Four years ago, Alice (not her real name) was told by her employer of five years that she had been fired with immediate effect. The reason given? Alice said she believed it was because her employer was not aware that she was an ex-offender when she first got the job, and had learnt about it through a colleague.

With two young children to feed and a home to pay for, the sudden dismissal sent Alice, a single mother, into a state of agonising uncertainty. “I was really desperate, and I just remember going around asking everyone I knew if they could offer me a job.”

She took up a course with social enterprise Project Dignity to become a canteen vendor. The trainer highlighted her predicament to Project Dignity founder Koh Seng Choon, who decided to hire her.

Today, Alice, 45, is not only a trusted employee and capable events planner, she is also a big sister to the many differently-abled staff who have joined the team.

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Dignity for all

The brainchild of social entrepreneur Koh Seng Choon, Project Dignity was conceived in 2006 as a social enterprise that aims to help the underprivileged and those with disabilities find gainful employment.

Previously an engineer, then a high-flying business consultant, Koh’s journey into social entrepreneurship was kick-started by a random thought.

“I was leaving my home in Pasir Ris when I suddenly realised that I had never seen a beggar in Singapore. I’d also never seen a homeless person on the streets, or any disabled people out at shopping centres,” the 60-year-old tells The Pride.

“In a population of five million, how could this be? The engineer in me needed to know the answer. So I went in search of it.”

While still working full-time, he began volunteering once a month, an undertaking he named “Dignity Day”. Koh befriended many elderly folks at void decks and took them out on those monthly excursions. Over six years, he went from taking four elderly folks out on outings, to chartering two buses to ferry some 40 of them around.

Koh Seng Choon’s Dignity Kitchen hosts a free lunch for elderly folks from nursing homes every week. Image Source: Koh Seng Choon

“I took them to factories, and even to Johor Bahru to do some shopping. It was fun, and I realised that I really enjoyed doing it.”

In time, Koh started volunteer stints as a lecturer teaching youths-at-risk and prison inmates about business entrepreneurship.

Then, while Koh was an executive director at the Restaurant Association of Singapore, a chance encounter with a polio-stricken man set the cogs in motion for his life’s ambition.

“He walked in on crutches and said to me that he wanted to be a chef in a restaurant. Instinctively, I thought – no way. In a Chinese restaurant, there are 17 different positions, from the waiter, to the dishwasher, to the one in charge of steaming food, to the actual chef. All would pose a challenge due to his disability.”

“Then it came to me – he may find it hard to fit seamlessly into a restaurant environment, but what about being a hawker?

Hawker dreams, fulfilled

That seeded the idea for what is today Dignity Kitchen, a community food court run by the needy and disabled. “I realised that for many of these individuals, it is a dream to have a steady job. Being able to earn a living empowers them,” he explains.

When the business started in 2010, Koh struggled with a host of challenges, from getting funding, to helping the public understand his employees and what Dignity Kitchen aims to do.

Trainees learn how to prepare ingredients for cooking. Image Source: Facebook / Dignity Kitchen

But he persevered and eventually built up the business into an award-winning social enterprise that has trained thousands to work in the food and beverage industry.

Koh has also developed a curriculum for aspiring hawkers that equips them with the know-how of running the business.

Currently, Project Dignity has more than 60 employees, with two-thirds being disadvantaged or disabled individuals. Koh’s social enterprise also provides training and catering services, as well as organising events.

Students from Eunoia Junior College take part in an event at Dignity Kitchen where they prepared food and activities for elderly seniors. Image Source: Facebook / Dignity Kitchen

For all of Project Dignity’s achievements, Koh remains refreshingly candid about the realities of running a business of its nature.

“Some of our staff have mental health conditions, and we’ve had team members who are suicidal. We make sure there’s always someone around to keep an eye on them and make sure they are feeling OK.”

“There are also times when you have really tried your best to help and train someone, but the placement turns out not to be a good fit. It is always sad, but you also have to let go.”

Regardless of the challenges, he views every successful placement and hire as one life potentially transformed. As such, he continues to believe – and prove – that with the right support and training, these individuals can find their place in the workforce.

“As an employer, I’m very blessed to have each and every one of my staff working for me. They really can work — it’s just a matter of whether someone would give them a chance to do it.”

Family at work

With a culture of care deeply rooted in its DNA, it’s no wonder that walking into Dignity Kitchen feels like walking into a large family’s dining room.

Image Source: The Pride / Marilyn Peh

A hearing-impaired staff enthusiastically teaches you how to sign for your kopi o siew dai. A colleague who mans the claypot rice stall greets you cheerfully and takes you through the menu. It is a short while before you realise that she is visually-impaired.

From the cleaners to the hawkers, to the office staff (Project Dignity’s office staff sit in an open-concept office within the food court), there is laughter and easy banter all around.

Alice says: “We’re like a family. There are no walls between us, and we confide in each other about our difficulties and struggles. Sometimes, these are personal problems that some of them don’t feel comfortable sharing with their parents and friends.”

Image Source: Facebook / Dignity Kitchen

Being family also means looking out for each other.

“One of my colleagues has epilepsy, where she can go into sudden fits. Now, I can spot when it’s about to happen. I see the look on her face, and I immediately know what I need to do — give her some water, rub some medicated oil on her, and calm her down, so the situation doesn’t get too bad.”

To shy and reticent newcomers, she makes an effort to get to know them better. “Having friendly colleagues helps to relieve stress at work,” she explains.

As for herself, the nightmare of losing her livelihood due to her past has been replaced by fresh hopes of a brighter future.

Talking about Dignity Kitchen’s Hong Kong branch, she says: “Hopefully, we can grow even bigger, then maybe I’ll get the chance to work overseas and gain experience, and even take my two kids along.

“And if one day, I’m able to run my own social enterprise – that would really be a dream come true.”