Mark (not his real name), 20, has had a tough start in life but is surprisingly matter-of-fact about the immense difficulties thrown at him.
For as long as he could remember, Mark’s parents were in prison. His mother, a repeat drug offender, was in and out of prison throughout his childhood and his father was serving a longer sentence for a crime Mark told the Pride that he didn’t care to know about.
He was four years old when he learned why his parents were never around. A year later, when most other children his age were spending time playing and learning about life, he finally got to see his parents — for just twenty minutes every month with his grandmother.
“My grandmother is the only family I have. She’s not my biological grandmother, but actually the godmother of my mother. They had met in a pub years ago and became close, and she took on the role of caring for me when my parents were incarcerated,” Mark, who is now a regular in the Republic of Singapore Navy, shared.
When he turned seven, Mark became a client of Life Community Services Society (LCSS) under its Friends of Children and Youth (FOCY) programme. It helps children and youths from ages 7 to 19, who have at least one parent presently or formerly incarcerated, to overcome their circumstances. Through home visits, mentoring sessions and workshops that focus on character, values, social-emotional support and life skills, the charity hopes to reduce the possibility of juvenile delinquency, drug abuse, school drop-out rates and issues relating to poor mental health.
Mark’s story, unfortunately, is more common than we’d think. Each year, LCSS supports about 1,000 children with the goal of empowering them to choose better life outcomes. In 2018 to 2019, LCSS saw that the majority of their beneficiaries succeed in building caring relationships and life skills such as decision making and emotional management.
Caseworkers visited Mark regularly, befriended him and helped him with his school work. “But all I wanted then was to have fun. I gave them a lot of trouble,” he said.
His grandmother struggled to discipline him too. “I told lies, I wouldn’t come home on time, and I disobeyed her instructions,” Mark admitted. As his grandmother could not control his behaviour, it was left to the LCSS caseworkers to step in. “They never gave up on me,” he said.
Today, he is still in contact with one of the befrienders from his primary school days. Mark remembers “Uncle” Kwan Chew, in particular, whom he has known since Primary One. “He would visit and check on me regularly. He listened to any struggles I was going through…and would always be there to help. I knew I had support, I wasn’t alone.”
Mark’s best memories of his time spent with LCSS were the annual Christmas Parties, something he always looked forward to.
Fears and emptiness during teenage years
The academic turning point came mid-way through secondary school. Mark had desperately wanted to get into the Express stream, but was disappointed that his PSLE score was not good enough and he ended up in Normal (Academic) stream. With much support from LCSS, he worked hard and eventually was promoted to Express stream at the end of Secondary Two.
But the emotional scars were harder to heal. “I kept to myself. I never talked about my parents to my school friends. I constantly felt empty because I did not have a complete family. I feared sharing about my family background. I feared how others would look at me,” Mark said.
Mark eventually lost contact with both his parents. He shrugs it off by saying that he was never close to them and that they never played a major role in his life. In 2017, his mother passed away. Mark recalls breaking down upon seeing her at the funeral, but it was not from the sadness of losing his mother. “It was the realisation that I would never have a mother,” he said.
After leaving secondary school, Mark completed a Law & Management diploma at Temasek Polytechnic, a course he chose because he liked debating. It was during this time that Mark opened up to the community around him. “I learned that being vulnerable is a good thing. People understand you better and can address the problem better.”
Today, he has friends from church, polytechnic and the Navy who know about his background. “I do have more friends now compared to when I was growing up. I’ve met more people…and learnt whom I can trust.”
Mark plans to further his studies with a degree in law or social work, intending to study part-time after completing two years in the Navy. “It’s meaningful seeing lives transformed. I enjoy interacting with people.”
Giving back to those who had helped him
And his relationship with LCSS still continues today – he volunteers by being a team leader at the Christmas Party leading other beneficiaries in the programme, or emceeing at the LCSS’ annual Charity Golf Fundraiser. Some FOCY alumni do not want to return after they leave because they fear being reminded of the stigma of their past lives, but Mark sees volunteering as a way to give back to the organisation that helped him through difficult times.
“Experiences shape us. I can blame others for what has happened. These are the cards I’ve been dealt with, but I’d rather work with what I have. I’m better equipped at handling what life throws at me now and I know I can choose different life outcomes,” Mark said, adding that he chose to serve in the Navy full time to support his grandmother, now 77.
At LCSS, there are many clients like Mark, where one or both parents are incarcerated. These clients are referrals from prisons, family service centres and schools. Gabriel Lee, who has been Mark’s caseworker since 2012, told The Pride that he and LCSS are very pleased with how far Mark has come.
Lee said that it is the friendship offered by LCSS caseworkers that made the real difference, and it is important to not have a fixed date to close the case — it is done only when clients are deemed to be stable. “We want to believe that clients have the potential to succeed, and we’re here to celebrate even small successes with them. But support shouldn’t just come from organisations like LCSS alone, it can come in different forms – such as neighbours, and friends.”
Covid-19 and how you can help
With the Covid-19 circuit breaker measures in place, many LCSS activities have been moved online. Devices were loaned to families so that clients could do home-based learning and participate in LCSS activities. Most clients have found this to be enjoyable, and ironically, many more are now able to participate when they couldn’t previously now that they don’t need to travel.
“We are glad to be able to continue these activities, as we see and anticipate more emotional, mental, academic support needed especially during this time. Clients and their families face more stress at home due to being in crowded spaces and their parents are worried with other issues,” said Lea Voo, Project Manager at LCSS, who oversees fundraising and corporate governance.
However, the current situation has affected LCSS’ fundraising activities and there is likely to be a shortfall of at least $200,000. If you would like to donate a gift to help a child, a Care Fund has been set up for donations on giving.sg.
Donations are used to run programmes to help support about 1,000 children and youths annually through food rations, home visits as well as tuition programmes, workshops and activities conducted virtually during this period. You can also visit LCSS’s Facebook and Instagram pages for weekly updates.