Give and Take

In 2 weeks from publishing this piece, 35 friends and family came together to pool 1326SGD (approximately 930USD) to be contributed to the Room to Read Girls’ Education Program. This sum can support at least 3 girls in the next year.

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The International Day of Giving is celebrated on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving in the United States and widely recognized by shopping events like Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Also known as #GivingTuesday, the annual affair rides on the holiday sales to encourage individuals, organisations and communities to give generously to a cause of their belief. Every year, #GivingTuesday has served as an important reminder for me to be thankful for privilege and of noblesse oblige (that privilege entails responsibility). Then, compelled by my belief in the power of influence, I share the #GivingTuesday stint with those around me whom I care about dearly in hopes that a spark will start a fire. This piece is for Giving Tuesday 2016.

#GivingTuesday (2013-2015)

My first initiative began in 2013 at Year 4, bringing #TreatsOnGivingTuesday out on the streets – this involved handing out goodies to strangers on public transport or on the streets as I went about the day, in advocacy for kindness that (contrary to popular belief) takes little time out of our days to practice. 2 years of #TreatsOnGivingTuesday saw almost a hundred Kindness Advocates join me on board; amongst whom, closest of friends to acquaintances. We actively practiced kindness and in return, forged friendships and rediscovered hope.

Last year in 2015, Giving Tuesday was a time for reflection on my Watoto Journey – in conclusion of the 3 years for which I had been rallying classmates to give monthly contributions to Sponsor a Child with Watoto Organisation. A holistic care programme initiated as a response to the overwhelming number of orphaned children and vulnerable women in Uganda. The Watoto model involves medical care, trauma counselling, education and spiritual discipleship; pursuing the dream of rebuilding Uganda by investing in the next generation of children and women.

The #GivingTuesday 2016 Cause – Education

One year exactly since my exit from formal education to the ocean of uncertainty, I hope to dedicate this Giving Week to celebrating education. What has been the most critical investment, instrumental to the individual that I am today, is completely inaccessible to at least 50 million children in the world. The quality education made compulsory and then heavily subsidized for all Singaporeans at the primary school level is only the tip of our iceberg of privilege. Then, the sturdy desks, reflective whiteboards, stationery and stationery shops, food stalls in spacious canteens, well-trained teachers and driven peers; all icing on the cake. It astounds, if not frightens, me that today, more than 72 million children of primary education age are not in school. The generation that is to take over and bring forth entire communities (even countries) further into the 21st century, large proportions of whom, illiterate. Imagine that.

Yet, the dollars and cents are enough to go around and the statistics above can change, one individual at a time. This year, my #GivingTuesday is dedicated to Room to Read Global Organisation – a global charity that believes that World Change Starts with Educated Children. Investing in education from improving infrastructure, training professionals to the keeping-children-in-school part, the organization has had an incredible track record of accountability and transparency in the past decade. The Girls’ Education Program places girls in school throughout secondary school education and keeps them there for $300/year sponsoring school fees, uniforms, textbooks and personal allowances for food and transport.

On Giving

We are too often skeptical rather than curious about donating to global charities; too often acting in silo rather than as the global citizens that we truly are; more frequently comfortable with status quo than we are willing to seek out harsh realities. The price of our inaction and oblivion is paid by fellow human beings. The paradox lies in that our fortune does not find our nation necessarily happier nor more fulfilled; we make sense of our resources against the backdrop of scarcity rather than abundance and think of our fortunes as zero-sum (if we give so another can prosper, we irrationally believe we will suffer as a result).

A teacher who attempted to teach a class about privilege had the students sit in neat rows and columns (desks in exam style seating) and placed a waste paper bin at the front of the classroom. Each student, given a crushed paper ball, was told to throw it into the waste paper bin. The students at the front of the classroom had a significantly easier time accomplishing the given task. Those at the back of the classroom though, failed in spite of committing an incredible amount of effort into the given task. Trying over and over, some students began to express unhappiness towards the “unfair disadvantage” that the students at the front enjoyed. To which, the teacher replied, “you are in the same classroom, given the same task and instructions; if there are students who can accomplish then why can’t you?” Some students at the front of the classroom, who had accomplished it almost effortlessly nodded in agreement. Soon, at the back of the classroom, infuriation and dejection emerged.

The trouble with sitting at the front row and taking merit for the seating arrangement set by chance is that we forget to turn our heads around and listen closely to those who are not us.

Get Involved

It is in my deepest hopes that by 12 December 2016 (Monday), I can rally pledges (from friends and family) of any amount and raise at least $300 for the Room to Read Global Organisation Girls’ Education Program – contributing an amount enough to keep one girl in school for the next year. Any donation counts, the value lies in our acknowledgement of privilege and the moments (albeit brief) that we dedicate to compassion. Compassion, in essence, refers to the way we choose to make someone else’s problem our own and take personal agency in the affair.

You may donate on an individual basis directly to the organization here.

Theodore Roosevelt once said that “it is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

This is an invitation to be in the arena, let’s be in touch at shermaineng_1997@yahoo.com.sg. Together, we can change their story.

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In celebration of the schooling years that have been put on temporary pause

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Stand Still

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There is something incredible about the public transport. It creates an illusion. As if time comes to a standstill, we are seated or leaning, resting or thinking; for once, we are moving in sync. No more shuffling past at different paces, for once, we are in agreement about speed. No one too fast nor too slow. Everyone, just right. Rid of the frustration from slow-paced sauntering strangers, gone are the days of shoulder brushing that cause discomfort. We slow down, others speed up so that now we move as one. There is a tinge of comfort from the knowledge that we can arrive at this consensus, albeit the compulsion by machinery (similar to the elevators we are familiar with). Stand still, I tell myself, and enjoy the standstill. 

October has been no less than hectic, in managing the hustle that persists with Strong Mind Fit Body and embracing the responsibilities in creating the Dreamcatcher experience. Exactly one year from the time ‘A’ Levels was the only reality I had and anxiety peppered my everyday, it is in the hopes of documenting the learning and reflection from recent weeks that this piece is written:

To Those Who Are Not Me

Compassion and empathy are values I deeply hope to practice and hone continuously, for the simple reason that it is with these conditions that genuine human connection thrives. The adventures of this break has seen me return to learning spaces – at the India’s Daughter Film Screening by Rebelhouse Asia, we revisited the violence against women that we are familiar with. The atrocity of the act that one human being can commit unto another was the reason for frustration, anger and almost contempt that surfaced in the theatre. Then, in Dukale’s Dream Film Screening by World Vision couple of months back, the crowd basked in overwhelming inspiration at the big heart that one man has for those around him.

The stark contrast amplifies the spectrum of the humankind. It reaffirms the necessity for learning and immersion that cultivate compassion and empathy in ourselves. Today, it reminds me of my earlier efforts in Room to Read Global Organisation – with every dollar I raised, I had hoped for it to be a reminder of our privilege and then the realization that our normal is barely the only one there is. Everyone is fighting their own battle.

For the Places I Call Home

I learned, recently, that there is a difference between a ‘space’ and a ‘place’. The former, just a blank canvas of land with little meaning and memory; the latter, an amalgamation of purpose and interaction. At Strong Mind Fit Body, we turn spaces into places. The constant transformation we do in our work finds me acutely aware of the other ‘spaces-turned-places’ I hold dear to me in Singapore. These places I know I will miss dearly in my departure to Australia – the Delfi Orchard Starbucks that holds memories of reflection and hard work, my alma mater that holds lessons of being, the Junior College that holds stories of infatuation, discipline and friendship. Every place with a story.

Immersing in local publication Mynah (my most recent read), though, I am reminded to be careful with the stories we tell ourselves. In the publication, readers are warned against “prescriptive storytelling” – the type of narrative to assure oneself of the perfection of our state, the kind that presents ourselves as “completed products” rid of fractures and flaws. With this timely reminder, an oscillating narrative emerges about how this one year has been for me since the graduation from Junior College. The story that mentions the hustle – the part where we are face down in the arena, marred in blood, sweat and tears.

Looking Forward, Always

Returning to the National Young Leaders’ Day event by Halogen Foundation Singapore is now an annual affair that keeps me grounded. The return is one that feels like home, bringing back memories of where the lessons of influence crystallized. This year, the 10,000 Ideas Campaign was shared: youths from Australia present their ideas in the form of completing 3 incomplete sentences: “I have always wondered why…”, “Then I realised…” and “So one little thing I’ll do is…” The thoughts relateable, issues prevalent and ideas insightful; I am once more assured that our future is in good hands.

The Singapore edition presents itself in the form of: “I have always wondered why…”, “Imagine if…” and “So one little thing I’ll do is…” As for me, I have always wondered why we talk about emotions so rarely when they are so important to us. Imagine if we all chose vulnerability together, so one little thing I’ll do is to be authentic in my everyday life. Looking forward, always.

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Dreamcatcher: From Your Camp Captain

dreamcatcherThe Starbucks Coffee outlet in Delfi Orchard has been a space for comfort for years now – the go-to abode for time to myself and quiet rejuvenation. I often tell those dear to me who accompany me to this space, that I love this place for the spot along Orchard Road at which it sits. The humble coffee place resides in the heart of town, at the start of the road that is every tourist’s favourite with a panoramic view of the forgotten fraction along the entire stretch of shops and malls. Relatively distant and hence, empty, I am in the company of other individuals sitting in comfortable silence with the whiff of caffeine in the air and an invisible blanket of protection seems to surround us.

This afternoon, over a coffee fix not because I need caffeine for energy nor a sugar rush, but just because I appreciate the taste of coffee. The Spotify playlist that has accompanied myself and other campers through the Dreamcatcher camp experience, playing through my earpieces instead of the loudspeakers in the Dining Hall of Hwa Chong Institution Boarding School (HCIBS). Before me, the cars speed past entering Orchard Road – mindfully enjoying the contrast, time for me comes to a standstill. This piece is dedicated to the recently concluded Dreamcatcher camp experience with Creasionaid, for the Dreamcatcher Champions who have given me immense strength and to the incredible learning taken away from the little Dreamers.

Dreamcatcher is an experience designed for creativity, passion and virtues exploration in children. The 2D1N camp first experimented on Yew Tee Primary School Primary 6 students in the past week saw the students problem solving and problem finding, communicating dreams and exchanging ideas. In the first day, students were lead through a Film Trail (with Dream Stations designed to impart values-based lessons) to accumulate Dream Dollars that could be exchanged for materials to build their personal Dreamcatchers. Truly a physical manifestation of the day’s learning and students’ imagination, the Dreamcatchers were the vehicle for inspiration in the Dreamcatcher experience. In the second day, the Day of Play Cardboard Challenge brought the Space in HCIBS to life with the students’ imagination and creativity. Exactly what Creasionaid stands for, the camp was testament to our belief in the potential of children’s ability to create, inspire and imagine.

If the Dreamcatcher experience was the masterpiece then the Dreamcatcher Champions, the artists. The backstage crew to the show and the unsung heroes to the good work done, I cannot do justice to the incredible amount of dedication and commitment that I have been given strength by from these champions. Just as in every volunteer management experience, the pullouts and lack of ‘trying’ remind me never to take the accountability, patience and effort for granted. Every action, every bit of encouragement and every presence, represents a value that the champions pride themselves by and it is this responsibility and passion that result in their immense strength. From these inspiring individuals, I want to remember the lessons of gratitude and of trust. Time and again in the Dreamcatcher experience, they have reaffirmed my belief that many people with good hearts, together, can do great work.

Those who have braved the hustle of both camps, especially, know the blood, sweat and tears (almost literally) that I have put into the operations and back-end preparation for the Dreamcatcher experience. To these individuals, I only have overwhelming gratitude to express. My favourite poem, Solitude by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, composes into a literary piece the reality of isolation. She writes that one by one, we must all file on through the narrow aisles of pain. It is a personal conviction that our spheres of influence can alleviate this reality for those around us. For this arduous camp preparation, it was these individuals who gave me hope.

It is in my deepest hopes that the days to come will see us all internalize what we have learned and gathered from one another and from our little Dreamers; that the shared encounters memorialized by photos and social media will remain reminders of the values that we so admired in the children. May the friendships last and be strengthened, may the conversations continue and deepen. May the authenticity, kindness, compassion and trust that we prized in ourselves and each other during the experience continue to be held at high regard in our everyday lives regardless of where we move onto in our endeavours.

Dear Dreamers, may we forgive ourselves for the flaws that we so embraced in our imperfect little Dreamers and feel worthy just as we wanted our little Dreamers to. They are our mirrors and in their absence, we have to be our own (or one another’s). Thank you for a hell of a ride and an incredible adventure. I wish you all the best, and never doubt that I will still care about you in time.

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