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Daughters Of Tomorrow, a charity that enables women from disadvantaged backgrounds to find sustained and regular employment, celebrates their 7th anniversary this year. They mark this milestone with a number of initiatives, including Twenty-One Daughters, which invites people to nominate women whose stories of empowerment serve to encourage and inspire others. Here are two of their stories.
Jenny: A single mother’s dream
One evening in 2015, Jenny Choo found herself sitting at a fast food restaurant in Johor Bahru with her 5-month-old son, Mahdi, and a small bag of belongings. She knew that it would be unsafe for the both of them to remain outdoors as it got dark. But she could not go home because earlier that day, a misunderstanding with her then-husband had escalated into physical abuse.
During the altercation, Jenny suffered an injury to her head, and in the struggle with her then-husband, she had fallen on Mahdi. Jenny called the police for help and asked for a police escort from the police station back home so that she could safely collect hers and Mahdi’s passports, personal documents, some clothes and essential items for the baby, before she left the house.
Prior to that horrifying incident, Jenny had been running a small home-based business selling lactation cookies to customers in Malaysia and Singapore. She and her then-husband, had also travelled between the two countries regularly.
Wanting to protect little Mahdi, who is Singaporean, Jenny decided to travel to Singapore where she felt they had better options and would be safer. Nursing an injury to her forehead, Jenny cradled her infant and her meagre bag of belongings, and walked to the checkpoint where she took a bus to Woodlands, with just RM20 in her pocket.
They arrived in Singapore, wondering where they should go next. Fortunately, prior to leaving Johor Bahru, Jenny had posted a request for help from a private mummies Facebook group. Once she inserted her SIM card into her phone in Singapore, the offers of help came pouring in.
Help from friends and strangers
A friend sent Jenny and Mahdi to the hospital for medical care, because Jenny’s head was bruised and had sustained a concussion from the injury. Mahdi was hospitalised at KKH for observation because he had vomited after Jenny had fallen on him during the fight with her then-husband.
Jenny recounts with gratitude the help that she received from members of the Facebook group, some of whom were strangers. They visited her at KKH and supplied her with practical items such as diapers, wipes and clothes. One of them, who ran a business selling baby carriers, gave Jenny a brand-new carrier for Mahdi!
“I felt so grateful. Even though I had nothing, I had so much,” recalls Jenny.
A social worker found Jenny and Mahdi a place in a shelter run by the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO), and just when she was getting ready to plan her next move, Jenny found out that she was 2 months pregnant.
Despite being alone in a foreign country with an infant to care for and no means of supporting themselves, Jenny decided to keep the baby.
She says: “I told myself that the baby was a blessing, and should not be sacrificed because of the situation we were in.”
Being pregnant made it difficult for Jenny to find a job, but she was determined to be independent and support her little family.
Jenny eventually got an F&B job at a hotel two months after giving birth to baby Humaira. However, this arrangement meant that Jenny could not spend much time with her children as she had to send them to childcare.
Jenny emphasises that her children were her priority. She was motivated to start her own business so that she could manage and spend more time with her children.
At that time, her immediate goal was to move out of the shelter so that the three of them could have a place of their own. She parted with a good chunk of her small salary to rent a room in a HDB flat, so that she and her children could enjoy the privacy and security of their own space.
Her ultimate goal was to provide for her children, in particular, her son who has autism.
“I just want my children to know that mummy is here for them,” she says.
Just when things appeared to be looking up, Jenny’s long-term visit pass expired and she had to seek help from a relative in Singapore. While waiting to renew her pass, Jenny had to quit her job, as she was not able to work under ICA regulations.
Without any income for about two months, she had to rely on financial assistance, and she and the children relinquished their rented room and returned to a shelter.
“It was a very challenging time,” says Jenny, who struggled to find a job without paper qualifications as she entered the workforce at 16 and did not complete her secondary school education. After 2 months, she finally found an office admin job.
“I knew I was smart enough but I didn’t have the qualifications. I was happy to find companies who were willing to give me the opportunity to work. I worked hard and built trust to show the boss that I could do the work.”
Jenny found a job as an IT clerk, where she was the only person in the team who could read and write in Chinese. This gave her an edge in dealing with orders from China. She worked long hours and her work was appreciated, which earned her a position as an audit assistant in the same company.
She says: “One thing I learned is, even if someone has no proper educational qualifications, if you give them a chance and if they are willing, you never know what they can achieve.”
A dream to run her own business
This single mother of two held on to her dream to run her own business.
Aware that there was a lot that she needed to learn, she enrolled in a diploma course in business management. Juggling school, work and the demands at home, Jenny graduated in April 2020.
Around that time, the circuit breaker hit and Jenny lost her job. But things looked up when in June 2020, Jenny found a job as a HR manager in a company providing cleaning services.
She says that it was a high point in her career where she gained valuable work experience as part of a small team. She learned how to do the payroll and hiring functions and to adapt in a fast-moving environment.
“It was a very good learning experience and I decided it was time for me to start my own business,” Jenny says.
With a former colleague, Jenny set up a cleaning business that services commercial and industrial clients. Her enthusiasm for her work is clear as she talks about how she plans to do things differently and wants to make a difference to society through this company.
Drawing from her past experiences, she wants to give employment opportunities to people with special needs, ex-offenders and people from low-income families who need the work but have to manage time constraints, such as childcare.
She says: “I want to give more opportunities to more people. I want to explore opportunities to improve the community.”
Of what she has gone through so far, Jenny says: “It was a long and hard journey but I learned that no matter how hard you fall, as long as you have the determination to pick yourself up and not give up, you can succeed.”
She adds: “When I needed help, someone was there for me. Now I want to give back.”
Mervis: Helping other women overcome difficulties
Mervis Yeo experienced physical and verbal abuse from her then-husband, in full view of their infant daughter and his two daughters from a previous relationship.
“I was confused. I had a child with him and I thought we could be happy as a family. I never thought I would be in this situation,” she recalls. “My step-daughters urged me to say sorry to him so that the abuse would stop but I felt that it was wrong to apologise for something I didn’t do.”
Wanting to put a stop to the abuse and to protect herself and 9-month-old Alethea, Mervis moved to a shelter in 2018.
The peace and quiet at the shelter gave her the opportunity to reorganise her thoughts and priorities. Top on her list of priorities was Alethea.
“She became happier after we left home (so I knew) I made the right decision to leave,” says Mervis.
The mother and daughter stayed at the shelter for a year.
Mervis, now 34, says she helped the other residents there when they encountered legal issues regarding their domestic troubles, such as figuring out the required documents and processes.
Prior to entering the shelter, Mervis did social media marketing for a restaurant and says she was self-taught when it came to dealing with legal issues.
She says: “Even though I wasn’t familiar with these issues, I would work at helping them find a solution. This gave them a confidence boost before they had to see the lawyers or to attend court.”
Confidence is what Mervis has in spades. Confidence and plenty of energy.
Mervis shares happily that she and her new husband, whom she married this year, are expecting a baby in December.
During the first two trimesters of her pregnancy, Mervis worked as a night valet until Covid restrictions put a stop to it. She now works as a warehouse supervisor and is so gungho at work that her colleagues ask her to slow down by telling her, “You’re pregnant, you know!”
On weekends, when time permits, Mervis works as a cashier at a convenience store. She supports her parents with whom she currently lives and says that the extra cash she earns will be needed for her father’s upcoming operation in January.
While she looks forward to welcoming her baby very soon, Mervis is also looking ahead to when she can continue to further her studies.
“I want to do a degree in psychology so that I can go into training and teaching. This will support my volunteer work at Power Up Online,” Mervis says of the programme run by Daughters Of Tomorrow which she started attending and is now a facilitator at.
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Doesn’t she get tired of juggling so many things?
“I do feel stressed sometimes, briefly. Then I tell myself there’s work to do and there’s no time for a pity party. So, I move on and just do it,” says Mervis.
“If I meet another woman who was in the same situation I was in in 2018, I would tell her that healing takes time. It is good to know that you are not alone in your situation. There are people out there who are willing to help and support you.”
Visit https://daughtersoftomorrow.org/the7yearmovement/ to find out how you can help disadvantaged women overcome difficult circumstances.