they would have a meltdown. Public may perceive the child differently.
“I think it is about standing in their shoes and, if we witness any meltdown or escalations, what we can do is to give caregivers and their families the time and space that they need to let their child calm down, instead of vilifying or taking videos of them.”
For those who wish to take a more active role by volunteering, Pei Jun’s advice is for them to join advocacy projects to learn more about the communities first. More importantly, they should come with an open mind, cast aside any assumptions that they may have.
“It’s as easy as it sounds. Just be open, go out there and interact with them. Our clients are also able to feel what we feel, and we shouldn’t feel afraid to interact with them,” she shares, adding that those who are unable to commit to long-term projects can also participate in one-off projects or day events.
As for herself, Pei Jun wants to expand her knowledge and learn more about the different disabilities.
“There are some groups I have rarely interacted with, so I would like to be more involved in those aspects. Not just autism or intellectual disabilities. I want to learn more about those with hearing impairment, et cetera,” she shares.