Thu, Jan 21, 2010
The Straits Times
Looking for long-term volunteers

By Grace Chua

NEARLY every fortnight, a different group of students descends on the Institute of Mental Health ward where I volunteer.

At least I think it's a different group each time - none of them sticks around long enough for me to recognise them.

According to recent news accounts, the student and youth volunteerism rate is 23 per cent, somewhat better than the national average of 17 per cent. And it's commendable that social awareness and activism among young people are on the rise.

But here's what happens when ad-hoc student volunteers show up: They've planned out the afternoon right down to the games and the handicrafts. But they have no idea what activities are appropriate for mental health patients.

Trying to get patients to sit still and read songs off a lyrics sheet is tough enough. Trying to line them up to play an elaborate game involving balls and plastic spoons - well, it's like herding cats.

Are the intrepid volunteers better prepared for next time? No, they've racked up their token few hours in the ward and never darken its door again.

I appreciate the fact that these junior college and polytechnic students are genuinely trying to make patients' lives better. But working with human beings calls for a long-term commitment.

On visits to old folks' homes for a half-day's worth of community service during my secondary school days, I recall standing around, unable to speak Teochew or Cantonese, getting under the nurses' feet, and vowing 'never again'.

But what mental ward patients - and senior citizens or anyone else who is cooped up in a home or ward - want are lasting relationships.

Long-time volunteers bond with the patients; we recognise who's a lovely singer and who's talented at art, and know who is diabetic and can't take sweets.

And they recognise us and give us hugs and high-fives when we arrive.

Even the organisers of one-off activities wish they were more than that.

The people in charge of the International Coastal Cleanup, for instance, say they'd rather have people doing monthly or quarterly clean-ups and being conscious of beach cleanliness year-round, rather than an annual event that does nothing about litter for the next 12 months.

While one-time community service activities raise awareness - acting as a 'taster' for students to discover their interests - the real measure of their success comes from students who stay on, and bring friends.

Why not have ongoing community projects which students can take part in for a couple of years, before passing the torch on to their juniors?

That's already happening at some schools. The Raffles Girls' School Monkey Business project, a group that raises awareness of Singapore's long-tail macaques, for example, was a cause started by students two years ago and continued by current students.

Young people must pick volunteer schemes that fit in with their interests and the amount of time they can spare.

It's not about hours, points or resume credibility. It's about the real people and communities we're trying to serve.

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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