By Siti Zulaiha
Cut. Piece together. Sew.
It’s a routine that 26-year-old Ryan Koh follows every day to keep him focused when working on his handicraft projects.
Ryan has autism. He works at Mustard Tree, a small craft shop set up by his mother Soek Ying, 56, in Ng Teng Fong General Hospital.
Unfortunately, in our society, employment is hard to find for differently abled individuals like Ryan.
That’s why in 2016, when Ryan turned 19, Soek Ying set up Mustard Tree, to give him a chance to hone his motor skills in something that he is passionate about — art.
Her ultimate goal, she tells The Pride, is to help her son make a self-sufficient career out of something that he is interested in.
“Ryan is not very verbal. However, he speaks through his beautiful handmade crafts,” says Soek Ying.
In 2015, Ryan graduated from Grace Orchard, a special education school in Clementi, and started practising his craft skills at home. Like any proud mother, Soek Ying shared her son’s crafts on Facebook.
To her surprise, many of her friends (and their friends too) showed interest in buying Ryan’s handicraft, and she had many others asking about his work. That sparked something in Ryan, who then learned how to sew more intricate designs with a sewing machine from a family friend.
That served as the “seed” to grow the idea of Mustard Tree.
Today, Mustard Tree sells a range of handicrafts, from jewellery to flower arrangements. It also employs four full-time differently abled staff members — Madalene, Aaron, and Ryan — and Mdm Tay Lay Kheng.
That is Soek Ying’s goal to give differently abled individuals in society a chance to prove their worth to others and to themselves. Mustard Tree is a safe place where they can learn and grow, she says.
The impact of the pandemic
But when the pandemic hit in 2020, it put a stop to all her plans.
As a non-essential business, the store had to close during the circuit breaker. For the differently-abled staff at Mustard Tree who thrive on routine, not coming to work was a shock to them.
Jessie had to tell her daughter, Madalene, why she did not need to go to work as the government had issued a lockdown.
Explaining it to her daughter in a way she could understand was a challenge, she recalls with a smile.
Madalene was worried about how the lockdown would affect the store, so Jesse reassured her that “the government will help to subsidise some of the costs”.
Similarly for Ryan, Soek Ying recalls how every day, Ryan would still ask why they were not headed to the store.
Reiterating the fact that those on the spectrum thrive on routine to have more structure in their schedules, Soek Ying says that the pandemic was not easy for them and their caregivers.
Physically too, the store had to close, so revenue was a problem. Like many other small businesses, Soek Ying went online to continue selling crafts and connecting with customers.
She says: “We are very thankful that during that period, we had the support of our corporate and regular customers who reached out to us and continued to order items from us.”
There is always light at the end of a tunnel. Today, Mustard Tree has resumed full-scale business operations and the staff members are happily back at work.
A place to learn and grow
“To have a space like this, it’s like a living classroom,” says Soek Ying.
She is proud of how they have come out stronger from the pandemic.
The staff at Mustard Tree, back to their normal routines, have proven that they are capable of doing more. They have taken up more administrative responsibilities and are adjusting back to full-scale operations once again.
Soek Ying says with motherly pride that Magdalene and Aaron have started to take more administrative roles such as cashiering. Each staff member contributes their part in maintaining the store, she adds while Ryan sews crafts in the workshop.
Having visited Mustard Tree myself and watching how the staff exercise their social skills in welcoming customers and handling monetary transactions, I’m amazed at how confident they are in an environment that they are comfortable in.
Jessie tells me how grateful she is to Seok Ying for transforming her daughter into a more confident individual who believes in herself.
“I saw how Madalene has changed from a shy girl to one who is more confident today and it was all because of Mustard Tree,” says Jesse.
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The store has taught them how to make decisions by themselves and gave them a place in our society to be appreciated for their work.
“Today, our aim is to impact the lives of more people with special needs just like Ryan – who did not have the opportunity to uncover their God-given talents or offered a chance to showcase them,” says Soek Ying.