We are surrounded by unsung heroes.

People who quietly go about their daily routine, making life better for those in need through actions big and small. They don’t do it for money, nor do they ask for recognition. Yet their work has an impact on the people around them.

Last month, five such inspiring individuals were honoured at the annual Silent Heroes Award ceremony for their extraordinary contributions and their positive influence on society.

Since 2014, the Silent Heroes Award, organised by the Civilians Association of Singapore, has recognised everyday Singaporeans and permanent residents who quietly make a difference with families, communities and societies without seeking recognition or compensation.

Out of 90 public nominations, winners emerged in five categories: Aaron Yeoh (Hearts of Humanity), Derek Lim (Inspiring Youth), Andrew Ong (Outstanding Adult), Mashuthoo Abdul Rahiman (Pioneers of Promise) and Dipti Julka (Compassionate Foreigner).

Dipti Julka: Stepping out of her comfort zone to bring cheer to the elderly and sick

Image source: Dipti Julka

After moving here in 2016, Dipti Julka, 39, was trying to find her feet as a foreigner in Singapore. Her husband, who works in the food and beverage industry, encouraged Dipti, a full-time homemaker, to find something to do with her spare time.

In October 2016, she signed up with Social Vibes, a monthly gathering to eat and interact with female residents at an eldercare facility, and micro-volunteering platform Cause Corps.

She didn’t know it then but participating in these small acts of volunteering gave her the meaning she was looking for since coming to Singapore. Since joining Social Vibes, she has rarely missed a gathering and has become good friends with the other volunteers.

Now four years later, she tells The Pride that she can hardly believe that her quiet volunteering efforts have been recognised.

“I didn’t even know what exactly this award Sherry had nominated me for, or that there was voting involved… I was not prepared for this at all!” Dipti laughs.

At Cause Corps, she met fellow volunteer Sherry Soon, who started Be Kind Sg in 2017, a ground-up initiative that organises micro-volunteering opportunities for communities such as seniors with intellectual disabilities, and children and youths with special needs. At Be Kind Sg, Dipti volunteered at organisations under the Thye Hwa Kwan Moral Society group, such as with the intellectually disabled at THK Home For Disabled @ Sembawang and with elderly residents at Moral Welfare Home.

Separately, she also volunteers with Twinkle Hearts at Ren Ci Hospital.

Dipti with Be Kind SG volunteers
Dipti with fellow volunteers from Be Kind Sg at Moral Welfare Home in Nov 2019 / Image source: Dipti Julka

Volunteer work takes a toll on a person’s mental, emotional and physical energy, and it can be draining to meet the chronically ill, some of whom have permanent disabilities. But Dipti clings to what motivates her – the connection she makes with those she meets.

“When you can see and feel the reaction from the recipients, it’s just so much more touching and meaningful,” she tells The Pride.

During a karaoke session with the elderly residents at Lee Ah Mooi Old Age Home one New Year’s Eve, a resident unexpectedly took Dipti’s hands to lead her in a dance.

Shares Dipti: “I was so overjoyed. I don’t remember the last time I partied on New Year’s Eve, but I will remember this for a long time. It’s moments like this that make me feel like it’s worth it.”

Dipti does sometimes face a language barrier but says that a translator is always around to help. Ultimately, it is a kind touch and a caring voice that transcends the language barrier.

Unfortunately, with Covid-19 restrictions this year, most volunteer visits’ are now conducted online and Dipti can’t wait for in-person sessions to start again.

Sherry, who nominated Dipti for the award, says: “Dipti is always the first to say ‘yes’ to all our activities. As an immigrant to Singapore, it’s quite daunting to get to know new people, what more volunteering for such varied causes. She has never let the language barrier stop her from volunteering.”

Dipti is not even sure how many hours she spends a week on volunteering work, which is spread out between designing craft work, shopping for materials, planning meetings and contact time with the recipients.

Says Dipit: “If I can make a small difference to the residents at the homes and hospitals, then surely I can do more.”

Derek Lim: From an introvert to an advocate for the homeless

Image Source: Derek Lim

“I didn’t talk to anyone in school, that led me to being bullied and teased.”

This is what Derek Lim, 25, remembers of his school days. But his work with helping the homeless in Singapore has transformed him into a confident advocate for the oft-forgotten segment of society.

Derek has been doing volunteer work since after his O levels, but in 2015, he chanced upon a Facebook post from Homeless Hearts of Singapore, a non-profit organisation that befriends and helps the homeless.

“It was different from the volunteering I had done previously, like cleaning houses and packing food for the needy. Now I was being asked to be a friend to the homeless,” Derek tells The Pride.

“We’re not social workers, and they are not our beneficiaries for gifts or services. Instead, we are giving them the gift of friendship and time,” Derek explains.

Through befriending, he was surprised by how the homeless were unlike their stereotypes.

“They are friendly, well-groomed, respectful and hardworking,” he says.

Since joining Homeless Hearts, he has befriended more than 200 homeless people. He spends about one to three hours almost every night, meeting and eating with them where they live.

Image source: Derek Lim

“The homeless have their own hopes and dreams too. One of the uncles we befriended secured multiple jobs, and was able to get a rental flat with the help of his social worker. He even invited us to his wedding,” Derek tells The Pride.

Today, Derek oversees the outreach efforts and conducts training for new volunteers at Homeless Hearts.

Currently a part-time social work student at Singapore University of Social Sciences, Derek intends to work in the social services sector after he graduates. Bashfully, he shares that part of that stems from wanting to join his girlfriend, who is a social worker. They met through volunteering with Homeless Hearts.

He was nominated for the Silent Heroes award by the founders of Homeless Hearts, Abraham Yeo and Mervin Lee.

“In the early days, he was a quiet young man, very shy and reserved. Over the past five years, we have seen him grow as a person. He’s one of the pillars of Homeless Hearts today, without him we would not be where we are,” Mervin tells The Pride.

“He will always remind us during media interviews to keep our homeless friends’ feelings in consideration. He quietly honours them, dignifies them, and reminds us that the homeless are not problems to be solved, they are people to be loved.”

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Aaron Yeoh: Creating an inclusive workplace in the kitchen for the visually impaired

blind cooking class
A blind cooking class conducted by Fortitude Culina / Image source: Aaron Yeoh

Aaron Yeoh, 42, won the award in the Hearts of Humanity category for his contributions with three social organisations.

In 2013, Aaron started Etch Empathy, a non-profit organisation that conducts empathy simulation courses for youth leaders and corporates. It also runs skills development courses for the visually impaired, including free cooking and baking classes.

He found that the visually impaired were keen to learn culinary skills, out of a desire to be self-reliant and also to enable them to get jobs. The trainers are themselves visually impaired and this allows them to understand the needs of their students better.

It was a conversation with some of the participants of the cooking classes that led to Fortitude Culina, a culinary social enterprise for the visually impaired.

Founded in 2018, Fortitude Culina operates a café for private events, while the core team consists of visually impaired chefs who help design workspace and operational adaptations for the blind.

The company is also working with engineers to design assistive devices for the visually impaired to help them work at commercial standards.

Aaron, who is married and has two children, aged 9 and 4, tells The Pride: “We don’t want to run a café based on sympathy. So we need to improve the productivity of the blind and help them level up the playing field with the use of technology.”

“Finding the right working environment for the differently-abled is not easy though,” Aaron admits.

Alex Seow, head chef at Fortitude Culina, lost his vision due to a failed surgery. He was working in a commercial kitchen but found it hard to stay in the job because his ex-colleagues could not empathise with his loss of vision.

Since coming to Fortitude Culina, he’s found a home among others like himself.

“He’s always finding ways to help the visually impaired,” says Ernawati, another core team member at Fortitude Culina.

In 2018, Aaron also started the Singapore chapter of Cycling Without Age, a global movement to reduce social isolation for seniors by taking them out on a trishaw and facilitating inter-generational bonding with youths who pilot the trishaws. Before Covid-19 restrictions were in place, over 7,000 rides were clocked in two years.

Image source: Cycling Without Age SG

“The world is not exactly designed for empathy, especially in first-world countries that move at such a fast pace. I wish we could change to a slower gear and spend quality time with the differently abled, and see the world through a different lens,” Aaron says.

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Top Image: Image source: Derek Lim, Dipti Julka, Aaron Yeoh