For the majority of us living in Singapore, food is never scarce, even when our movements were restricted during the circuit breaker. Breakfast, lunch or dinner were easily ordered and delivered to our doorstep with just a few taps on our phone.
In the past week alone, most of us would have eaten various dishes and cuisines readily available in our cosmopolitan city.
But for some low-income families, their three daily meals consist only of rice and sardines.
This is the reality that My Inspiring Journey (MIJ) Special Education Hub found when speaking to some of the students under its Financial Assistance Scheme.
Established in 2011, MIJ is a school for students with special needs such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Down syndrome, dyslexia and global developmental delay (GDD). The one-stop centre of about 300 students provides school readiness, care for youth as well as intervention programmes for individuals with special needs from ages four to 30.
MIJ’s husband-and-wife founders, Mohammad Ali Dawood and Faraliza Zainal, set up the school for their son, Mohd Ashraf, who has autism and tuberous sclerosis.
As part of MIJ’s engagement efforts with its students, it made calls to families to find out how they were coping after the circuit breaker. It was from these check-ins that they realised that many lower-income parents were struggling to provide proper meals for their family.
Nasrul Rohmat, MIJ’s business development manager says: “It was greatly disheartening to hear the pain they were going through in their everyday lives.
“The families shared that they ate the same food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Most of the time, they could only have rice, egg, and soy sauce for their family.”
After a discussion, the team at MIJ decided to initiate “The Takeout Campaign”.
Beneficiaries grateful for extra help
So far, MIJ has been reaching out to families with meals prepared at its in-house special-needs cafe called Ashraf’s Cafe.
And the recipients have been thankful for the extra help provided, Nasrul tells The Pride.
“The Takeout Campaign helps lighten not only the family’s monthly expenses but also their workload. It is already undeniably tough to take care of children with special needs, what more juggling household matters,” he says.
One such beneficiary is ten-year-old Mardhiyyah.
Mardhiyyah was born with a genetic hearing impairment and lost her hearing as she got older. She started using hearing aids when she was 3 and had her first cochlear implant when she was 6 years old.
This month, she will be getting her second implant, this time in her right ear. But even with the most powerful hearing aids, it will still be difficult for her to hear.
Due to her condition, Mardhiyyah’s mother stopped working to care for her. Her 69-year-old father recently started a job as a cleaner.
Previously, he didn’t work for a year due to health complications.
When he was ill, the family had difficulty paying their bills. There were times when they did not even have basic toiletries, such as shampoo, at home. They also had to stop Mardhiyyah’s lessons at MIJ Hub. However, recently, Mardhiyyah’s situation improved after her aunt assisted in paying the monthly school fees.
Food is usually limited in Mardhiyyah’s household. Most days, they eat instant noodles, fishball soup or rice and egg for dinner. At times, they will have no food for lunch.
The Takeout Campaign has helped to alleviate some of their day-to-day struggles.
“I hope for this campaign to continue to run for as long as possible. Even if it does not, we are very grateful for everything,” Mardhiyyah tells The Pride.
Similarly, 18-year-old Qisthi Isyraqi is also appreciative of the initiative.
Qisthi, who has autism, attends ASPN Delta Senior School – which offers vocational training to students with mild intellectual disability – lives in a 2-room rental flat with his 56-year-old grandmother. She is his main caregiver.
Qisthi’s father passed away when he was 2 years old and he has lived with his grandmother since. His mother lives separately with his younger brother. They do not meet regularly, only during Hari Raya, due to Qisthi’s aggression and anxiety issues.
He has been attending lessons every weekend at MIJ since 2017.
“I am very grateful for this initiative. My grandmother and I are unable to afford eating delicious food. When we receive food from MIJ and Ashraf’s Cafe, we get to taste something different than our usual meal,” shares Qisthi.
Providing hot, fresh meals for needy families
Ashraf’s Cafe is an inclusive cafe set up by MIJ. The cafe creates a safe space for special-needs individuals to acclimatise to working in a real-life job environment.
Mohammad Ali Dawood and Faraliza Zainal’s 20-year-old son Ashraf works at the cafe that bears his name. He tells The Pride: “Although I have autism, I am able to help others and my friends who are in need. It makes me feel confident and happy. I want to make my parents and job coaches proud of me.”
Meals for The Takeout Campaign are prepared at Ashraf’s Cafe. Every meal is made around noon to ensure that its beneficiaries can receive fresh, warm food in the evening.
When asked how he feels about meeting the families during the meal distributions, Ashraf says: “I am always excited when I meet the families. They are all very friendly. When the parents tap my shoulder and say thank you, I sometimes laugh uncontrollably because I feel shy. I want to continue to meet them and give them delicious food prepared by my colleagues and me.”
Nasrul explains that the initiative not only provides meals for low-income families but also gives the special-needs employees of Ashraf’s Cafe greater work fulfillment. The menu and ingredients are also selected with extra care – everything is made with healthy and fresh ingredients and is special-needs friendly.
More awareness needed
MIJ has set up a donation page for The Takeout Campaign and while response has been good so far, more funds are needed for MIJ to help even more lower-income families with special-needs children.
Right now, MIJ distributes one meal once a week but hopes to be able to cater meals to its beneficiaries up to three times a week.
“I hope that more people can donate to The Takeout Campaign so that more of my friends and their families who cannot afford to eat at cafes or restaurants, can enjoy better food in their own homes,” says Ashraf.
A donation of $40 can feed a family of five to six people. To contribute to The Takeout Campaign, visit give.asia/thetakeoutcampaign.