With a large play area for children in her flat that has mini swing chairs, toys of all shapes and sizes and shelves meticulously stocked full with books, Madam Choo Kheng Huay’s home may look a lot like a daycare centre.
What it really is, however, is a safe haven for some children with nowhere else to go, a place that allows them to enjoy a normal childhood filled with laughter and learning amid unusual circumstances.
While Madam Choo and her husband Mr Lim Yook Gweek have four children in their 30s and 10 grandchildren of their own, they have also welcomed other children in need into their home over the past 16 years, loving and caring for them like their own.
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It all started when Madam Choo’s second daughter showed her an article in the papers highlighting the plight of a young child who did not have a safe home to return to.
As someone who loves children, the 62-year-old former childcare worker was heartbroken by the story, and it pained her even more to imagine that there were others out there in the same predicament.
So, even though these children were strangers, Madam Choo grew determined to help, and with her family’s encouragement, decided to learn more about fostering in Singapore.
Not long after attending the mandatory courses conducted for would-be foster parents by the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), the couple’s fostering journey began in 2002 with their first foster child – a seven-year-old boy.
Smiling at the memory, Madam Choo tells The Pride: “When we went to pick him up, I was very excited, but also nervous. I could see that the child felt the same way.”
As foster parents, Mr Lim and Madam Choo may have an abundance of love to give, but the children who come to them are not always ready to receive it.
In Mr Lim and Mdm Choo’s experience, they once brought home a three-year-old child who found it harder to adjust than others.
Mr Lim, 70, recalls: “Life at his own home was messy and difficult, and the experience put a lot of pressure on him. He came to us unhappy and fearful. He wouldn’t speak to anyone. At night, he would cry and even vomit out of fear, even though we tried to comfort him.”
But with lots of gentle coaxing, nods of encouragement and hugs of assurance, the child eventually began to open up.
“After two weeks, he became familiar with us and could tell that he was in a safe place. It was like a completely different child, seeing him chattering and laughing non-stop,” says Madam Choo.
Mr Lim observes: “Actually, children are simple. Treat them well and they will also treat you well. Talk to them, and they will soon open up and talk to you like a friend.”
Over the years, Mr Lim and Mdm Choo have welcomed 17 children into their home, including a four-year-old and eight-year-old currently under their care.
Life in their household is constantly buzzing with activity, as the couple also cares for four of their grandchildren in the day.
On a typical weekday, Madam Choo is up by 6am as she needs to prepare breakfast and make sure the children are ready for school. Mr Lim, a former taxi driver, is also kept busy throughout the day as he ferries the children to and from school and other appointments, like ukulele or swimming classes.
Sometimes, the monthly allowance of $936 that they receive from MSF for each foster child under their care is insufficient to cover the cost of such enrichment classes, but the couple will happily fork out their own money so that their foster children can pursue their interests.
Some of their more cynical relatives and friends have wondered about their decision to foster, calling it jiak ba ka eng (Hokkien for having too much time on one’s hands), but the couple isn’t deterred.
Mr Lim explains: “At our age, they think that it’s time to relax and enjoy our freedom, yet we chose to foster, which takes a lot of commitment. But we don’t see it as a problem. We can care for these children who need our help, and our own children are also very supportive. So we don’t feel restricted.”
Madam Choo agrees, saying: “Having the children around, playing with them and caring for them makes our life at home very lively and happy. There’s never a dull moment with them. It makes us feel younger, too.”
In Singapore, children are only placed in foster care when their own homes have become unsafe for them. According to the MSF website, this may mean that the child’s parents are no longer able to care for them due to reasons like imprisonment, illness or death. Some of the children could also have gone through traumatic experiences like abuse and abandonment.
To support foster parents, MSF foster care officers keep in regular contact through home visits and phone calls, and can help to arrange for access to resources like a child psychologist or volunteer who can coach the child in schoolwork. There is also a 24-hour hotline they can call during emergencies.
In time, the situation at their foster children’s natural homes may improve and the child will be ready to return to their natural family.
To help them ease into the process, foster care officers will arrange for the children to go home to stay with their families for short stints at a time, spread over several months before they move home for good.
It is a bittersweet moment when the children leave, as Mr Lim admits: “Watching them go, sometimes it’s sad enough for me to cry quietly on my own in a corner.”
But ultimately, as the couple has always believed, the children’s welfare and happiness come first.
Madam Choo explains: “When you’ve cared for the children and loved them for some time, you’ll definitely feel sad to see them go. But I also think, isn’t it a good thing that they can be reunited with their loved ones and live together as a family?
“So we are also happy for them, because leaving means that they now have a real chance to be happy, too.”