Volunteerism: not an act, but a motivation

An interview with Ms Foo Jia Xin

For ban.tu’s inaugural article, I had proposed featuring an inspiring tertiary student in the local social work landscape. The idea was to create a column dedicated to men and women in the realm of volunteerism, and I needed a truly outstanding individual to set the bar for all future publications.

Nominating Ms Foo Jiaxin therefore felt like a foregone conclusion. Her involvement speaks for itself: before even turning 22, she has worked in a Shanghai non-profit for a year, working with the local elderly population and intellectually-disabled children. She interned with World Vision in Sri Lanka, crafting macro-based policies to tackle local issues. Back in Singapore, she juggled her academics and leadership responsibilities along side the many service projects that she participated in; these include taking care of NUS students with special needs as an NUS Enabler, and serving with NUS CSC (Community Service Club) for events such as Christmas parties at an old folk’s home. At the point of our interview, she was part of a group called Social Colab (to quote her, “a gathering of professionals for consultancy and projects to enhance the social service sector”) and had just signed up to volunteer at MINDS for 2 months.

Wow, that was a long list.

I also had the privilege of being acquainted with this incredible character. Many in the NUS community may know her best for her position as her faculty club’s President; I know Jiaxin best as the tiny person who exudes an overwhelming aura of maturity and wisdom.

The lady herself! With permission from Ms Foo.

Capturing a caricature of Ms Foo Jia Xin was a much higher hill to climb than I had prepped myself up for. Her insights on people and society are often profound yet non-convoluted. Nonetheless, any conversation with Jia Xin is a welcome respite from silly cynicisms and fleeting idealisms; rarely uninspiring, and never, ever untruthful. This is a woman that rolls up her sleeves to do the good she wants to see in the world, while the rest of us offer our feeble outcries in a huge social media caldron.

Naturally, I was curious what made her ticked as a person. What better way than to talk to the source herself?

***

You have been involved in so many social efforts and causes. Why would someone commit so much time and energy to work like you do?

Honestly, I have never consciously asked myself why I want to join these causes. I just felt that this was important. For example, helping new students who are disabled (and there were many more blind students during my year) was a very intuitive reflex. It’s basically like this: there is this need, and there are people who need help, so I should do something.

And it did not seem to take that much effort. I did not commit full time to regular projects in CSC, but whatever I could do within the free time I had, I thought it was meaningful to do it. And I enjoyed it a lot. It makes me grounded.

You sound like you are driven by two main reasons for your actions: being grounded on a personal level, and finding greater meaning in the work. However, while many would find it grounding and meaningful, many more will not sacrifice so much for these needy people. But you do. It seems that you are driven by something much deeper; what truly compels you towards these causes?

What drives me the most is making social impact. Impact comes in many different forms; after I started studying sociology, I began to understand what are the causes of certain issues, what are the gaps, and what are the small things you can do to change things for the better. So I asked myself, what can I do to make life slightly better for the under-privileged?

I am trying to be involved in as many areas as possible to gain different perspectives. For example, I decided to intern in World Vision this summer, which gave me a very policy-driven perspective on approaches and strategies, a very macro views of issues.

But what drives me primarily is making positive social impact. As long as anything is related to this, I am very interested in it.

Since you have worked with so many beneficiary groups, do you think there is a group in Singapore that is particularly under-served? If so, which is it, and why?

This is a very difficult question for me, because as much as I have worked in various causes, I still don’t have a good understanding of all the under-served groups. It is very obvious that sustaining care for the elderly is posing a problem, because even though there is an increasing amount of resources being channeled into that area, there is a shortage of elderly care centres, as well as inadequate quality of care for these people.

As for other sectors, I cannot identify major flaws, but I definitely feel one major problem is the lack of career opportunities for people with special needs. SG Enable is trying to work on it, but there’s still a lot that needs to change in terms of availability of opportunities, company acceptance, infrastructure and how KPIs are set.

“The first thing you have to understand about needs is that every need is very different.”

Let’s talk a little more about the special needs group you mentioned. What do you think is important to understand about this community?

The first thing you have to understand about needs is that every need is very different. Because of that, people tend to be scared of disabled individuals. Many people are afraid to engage them, always avoiding eye contact, because most people are not sure how to communicate properly. There is therefore a sense of alienation.

There are some needs that are more visible, more obvious, which people can engage in; for example, helping a handicapped person. But when it is less obvious, like assisting a deaf person, or a mentally-ill patient, many people cannot empathise from their own experience; it is not intuitive.

If someone is blind, you know that he or she may need help getting from point A to point B. But if a person is intellectually disabled, how do you begin to understand their predicament? However, if people take the effort and patience to communicate, it is possible to get the messages through to each other.

Lastly, when I ask people what is the worst part of being disabled, the answer is usually not the disability itself, but how people see them. It is how society treats the disability that makes it a disability.

You have definitely done much (for the needy) both in the scope of your efforts as well as the depth of your involvement. Which effort left the brightest impression?

Personally, it is the intellectually disabled who impacted me the most. Usually, for people with other disabilities, you can communicate more easily because there is a common language to bridge the gap. But when it comes to the intellectually disabled, I feel they are the most vulnerable because they cannot communicate effectively.

There was this 2-day camp organised by CSC that needed volunteers, and we had to take care of MINDS wards throughout the camp. I was matched to this old woman. Every single second, I was constantly on my toe. For example, if she suddenly stood still, she might need to go to the toilet, but might be too afraid to ask or did not know how to. If you do not ask her, she might just pee in her pants, you don’t know. You are much more concerned for this person, so much so that you do not have time to think about yourself.

Again, every person has different needs, in the way that no two persons have the same personality.

That whole process of learning to completely care for someone other than yourself is an incredible experience. I will never be able to truly understand what is it like to live with a special need, but these experiences made me understand how I can better help them.

Looking at your peers, what are some of the attitudes that you would like to encourage in them to promote a greater sensitivity towards volunteerism?

Volunteerism is quite narrowly defined at the moment in Singapore. It is particularly defined as spending some time and energy, usually going to some place, doing something for a group of people, and then going back to our daily lives.

But I feel social impact is much more broad. For example, small things such as seeing someone in a wheelchair on a train, how you treat the person and how you look at them matters. It is not necessarily about going out of your way, but how you treat people in your everyday life.

If we wish to focus on volunteerism itself, volunteerism should be an experience that reminds you to step out of your own lives. It is very easy to be consumed by our own lives, and volunteerism is a way to not be consumed by it. More than that, even if someone has no time to “volunteer”, just constantly thinking about the people around them and how to make the world a better place, and doing small things we encounter in our everyday lives, will already help those in need around them.

“Volunteerism should be an experience that reminds you to step out of your own lives.”

Last question: you answered what volunteerism meant to YOU early on, but to round it up, what do you think volunteerism should mean in across the board?

Volunteerism is a reflection of how society wants to give back. It is very much the product when people say “I want to do something meaningful for people other than myself”. What volunteerism is is therefore an extension of that heart for others. In this very material world, volunteerism should work against the grain of that capitalist philosophy, where people freely give their time and effort without getting anything in return. This may be why people find some kind of peace through volunteerism.

***

My interview with Jiaxin came to an end abruptly and precisely; 30 minutes on the clock, and she had to rush off and be busy elsewhere for someone.

I did not know how much more of that I could have taken in at that point, being completely overwhelmed with inspiration and all them ‘do-good’ feels. But as I was transcribing this, I became cognizant of the realities she was illustrating through her experiences; it became apparent that there is still so much more to be done for the needy around us . And yet, despite the general apathy of her fellowmen, this is a woman who continues to wager her bets on what people can, and not who people are.

And what people can do is care for the less fortunate around them. Volunteerism is a cathartic exercise where people remove the excesses that fills their own lives, and instead pass them forward to someone who needs it more. They need not be physical things: it could be the kindness, respect, generosity, even attention that you receive on a daily basis, and passing it on to someone who does not have enough of it.

And so it is not about the act of doing good, but the motivations that compels you to accomplish them.


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