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We’ve seen such scenes often: Needy families lining up for a bag of daily necessities – dry foodstuff, cooking essentials, basic toiletries.
But Foo Say Thye observed one common occurrence at these donation drives: Whenever beneficiaries receive the bags, most would seem shy and reluctant to talk and would leave the venue almost immediately.
He realised that it is important not just to meet the physical needs of beneficiaries, but also consider their mental and emotional state as well.
The 56-year-old co-founder of local volunteer group Heartwarmers tells The Pride that he wanted to take such goodie bag distribution drives up a notch.
That’s why the group came up with Project 100=50.
“When we give bags of groceries to families, these are default items donated by the organisers. Project 100=50 allows participants to choose whatever they need and what they actually want,” says Say Thye.
Project 100=50 is a community service event that supports lower to middle income families by creating a “mini supermarket” where beneficiaries can choose to buy what they need at highly discounted prices. It partners local supermarket group Sheng Siong, which supplies these groceries to Heartwarmers at a special rate.
Discounts are either capped at 50% if beneficiaries spend $100 or less or at $50 if they spend more than $100.
Say Thye explains: “Providing them a choice on what to get at subsidised prices raises their self-esteem and self-confidence. It also promotes self-help when beneficiaries can start to pay for their own necessities.”
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Every month, different Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) select lower to middle income families who don’t qualify for financial assistance from the Government or agencies to attend Project 100=50 events. Different GRCs use different criteria to choose these beneficiaries.
Volunteer Tan Jun An, 21, says that these “sandwiched” families are stuck in between categories: “Like my own family, we are stuck in between. You’re neither rich nor poor,” he says. “Because you don’t fall in any other group, you cannot receive any benefits. So, this project helps the ‘sandwiched’”.
Currently, the project serves 3,000 families over five events a month. An expanded event, called Project 200=100, specifically caters for festive periods.
Says Say Thye: “When I was young, I was very very poor. I couldn’t even afford a 5-cent ice-cream! I could only watch others eat… I told myself that I want to reduce this feeling as much as I can in other people.”
However, the journey wasn’t always easy.
“In the beginning, the turnout rate of the first two sessions was very bad. We invited 100 beneficiaries, and we got 20,” laughs Say Thye.
It was also difficult getting logistics and manpower support. But he didn’t give up.
“Many people couldn’t believe that this project could be pulled off. It’s a tedious process. Even our own volunteers didn’t believe me, but I persisted, we had to try.”
To start off, Say Thye tried different supermarket chains to sell his idea, travelling around Singapore to talk to different managers.
Most rejected him because his initial order of groceries and basic necessities for 1,368 families was “too small”, he says.
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Despite the rejections, he managed to find supermarkets who were willing to collaborate.
Learning from that pilot run, Say Thye says that he realised that he needed to collaborate with multiple GRCs to reach out to even more needy residents.
He got support too from different MPs, like Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Indranee Rajah and Minister for National Development Desmond Lee, who would attend to support pop-up supermarkets when they were held in their constituencies (Tanjong Pagar GRC and West Coast GRC respectively).
For manpower, Heartwarmers sometimes engages with other volunteer groups like Ngee Ann Poly’s Leo Club and FoodAID Club.
Volunteering for Project 100=50
Now, there are about 100 volunteers from Heartwarmers who help at 100=50 events.
They run the grocery stalls, count and display stock, manage the queues, and even handle the cash register and packing.
Jun An has been a cashier for Project 100=50 since 2021 after Covid restrictions were lifted and community service events restarted. As a lead cashier, he also manages volunteers and ensures the the project is well organised.
“I started off as a packer, so I was really the ‘lowest’ back then, so whatever volunteers go through now, I can empathise,” Jun An says.
“Sometimes it’s hard to take care of everyone… but we always try our best. That’s why you always see me running around the whole area,” he laughs.
It’s better when regular volunteers show up, because they are more experienced with knowing what to do. But drop-in volunteers are taken care of too.
When I volunteered for Project 100=50 as a cashier, Jun An was attending to everyone but he still found time to help me with my queries!
Such ad-hoc volunteer work at Project 100=50 is great for those with other commitments. Jun An himself is serving NS full time.
He says: “Heartwarmers is very chill. Just let them know any feedback you have, and they’ll resolve it immediately. They listen and look out for their volunteers. That’s something that makes me want to continue.”
But he says that the reason why volunteers go the extra mile with the set-up is for the beneficiaries.
“This 50% really helps them a lot…Some of them, they cannot afford this many groceries, but when they come here, they are able to receive the subsidies, and I feel happy for them,” he says.
Beneficiaries bond over shopping
Nurdiana attended her first Project 100=50 at Boon Lay CC on May 14. Usually, it would be her brother attending Project 100=50’s previous events.
The 21-year-old student tells The Pride that Project 100=50 greatly alleviates the financial burdens on her family.
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“I really appreciate the ability to save up a bit, whether its 50% off or 25% off, it still makes a difference because my mother is ill and my older brothers are the breadwinners of the family,” she explains. Her dad has passed away.
Another reason why 100=50 is set up this way is to be a platform for people in the community to come together, something that goodie bag distributions doesn’t foster so well.
Nurdiana says that she got a pleasant surprise when she saw her neighbours at the same event.
“I saw some familiar faces in the crowd, and I got excited! We even did mini grocery shopping runs together, so it was nice to bond with my neighbours in opportunities like this,” Nurdiana says.
This is exactly the impact Say Thye is looking for with Project 100=50.
“As long as I see people smile, appreciate, be happy, I am content,” he says.
“When you see people smiling, kids, mothers, getting what they want and when you see the kids watching their mums pay for the items they picked, they get so excited. That’s enough for me.”