It’s a second-hand bookstore nestled among the other shops that cater to the small but steady stream of visitors to Ng Teng Fong General Hospital.

The smell of freshly baked muffins is in the air. Two young employees are busy sorting out donated books that have just arrived. With them are Wendy Goh, 55 and her son Yong En, 27, a mother-son team who run the second-hand bookshop, bustling around the small area stacking books and attending to customers.

But there’s another detail that sets them apart.

Yong En has Marfan Syndrome and childhood epilepsy, which continued into his teen years.

Jie Cheng (left) and Yong En
Diginity Mama’s Jie Cheng (left) and Yong En. Image source: Dignity Mama

Wendy tells the Pride that they have been running the NTFGH branch of the Dignity Mama bookstores since December 2016. The shop, about the size of a 3-room flat, is furnished with sponsored IKEA shelves and furniture and not only sells books, but also muffins and cookies baked on-site by the staff.

But while the work is meaningful and satisfying, the greatest benefit of working at Dignity Mama is being able to work with her son, says Wendy.

“To be able to work with our child is a major advantage because we know our child best,” she tells The Pride.

Part of Project Dignity

Wendy and Yong En
Wendy and Yong En. Image source: Dignity Mama

Dignity Mama is an offshoot of social enterprise Project Dignity, which takes its name from its mission: To restore dignity to the disadvantaged and differently-abled.

Wendy and Yong En had joined Dignity Kitchen in 2012 as cleaners at the food court concept that employed the differently-abled and disadvantaged. That was the first time that Wendy was able to work next to her son.

But founder Koh Seng Choon wanted to start a second concept: A “mama shop” selling magazines, snacks and souvenirs (like traditional Indian mamak shops). He asked Wendy if she and Yong En would consider managing the shop corner at Dignity Kitchen.

This was the beginning of Dignity Mama, and Wendy and Yong En became the first mother-and-child team managing the business.

Seng Choon tells The Pride: “When a mother has a child with a disability, it’s a tough situation. Everyone focuses on the child. But people forget about the mother and the caregiver’s role is very difficult. I wanted to help the mothers, and create something for the mothers.”

He adds that he is looking to set up more branches as there are more mother-child teams waiting.

“Hospitals are ideal locations because the environment is friendly, and very secure. There are cameras everywhere. And if the children are unwell, they are already at a place where doctors are present.”

Today, there are four Dignity Mama branches, all in hospitals. They are run by a 26-member team (12 mother-child pairs, with two special-needs adults who do not need supervision), where all the adult children have varying disabilities.

At Dignity Mama, the children are full-fledged staff, working from 25 to 38 hours a week depending on the roster, divided into six-hour shifts. Their mothers get paid too, some even getting a full-time salary if they can commit the time.

It’s no surprise that people often assume the “mama” in Dignity Mama refers to the mothers who form the backbone of the second-hand bookstore chain.

Dream come true

Yong En baking
Yong En baking. Image source: Dignity Mama

For Wendy, it has been a dream come true, because she has always been on the search for a suitable vocation for Yong En ever since he graduated from his special-needs education school at 18.

Like many parents with adult special-needs children, finding the right job is a challenge as there are limited employment opportunities for those who are differently abled.

But Wendy refused to give up; she channelled the same determination she had while caring for Yong En since he was diagnosed with epilepsy as an infant.

Before Yong En left APSN Delta Senior School, he was exposed to various types of jobs through industrial attachments, but could not find the right fit.

He found that the hospitality sector didn’t suit him as he was easily distracted and could not cope with the pace of work. During an industrial attachment at a commercial laundry service, he was miserable because of the warm environment from the round-the-clock dryers, and could not cope with the task of folding linens.

Even a job that required him to pack stationery in a factory, which Wendy had thought was straightforward enough, did not suit him as it required a lot of concentration, and he would get scolded for packing the wrong items.

Which is why she is so grateful that Dignity Mama was such a good fit for them.

When they started at the first branch – a push-cart at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH) – the naturally friendly and caring environment created a relaxed vibe, with the hospital staff and patients often stopping to chat with Yong En and his colleagues.

Push-cart at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital
Push-cart at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital. Image source: Dignity Mama

But the real key to Dignity Mama’s success so far is how it allows mother and child to work together, relying on the mutual support that the mothers give to one another.

This tailor-made experience is what drew another “mama” team – Chan Peck Yoke, and her daughter, Shu Yi – to Dignity Mama.

Run by intellectually disabled young adults

Shu Yi and Peck Yoke
Shu Yi (left) and Peck Yoke. Image source: Dignity Mama

Peck Yoke, 64, and Shu Yi, 27, who has Down syndrome, are part of the team that manages the store at NUH Medical Centre. All the children at this branch are intellectually disabled and are graduates of APSN Delta Senior School and MINDS.

Peck Yoke explained that every child comes with different strengths and weaknesses.

“We don’t harp on their weaknesses, instead we focus on their strengths. Some can categorise books really well, some can shelve books very neatly. Others have photographic memory and can remember off-hand what’s in stock when a customer asks. It’s a team with complementary skills,” Peck Yoke tells The Pride.

It’s also a learning experience for the “mamas” themselves! Most of them have never run a bookstore or even a business before since all of them became stay-home mums when their children were born.

Daily tasks

Each branch adopts the same daily protocols, some of which have been designed by Wendy and Peck Yoke.

“We know our children’s limitations, so we’ve streamlined processes to suit them,” Wendy says.

Simple forms for daily cashing in and out were designed so that they were easy to understand. For example, all prices are to the nearest 50 cents or dollar. Everything is rostered – one staff member opens the cashier’s till in the morning, while a different staff member will calculate the day’s takings at the end of the day.

Sorting, cleaning, pricing and shelving books form the bulk of their daily work. Even though the staff don’t read well, they have learnt how to categorise the books by topic and author. The parent caregivers are still on hand to sieve out inappropriate content.

NUH Team
The team at the NUH branch. Image source: Dignity Mama

“A lot of repetition is required to train them, and it’s best to find a fun way to teach them, rather than scolding them. The children enjoy the exposure and experience. I’m comforted when customers come and praise my team, especially when they are able to help them find the right books,” says Peck Yoke.

There is one task that everyone enjoys though. “Everybody loves being the cashier!” Peck Yoke laughs.

Teaching them to smile and say thank you can be difficult for the non-verbal staff , but it is something the adult caregivers persist in training them to do.

Often, the same strength is also their weakness. “They can be very orderly and good with routines. But they are also not flexible in adapting to unexpected situations,” says Wendy.

Like when there is a difficult customer, for example. That is when the “mamas” are on hand to help diffuse problems.

“There have been customers who change price tags around, hoping to make off with a cheaper book. Then there are impatient customers who challenge the staff about their change, even though it is not their mistake,” says Wendy.

“It’s hurtful, but we bounce back. We have to.”

Branching out and hiring more teams

At NTFGH, the team of young adults at this branch deal with disabilities such as autism, impaired vision and mental conditions. There is a Quiet room, which they call the “Q-room”, for moments where staff need to have a moment to be alone or to cool down when they get agitated.

Wendy found managing the staff with mental conditions more challenging than handling the special-needs adults, because she has to deal with their occasional outbursts.

“I’m not professionally trained to counsel them but I can offer a mother’s heart. I try not to take it personally when the outbursts are directed at me. Yong En has made me a compassionate mother,” Wendy said, who sometimes takes a walk with the staff to calm them down if they get upset.

As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. At Dignity Mama, the mamas support each other, and they are comfortable when fellow mothers have to guide or discipline each other’s children.

Shu Yi
Shu Yi working the cashier’s till. Image source: Dignity Mama

“All the mamas have learnt from one another. It’s all trial and error with parenting, especially with special-needs children, and I’ve picked up good parenting practices myself,” Peck Yoke said.

For example, Peck Yoke says that she used to complete Shu Yi’s sentences for her because of their close bond. But after she saw other mothers wait expectantly for their children to complete sentences before responding, she realised that it helped them articulate their ideas better. She now gives Shu Yi more time to verbalise her thoughts without rushing her.

The Dignity Mama concept, of allowing parents of special-needs children to work with them in a protected space, has been successful enough that it has gone international.

In January this year, Dignity Mama set up its first overseas branch in Hong Kong, and the local mamas had a Zoom conference with their overseas counterparts to share guidelines and tips.

The mamas and their children at Dignity Mama’s first branch in HK. Image source: Dignity Mama

For Peck Yoke, Dignity Mama represents hope for parents and their special-needs children. “These children can do it if you just give them time and guide them.”

Says Wendy: “I hope we can have more Dignity Mama branches, and more understanding landlords who can offer us retail spaces. I want to invite more mothers and their special-needs children to come and work with us.”

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Top Image: Image source: Dignity Mama