We may find wearing face masks a necessary encumbrance in the new normal, but there is a group of people in Singapore who are particularly affected by this rule – the deaf and those hard of hearing.

So married couple Oliver Guo, 33, and Amanda Chua, 31, started an initiative during the circuit breaker in May to help this group of people with a simple solution – a mask with a transparent panel.

Called The Simple Deed, the community volunteering initiative helps to create such masks, half of which goes to The Singapore Association for the Deaf (SADeaf) every month, with the remaining half given free to the public.

Sharing a fondness of charity

The idea, while not new, is a natural progression from the couple’s interest in volunteer work. Both Oliver and Amanda share a desire to give back to the community – in fact, the pair started volunteering together when they started dating.

“We wanted to look for a cause that we were both interested in. We took it as part of our dating time; an hour a week together, rather than just head to the movies,” shares Oliver.

“You get to understand the people around you better and learn how to relate to different kinds of people. At the end of the day, we get to share our reflections with each other. There’s really a lot of better interaction opportunities. I guess the best proof is that we are husband and wife now,” he laughs.

Six years ago, they started helping at Riding for the Disabled Association of Singapore, where they do horse therapy for mentally or physically challenged people.

Then two years ago, to focus more on their immediate community, they joined a grassroots organisation in their neighbourhood and started interacting with neighbours.

Amanda tells The Pride that every month, they delivered daily necessities to lower-income families. When the circuit breaker happened, the volunteers switched to vouchers instead and so had to explain to beneficiaries how to use them and where to get their groceries. That was when Oliver and Amanda realised that they had a challenge.

Identifying and overcoming the challenge

The couple realised that with their masks on, it was hard for the elderly to understand them. This was especially challenging for those who were hard of hearing.

“It was hard to explain to them that we were giving out vouchers instead of groceries during the circuit breaker. Facial expressions and lip movements are vital for the Deaf and hard of hearing in communication. So, the mask became a greater obstacle.”

So Oliver and Amanda went online for alternatives. They found an article about the deaf community using an innovative transparent mask. Thrilled with their findings, they reached out to SADeaf and their initiative was very well received.

Then it started…

With no sewing experience to start with, it was Oliver who got his mum, Madam Cheong Yoke Fong, to teach them how to make a prototype. Busting out their unused sewing machines, they managed to start sewing with her guidance.

Learning how to sew mask from elderly woman
Madam Cheong Yoke Fong teaching the couple to sew the masks. Image source: Facebook / The Simple Deed

“When we first started off, my mum did most of the sewing. We had the idea, but we needed execution and action. So, it was very important that my mum helped us get started.”

Oliver explains that at first, it took a more experienced seamstress like his mother an hour to make one mask – now she needs about 30 to 45 minutes. The inexperienced couple still takes an hour to sew a mask each, which is why they reached out to two friends’ families who helped with quite a bit of sewing in the first phase.

As interest picked up, their pool of volunteers grew. Now, weekends for Oliver and Amanda involve less sewing and more logistical work like preparing and delivering the materials to volunteers and the masks to their recipients.

“We still believe firmly in the human touch, rather than just a production factory line, so we try to meet as many of our volunteers as possible, hand delivering our materials to them. And the recipients as well, when we deliver the masks,” say the couple.

“This also eases the worries of the volunteers, some of whom just want to focus on sewing without having to worry about logistics. So for now, our focus on the weekends have been working together with and complementing our volunteers – using the strength of the community, in that sense.”

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A community project

And help has come from the larger community as well. Some enterprises that have seen The Simple Deed’s social media pages have contributed spare material, even allowing Oliver and Amanda to come take their pick.

Says Oliver: “We are actually very grateful to our first sponsors, CYC Made to Measure being one of them. When we first started off during the circuit breaker, materials were a lot harder to obtain. But we managed to get our first batch of fabric with CYC. Recently, we’ve had a lot more local tailoring companies jumping on board, such as Closeknip, Shirt Bar, Este Bartin and others.”

Even though they have almost 30 volunteers helping with the production of the masks, other people without any sewing expertise have also stepped forward.

The couple tell The Pride: “We had a volunteer who really wanted to help out but didn’t know how – he didn’t have a sewing machine, nor know how to sew. He happened to have just received his motorbike license, so he helped to do a few delivery runs. It’s still for the same cause and the same end goal, but he helped through a different method.”

With 600 masks made and distributed so far, the initiative has far exceeded the couple’s expectations. “We were only looking at making a hundred masks at first, but we’ve surprisingly had such a great response from the community,” they say.

Clear masks good for speech therapy
The clear face masks have allowed speech and language therapist Krystal Chng conduct Speech Therapy sessions more effectively at AWWA. Image source: Facebook / The Simple Deed

And it’s a humbling and encouraging experience, say Oliver and Amanda. They have had preschool teachers, parents with young children, speech therapists, and many people from different walks of life ask for the clear masks. One of the preschools even got the kids to do an artwork in appreciation!

Some bumps on the road

Of course it wasn’t smooth sailing all the way.

“We are limited to the volunteers’ free time. Now in Phase 2, kids have exams and need to be cared for, and people are going back to work. We used to have more active volunteers, but they can’t produce as much as before. Some also, after receiving the materials, have realised that it’s a lot more challenging than it seems from videos and guides,” the couple shares.

And it is important for Oliver and Amanda that people are truly happy volunteering. Now that most are back to the grind and have less free time on their hands, the pair want to ensure that there is no pressure to deliver.

They explain: “It’s not a factory line. We could have easily gone commercial and reached out to commercial partners, but we wanted it to be a community volunteering initiative.”

The couple also hopes to do some research and development to produce more comfortable, better-fitting and well-protected masks, to encourage more people, not just the hard of hearing, to wear clear masks.

“It will help the society be more inclusive because if the ones around those hard of hearing wear it, it actually really benefits them,” says Oliver.

“SADeaf alone has more than 6,000 members. If we distribute two masks to each household of the deaf, that’s already 12,000 masks required. And we’ve only made 600 so far, so we are really far away from our goal. If we want to encourage all of Singapore to put on the mask, it is such a tough call.”

Making the mask more aesthetically pleasing remains part of the dream. When they first started, the masks received considerable pushback from people, with one of the main reasons being that it looks scary because it makes the mouth look exposed.

Amanda explains: “It’s not widely adopted yet, so some people still feel like the minority when they wear it. We’ve only made 600 in all of Singapore, so those wearing it may get strange stares.”

Documenting their journey

When Oliver and Amanda found out that the National Library Board was launching a campaign called Documenting COVID-19 in Singapore, asking for the public to submit stories of what they’ve been doing during circuit breaker, they thought it would be the perfect opportunity to document their new mask prototype and the process of them learning a new skill.

“To us, it started off really being like a diary, wanting to document what we were doing during circuit breaker. But it became much more than that. And we’re very glad our initiative has benefitted those in the community”, the couple says.

If there is one thing Oliver and Amanda want to inspire in Singaporeans, it is to volunteer to a cause through a method that you prefer. There is no one fixed way to contribute your time and effort.

“There are so many volunteering opportunities within our community. It’s hard to keep up with the motivation with volunteering, so it’s important to do something you believe in and enjoy.”

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