While most of us volunteer for the first time only in our teens or adulthood, the same social awakening came much earlier for Jolene Gina Abelarde.
From the age of seven, she would tag along with her grandmother to do various types of community work. The Ngee Ann Polytechnic (NP) graduate, now 20, recalled: “We did things like bringing the elderly to visit Sentosa, and at that point I remember thinking that I was making such a big difference.”
This perception held true until a trip with her schoolmates to Laos in 2011, where they helped in the painting of a local school. After completing the project, the students had left the school when Abelarde realised that she had left behind a personal belonging.
Together with a teacher, she backtracked to the school only to discover that the locals were painting over the students’ work and redoing the paint job.
Abelarde told The Pride: “That was the moment I felt that despite all these differences we think we’re making, we may not really be doing anything.
“Our work was pretty slipshod and most of us were just there to have fun. To the locals who live there, it was ugly and badly done, and made more of a negative impact than anything.”
The incident would forever change the young student’s view of community service. So sparked Abelarde’s passion for long-term volunteering, as she grew determined to make a more tangible impact.
Every year since that fateful trip in Secondary Two, she has returned to Laos, one of the world’s poorest countries, either as part of a school entourage or on her own itinerary with a small group of friends.
In school, Abelarde often spoke out against organising trips for students to go overseas and build schools, saying: “It takes a lot of work away from the locals and robs them of a chance to earn a living because we do it for free. And if we do it badly, someone else goes back and does it for free again.”
Before we run away with the idea that all short-term volunteering projects are bad, though, Abelarde qualified this by saying: “They’re not all bad, because any kind of awareness brought to a third-world country is a great thing.”
Instead, she thinks these initiatives should be approached with the right mindset and intentions, musing: “Are we really helping them or helping ourselves?
“I came to the realisation that for some of these trips, it has become about helping ourselves because we want to leave thinking that we’re so blessed to be in Singapore, and to have shelter and schools already built for us.”
Now a fresh graduate of NP’s Mass Communication course, Abelarde is about to take her bid to do good to another level. Next month, she will embark on a six-month trip to Cambodia to volunteer with AHHA Education, a non-government organisation that runs education and community programmes in underdeveloped countries like Cambodia, Laos and Timor Leste.
It was not a decision that came easily to Abelarde, who has always fared well in school and was even a scholar at her polytechnic. In a Singapore system that fixates on good grades and working towards a well-paying career, she struggled with the weight of casting it all aside to pursue her passion for volunteering.
“As a polytechnic student, I already feel that I’m behind my peers by a year. By taking this path, it’s completely possible, and very plausible, that my peers will become my bosses.
“It’s not a nice feeling,” she admitted.
Like most protective Singaporean parents, her mother disapproved when Abelarde first floated the idea to her. By then, she had already received a scholarship offer, along with a place at a good university. Ironically, it was when she was first filling out scholarship applications that the idea of taking a gap year to volunteer first took form.
With a self-awareness that belies her young age, Abelarde said: “I had written and and spoken extensively about the negative impact of short-term volunteer projects in other countries. I also mentioned it a lot in my applications because it’s something I’m really passionate about. Then I thought, why am I not doing something about it?”
Feeling like a “hypocrite”, Abelarde promptly threw out her applications, and resolved to put her education on hold to volunteer overseas. Equipped with the skills honed in polytechnic, like writing, photography and design, she was confident about adding value to the beneficiaries of the AHHA Education programme in Cambodia.
Her conviction has since rubbed off her mother. The pharmacist by profession is now more worried about whether her daughter is well-equipped to fend off any potential diseases or illnesses while abroad.
While Mum took some time to warm up, Dad had cheered her on from the very start. An avid traveller before he suddenly passed away a few months ago, Abelarde’s father encouraged her to widen her horizons.
She said: “My dad was always very supportive of what I was doing, and I think (following through) would be a good way to honour him.”
In Cambodia, Abelarde will be teaching English to locals from all ages and backgrounds with an interest in the subject, be they children, young adults or even monks. On her third month, she plans to roll out a community development project with AHHA Education that hopes to empower the voices of the beneficiaries.
An avid photographer herself, Abelarde’s project will involve giving her students a film camera and getting them to capture photos of their own to be compiled into a photobook. She explained: “I feel like it would give them a kind of purpose and pride that they sometimes lose when they’re being taught, especially by someone younger than them.”
With so much she hopes to do overseas, has Abelarde considered making a similar difference at home?
Not keen on internships with nonprofits lest the experience becomes just like a job, it’s been challenging to find full-time volunteer work in Singapore. She explained: “I would mostly spend my days doing nothing because most causes require volunteers only in the evenings or over the weekends. This is the main reason why I chose to go overseas.”
That’s not to say that the spunky young woman has given up on supporting causes at home. In the coming months, she will be working as a satellite journalist for local community group Between Two Homes while in Cambodia. Between Two Homes is a group of volunteers who lend aid and document the stories of needy residents who moved out of Dakota Crescent due to redevelopment plans last year.
With plans to study public policy or international relations after her gap year, Abelarde sees herself eventually working in the nonprofit or social work sector, and is even thinking of kickstarting a movement in Singapore that encourages people to volunteer more.
On why she hopes more youths, and adults, would warm up to the idea of volunteering, she said: “I really think that volunteering adds another dimension to your life.
“Working with your community, it brings you out of your own world, and when you start looking and helping other people, you live for more than yourself.”