Why youths volunteer: Transforming her life struggles into a source of strength

As someone who came from a tough background, Sheila understands the pains of today’s youth.

Amanda Tan

Published: 19 May 2023, 10:28 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.
  • We spoke to Sheila Manokaran, who serves in numerous organisations and is one of Youth Corps’ longest serving cluster members.

A good-for-nothing failure was how Sheila Manokaran used to be branded as growing up, as a student from the “lousiest” stream. Today, she stands tall as an audacious individual, forging new pathways for the generations after her in both her personal and professional life. 

In the capacity of a volunteer, the 28-year-old dedicates her time to being part of the Youth Corps Singapore Advisory Committee, where she engages with policymakers, helping them recognise and appreciate the youth perspective.

“To me, my role in the Advisory Committee is to make others better understand what the youth are and to be able to be the voice for the youth.”

This ability stems from constantly engaging with the youth on a day-to-day basis, as part of her work at youth network platform River Valley Irregulars (RVI)

RVI connects youths – aged 15 to 35 – with start-up companies to give them the opportunity to work on real-life projects. Through this, they gain valuable skills and experiences.

Additionally, her involvement in various community initiatives such as SINDA Youth Club and Sri Krishnan Temple’s Advisory Committee has further strengthened her ability to bridge the gap between the ground realities and policy implementation.

“I’m always hearing from the youth, I’m always talking with the youths, I think I have that opportunity and blessing to be able to share that with others, and to understand the (youth perspectives) and to be able to make the decisions (based on those perspectives). And I think that’s very crucial because if you don’t have that view, you’re blind-sided.”


She’s also one of Youth Corps Singapore’s longest serving cluster members, having been with the organisation since its launch in 2014. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/TIANA QUEK


Beneath Sheila’s drive lies a profound empathy that sets her apart.

She intimately understands the struggles faced by marginalised youths because she has walked in their shoes. The pain of feeling unseen and unheard, the weight of societal expectations, and the lack of opportunities have all shaped her perspective.

It started from as early as primary school, when her then favourite teacher sorted her into the “lousiest” stream, EM3, despite her making the cut-off for EM2, the second-best stream. These streams were part of a programme to categorise students according to their language abilities.

“It was a choice that was made by her but not me so it was very sad…from then, I had no more trust in (the) system.”

She recounts constantly questioning herself: “Why am I here? Am I really that stupid?”

This unfairness and frustration persisted when she progressed to secondary school, where she was denied leadership opportunities due to her coming from the Normal (Technical) stream. Back then, the option to be a student leader was only meant for students from the Express and Normal (Academic) streams.

Recalling her struggles as someone from the lower rungs of the academic ladder, it fueled her desire to ensure that every young individual receives the opportunities they deserve, regardless of their background or academic ranking.


Unlike most, Sheila took a longer path in her education journey. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/TIANA QUEK


But of course, albeit her turbulent journey, she was blessed with great mentors along the way who saw her potential and truly looked out for her.

One such individual is Mr Chong Leong Fatt, who is also a fellow member of the Youth Corps Singapore Advisory Committee. However, the two go way back to when Sheila was in the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), where Mr Chong held the title of Director of College Services.

After graduating from ITE, the next step for Sheila was to further her studies at a polytechnic. Unfortunately, due to extracurricular commitments, she struggled to cope with her studies and ultimately missed the mark for polytechnic by 0.02 points.

“I was like ‘wow, my life is dictated by this 0.02’.”

Thankfully, Mr Chong took notice of her predicament and sought to make arrangements for her. 

“I was very close to Mr Chong. So he was telling me, ‘it’s ok Sheila, I will try to call and then see what we can do’.”

She was eventually offered a scholarship to study for a diploma in a private institution, along with a slot in ITE’s Higher Nitec in Process Plant Design. She took on both simultaneously, heading for classes during the day and at night.

“Because of Mr Chong, I had a lot more opportunities,” she says, adding that he was also the one who encouraged her to join Youth Corps Singapore as a Youth Leader.


Mr Chong also recommended for her to join other initiatives prior to Youth Corps Singapore. PHOTO CREDIT: SHEILA MANOKARAN


At the time of joining, Youth Corps Singapore had just launched. She recounts being the first batch and undergoing intense training as part of the ​​Youth Corps Leaders Programme.

A one-year community leadership development programme, Sheila, alongside other youths, was tasked to implement a sustainable service-learning project tackling pressing community needs.

Upon completing the programme, all Leaders were given a grant to pursue a project of their choice. That was when, after some deliberation, Sheila decided to organise a satellite event – the very first in Youth Corps Singapore.

In partnership with Children Cancer Foundation’s signature event Hair for Hope, the donation drive amassed a total of $55,000. Many others, including her family, showed up to shave their heads in support of the cause.

“It was very memorable. I felt like my whole journey with Youth Corps, doing the project to give back to society, was very meaningful.”


Her initial goal was only to raise $5,000. PHOTO CREDIT: SHEILA MANOKARAN


After that success, she continued volunteering for other events such as Purple Parade but was soon met with slight burnout. She made the difficult decision to take a step back and rethink ways she could go about being more intentional with her volunteer work.

Presently, she does her part by occasionally visiting one-room rental flats at Ang Mo Kio and buying food for the residents there. 

At her workplace, she also gives back by reaching out to the young people of RVI, inviting them back for networking sessions every Friday night.

“These are things we do that are out of our own will. It’s not like we’re being paid to do it. We’re just paid for this service to connect (the youths with the start-ups) but the service to go the extra mile is a different ballgame.”

Volunteering has since become Sheila’s way of reclaiming her own story and transforming her struggles into a source of strength.

“Sometimes I feel that when giving back to society, you don’t have to do it through an organisation. You can do it on your own as well (by creating) your own opportunity.

“I want to be able to take these skill sets and experience that I (have) to relate back to the youth. (It’s) a better way of serving, rather than just throwing back money again.”

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