For the past three years, Lee Siew Yian, 46, has spent most of her Sunday mornings in rental flat estates around Singapore.
Along with other volunteers from community group Keeping Hope Alive, Lee knocks on the doors of lonely seniors and low-income families, asking if they require any assistance.
It could be helping these residents clean up a dirty home, or aid in disposing of hoarded items. Sometimes, in specific cases, some volunteers dig into their own pockets to help with unpaid utility bills.
On Jan 5, Lee and friends were able to guess what an elderly woman who lives alone in Geylang Bahru needed even before she gave them an answer.
Speaking to The Pride, she recalled: “Her house was in a pretty bad state. It was very untidy and gave off a strong, unpleasant smell. We realised it came from her mattress, which was stained with urine and faeces.”
Lee immediately looked to buy a new mattress for the old woman. To Lee’s delight, a search on Carousell brought her to a listing that sounded like the perfect fit. It carried the caption: “For free! Self-collection at AMK from 9am to 5pm.”
A photo accompanying the listing showed a mattress that looked to be in good condition, so Lee texted the seller and explained that she was a volunteer looking to help a needy elderly woman replace her soiled mattress.
After the seller agreed, and even suggested that Lee picked up a few other mattresses he had at the same time, she arranged for a transport company to collect the items, paying $80 out of her own pocket.
And when the delivery took place on Jan 9, Lee made a trip to Geylang Bahru to receive the items herself. What she got instead, was a rude shock when the movers arrived.
“When I removed the nice-looking bedsheet to inspect the mattress, I discovered that it was actually in very poor condition. One of the mattresses that came without a bedsheet also had a large hole in it.”
Having offered the additional mattresses to a few senior citizens at the same block’s activity centre, Lee found herself in an awkward position of not being able to fulfil her promise.
Admitting to feeling embarrassed by the situation, she said: “After I explained to them that the mattresses weren’t usable, one of the staff at the centre gestured towards the disposal area, where I eventually directed the movers to leave the mattresses there.”
Having taken time to coordinate the donation and pay for the transport fee herself, Lee was naturally disappointed. Unfortunately, she said, in her experience, it’s “not uncommon” for donors to donate damaged items or items in poor condition to the needy.
Donors expect volunteers and beneficiaries to accept the items they donate
Not only is it a waste of time and resources to dispose of donated items that can’t be used, there is also a need for a change of mindset. Lee points out that there is, at times, a disconnect between donors who think beneficiaries should be grateful for any donation, and beneficiaries who actually have very specific needs.
She says: “Some people will say – I’m giving something to you for free, so you shouldn’t be too picky about the condition it’s in. But we’ve received furniture that’s dirty and close to falling apart, and even got feedback from recipients that their donated mattresses had bed bugs.
“Sometimes, we don’t have the storage space to accept donations, or the items are simply not what our beneficiaries need. But when we explain that to the donors, they say that we are being choosy. It’s quite hurtful for people to view us in this negative light.
“But if the items are really in bad condition, such that I wouldn’t even want to use it for myself, how can I offer it to someone else?”
Recounting her most recent experience, Lee politely explained to the donor that the beneficiary was not able to accept the mattress as it was not in good condition. He in turn apologised and explained that he had forgotten to check under the bedsheet.
Nevertheless, Lee decided to make a post on Facebook to encourage people to be more mindful of how their donations can help the needy, and how to lend volunteers a hand. The post published on Jan 9 has since been shared some 2,700 times.
Lee, who left her corporate job a few years ago to work on freelance humanitarian projects around the region, was touched to receive several offers of help. This included an employee at a mattress company who offered to donate a display set to the old woman and a moving company representative who volunteered his company’s services for free.
Some other members of the public also offered to defray the transportation costs Lee had incurred. While grateful, she declined their offers, opting instead to see it as a reminder to herself to be more thorough when inspecting donated items in the future.
The message she hopes more people will take away is this: “Just because someone needs help, it doesn’t make them any less worthy. They are also human beings like us, and don’t deserve any less. Instead, when you give the best you can to someone in need, it shows that they are worthy.”
Happily, the Keeping Hope Alive volunteers were eventually able to help the elderly woman replace her soiled mattress with one that is in much better condition.
And Lee is staying optimistic about the group’s mission to help more people.
“We shouldn’t let bad experiences stop us from doing good and serving more people in need. I’m not going to stop, but I’m just going to be more careful in future.
“I’m just glad my experience has in some ways helped to heighten awareness, so people know what to do.”
Donate for a good purpose
With Chinese New Year coming soon, Paul Chay, general manager of The Salvation Army Red Shield Industries Singapore, tells The Pride that he expects an increase in items being donated.
“During the festive period from December to February, we receive triple the amount of donations collected on regular days, and recruit more volunteers to help with them.”
Chay says that of the donated items The Salvation Army receives, around 7 per cent are unusable and cannot be sold or recycled. He explains: “They include items like clothes, shoes or bags that are stained or torn, and electrical appliances that are damaged.
“These items will require time, effort and a fee to dispose of them.”
To ensure that one’s donated items to The Salvation Army are put to good use, Chay shares: “We require items that are still in good condition and things that people would generally need or purchase.
“We also encourage donors to conduct their spring cleaning as early as possible to prevent an overloading situation at our donation-in-kind booths. If the donation-in-kind booths are full, we would like to appeal to donors to make a trip to our Tanglin Family Hub at 356 Tanglin Road.”
Looking for more ways to donate your secondhand items? Visit the Pass It On portal to see if your items are among those required by VWOs in Singapore helping the needy.