Please note that for this article, names and identifying details have been changed to protect the confidentiality of the clients mentioned.
When I used to work in the social services, I often worked with children from the poorest families.
Let me take you into the lives of one of them.
Joe is the third of five children. With her children aged one, two, four, five, and six respectively, Kathleen, the mother, was extremely stressed when I first met her.
When I first greeted Joe at his door, he was climbing up and down the metal gate. Walking into the one-room HDB rental flat, everything was cramped together. Just a few steps away from the television was the dining table. Just behind the table was the induction cooker.
The mattress the oldest child would sleep on was tucked towards the corner of the living room, whilst the floor was in a state of disarray with the many toys the children took out.
Kathleen tried to clear an area for me to sit on the floor. Embarrassed at the trouble I was causing her, I told her it was okay.
I’m supposed to make an assessment about how I can help best. Immediately the questions come fast.
“Why aren’t the children in preschool?”
She explains slowly that because they haven’t completed all their vaccinations, the preschool wouldn’t accept them.
Again I ask,
“Why haven’t they taken their vaccinations?”
Again, she responds calmly,
“Each time one of them has an appointment, another falls sick. With no one else to care for them, I have to skip the appointment.”
It sounded like a simple issue to solve.
But to the family with few financial resources, and little social support such as grandparents that could take care of the children, the greatest impact was perhaps on the children’s future.
Building a Circle of Care
That’s why Care Corner’s Circle of Care came about.
Aimed at building an ecosystem of care around low-income families, Circle of Care brings together social workers, educators, and healthcare professionals to support the needs of underprivileged families in a holistic way.
On 24 November 2023, Care Corner celebrated 10 years of impact together with partners at its conference “In The Making”.
Over the past 10 years, they served over 1100 children and their families. What was even more surprising was the research that showed a potential of up to seven times the Return on Investment. In other words, the costs of early intervention for children from low-income families would potentially pay forward up to seven times, in terms of a lifetime increase in earnings for children.
Why this work might matter to you
As you read this, perhaps you’re wondering why it matters to you. After all, you might not necessarily be working in the social services, and you’re thus unable to practically intervene. Or your family might not necessarily be low-income.
But ultimately, this matters because we want to create a Singapore where everyone can have dreams and have a reasonable chance of having those dreams come true.
In the recently released Forward SG report, one of the three key elements was:
More collective responsibility from all stakeholders — the Government doing more but businesses, community groups, families and individuals also doing their part to support and uplift those around us and ensure that Singapore remains strong and united for generations to come.
The minds of children are limitless. But sometimes when they grow up in less ideal environments, these dreams get repeatedly crushed. It might be through something as simple as not being able to afford the fees for the co-curricular activities at school, or the chance to buy a pair of football boots.
Whatever it is, these children might grow a sense of cynicism towards dreams. And slowly, they learn that dreams are unrealistic, and stop dreaming.
Working with Kathleen’s family, I saw what happened when we helped the children to enter preschool.
When we first brought him to the preschool, he had a meltdown, kicking out when we tried to take off his shoes.
But just a month later, he would put on his shoes at seven in the morning, wearing his uniform, waiting to go to school.
It Takes a Child to Raise a Village
Our children inspire us to do better.
How many times have we heard our children profess wacky dreams such as, “I want to be an astronaut!”, and gone on to encourage those dreams?
Our children’s dreams push us to get up and go to work, even when work is hard.
They push us to become greater versions of ourselves.
You Too, can Help
If there’s one thing Circle of Care showed, it was that beyond the adage “it takes a village to raise a child”, it also emphasised that it takes a child to raise a village.
There’s only so much professionals can do to help a child.
Beyond the weekly home visits that might perhaps last for two hours at most, the wider community can also play a role in sustaining the impact beyond professional intervention.
This is perhaps where the community you are part of can rise to be part of this child’s life.
Just Say Hi
In May 2022, I started playing street soccer with children aged seven to 16, at a hard court near my home.
There was little commitment. Turn up and play, and when the game ended, we would mumble a quick goodbye.
But as we began to spend more time together, I asked them about their studies, and how it was going.
Our relationship deepened as I would jokingly share about my failed romantic dates, and they would offer me advice on how to date better.
As we closed the year, one of the older uncles suggested that we organise a soccer tournament.
Internally, I thought, “How hard can it be? They love soccer and will definitely turn up!”
But it was hard work. We had to print flyers and motivate them to come. Eventually, more than 50 of them turned up on 1 Jan 2023.
Over the months spent interacting with them, they have asked me interesting questions such as:
- “What do you do at work?
- When you go overseas on a business trip, what do you actually need to do?
- Why do you work?”
One evening, as we were resting after a tough game, one teen said,
Hey Uncle John (yes, 27-year-olds get called uncles too),
“I think I want to be like you.”
I laughed. “Me? Why would you want to be like me?”
“Because you studied in university, and even went overseas…”
“I want to do that.”
As adults, we often don’t know how much children look up to us.
What we take as everyday experiences – traveling abroad, working, even paying for a restaurant meal without having to stumble at the cost, are sometimes insurmountable milestones to those who come from less privileged backgrounds.
Whilst we can’t always give them these experiences, we can show them that these experiences are possible as long as one is willing to put in the hard work.
Life isn’t fair. Sometimes, those that are less privileged start with a poorer set of cards to navigate life. But when we are faced with a problem as complex as social inequality, we might sometimes feel inept at doing anything.
We don’t have to do big things. If Circle of Care shows us anything, it is that small things, done for a long time, often yield better outcomes than grand gestures.
This Christmas, you might want to take some time to say hi to the child you see at the neighbourhood park. You could ask,
“How old are you?
“What would you like to be when you grow up?”
And when you hear the answer, don’t just thank him and wave goodbye.
Keep the conversation going. Next week, and the next.
You might be surprised at where that leads.