Singapore Teens shine a light on visually impaired in Laos

Rotting vegetables were lying across the kitchen floor at the Home of Light for visually impaired children in Laos last year. The sight hit home for Wang Chiew Hui as she realised there was a surplus of material donations such as food and clothing, but hardly any activities to boost the children’s holistic development.

The 18-year-old Victoria Junior College alumnus decided to change that. She initiated the third phase of Project Shine-A-Light this year with a mentor from social enterprise Etch Empathy in order to address the problems she saw.

The project aims to equip the home’s residents with skills and let them use their time productively during their June school holidays. Her team has roped in 16 volunteers aged between 18 and 21, and raised more than $10,000 to build a library, buy laptops and conduct art and music lessons for the home’s residents.

The Home of Light aims to provide a safe living environment and free education for around 50 children aged three to 18 who have eye conditions such as glaucoma and retinal detachment. “I chose to do this with the Home of Light because I felt that the (problems of the) visually impaired are less well known compared with other groups,” said Chiew Hui.

She got involved with the project as a leader under the Youth Corps Leaders Programme organised by Youth Corps Singapore. In this programme, volunteer leaders-in-training aged 17 to 25 are asked to carry out a six-month service learning project. Project Shine-A-Light is one of the Youth Corps’ Youth Expedition Projects. Etch Empathy, which was set up in 2013, was selected as a learning collaborator for the project as it has experience in designing programmes highlighting social challenges faced by communities such as the elderly, the visually impaired and the hearing-impaired.

The project’s first phase in 2015 involved levelling the school compound at the Home of Light for a futsal pitch. The second phase, which Chiew Hui took part in last year, had the volunteers teach the children futsal drills and board games.

“I felt like there wasn’t a lot being done,” she said.

As the home had only two desktop computers and one teacher, each child received only 15 minutes of computer skills lessons a week. The home also lacked age-appropriate books for younger children. “I felt very sad because they only had high school books there,” said Chiew Hui. It’s through reading that the children can strengthen their own language skills.”

By giving the home more books and laptops, the team hopes to equip the children with the skills to pursue higher education in future. “Currently most of the blind children either become masseurs or drop out of college because they don’t have the resources to continue studying,” said Mr Aaron Yeoh, 38, co-founder of Etch Empathy and the team’s mentor.

The team’s co-leaders, Tan Yoke Boon, 19, who is secretary, and Clara Lim, 18, who manages the team’s accounts, joined the project in late January. Both are also from Victoria JC. Most of the volunteers were recruited by word of mouth or social media.

In order to raise funds, they organised activities such as a Chinese New Year goodies sale, a car wash and a clothes donation drive.

For many participants, it was the first time they had planned a service learning trip by themselves. Yoke Boon said that while she had gone on service learning trips in secondary school, they were largely planned by teachers.” The only thing we got to plan were the performances we’d do each day,” she said. Clara said: “I’ve never done something as big or anything where I could influence things as much.”

Besides offering his advice, Mr Yeoh also supported the team by, for instance, buying and delivering lunch to the volunteers at the car wash in Yishun in February. Through that activity, they raised $2,700 in four weeks despite being caught in the rain on one occasion and having some of their belongings stolen on another.

The team also invited all the primary schools in Singapore to participate in the clothes drive. Students from 20 schools took part, donating used clothes which fetched $1,200 through recycling.

To promote empathy for the visually impaired among the public, a Running Man In The Dark fund-raising activity was held last month. Participants had to navigate a dark room and complete three sensory challenges while blindfolded.

Volunteers also attended a Human Library session in April where three visually impaired Singaporeans, including blind artist Chng Seok Tin, spoke about living with the condition. “We learnt that there are communities of people we don’t really interact with, and now we get the chance to talk to them,” said Clara. “Without having this conversation to understand them (the visually impaired) better, this project could not have been possible,” added Mr Yeoh.

The team will launch a cookbook for the visually impaired in Singapore in August. The book can be read via a screen reader.

Mr Joshua Tseng, 20, is one of the three who spoke at the Human Library session. He began losing his vision to glaucoma in secondary school and is now totally blind.

“At the end of the day, even if they didn’t tick off every box, the team has made a difference to the visually impaired and the people in Laos,” he said.

Source: The Straits Times Singapore, 17? June 2017

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