When Ms Tan Sze Ying helps the low-income families under her charge, she can say she truly understands their hardship.
After all, the 25-year-old befriender with the Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC) has gone through tough times herself.
Yesterday, Ms Tan's story of personal struggle in a single-parent household - and achievements - were shared by CDAC chairman and Health Minister Gan Kim Yong at the self-help group's 10th Volunteers' Day lunch, where more than 140 volunteers were honoured for their contributions.
Thanking the volunteers, Mr Gan said: "The compassion that you have shown to our beneficiaries through your words and actions will go a long way to help them be more confident in meeting their challenges in life.
"It also reflects the values we uphold as a community."
For Ms Tan, help came from Mrs Toh Sian Chow, 64, a befriender at CDAC who was assigned to her family eight years ago.
Ms Tan was preparing for her O levels when her elder sister disappeared after leaving her two young sons - a baby and a toddler - with their mother, who became depressed and suicidal as a result.
"Mrs Toh gave my family hope," Ms Tan told The Straits Times. "I don't think my mother would have survived that period if not for Mrs Toh and CDAC."
Mrs Toh still remembers when she first visited the family's cluttered four-room Housing Board flat in Bedok. To save on their utility bills, Ms Tan, her mother and the two young boys all squeezed into one bedroom, to avoid switching on the lights and fans in the other rooms.
Said Mrs Toh, a human resource officer at Temasek Polytechnic: "Sze Ying was studying in one corner, and I thought, 'This girl is very strong; even when her house is so chaotic, she can still concentrate'."
Mrs Toh, who has a diploma in counselling, became a friend to the family and talked Ms Tan's mother out of her suicidal thoughts.
She spent about four years with them, visiting them almost every month, sometimes with food. She also typed and printed out encouraging quotes for them. She stopped visiting only after Ms Tan's mother sent her a message saying they "can now stand on their own two feet".
Mrs Toh said: "Sze Ying told me that she wanted to prove that growing up in a single-parent family does not make her any different, and I think that she has done it."
Ms Tan, who did well enough in her O levels to go to Temasek Junior College, is now paying her mentor's kindness forward.
Currently doing her master's degree in clinical psychology at the National University of Singapore, she is working with the CDAC on ways to improve the befriending programme.
"I think I have the advantage of being an insider. I can understand where the beneficiaries' worries come from," she said.
This article was first published on Sep 22, 2014.
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