The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year 2015 award: Dad gets the ball rolling by helping at-risk kids

The Straits Times Singaporean of the Year 2015 award: Dad gets the ball rolling by helping at-risk kids
Mr Ang Thiam Hock, 52.
PHOTO: ST, Alicia Chan

Mr Ang Thiam Hock has watched many of the children in his estate grow up, as well as his own son.

The former sales consultant stopped work around six years ago and spends much of his time running a group that helps children at risk and co-managing a company that hires former offenders.

It all started over 10 years ago when he began playing street football with his son, then eight years old, in Taman Jurong.

Their nightly games attracted other children to join in, many from underprivileged and dysfunctional families who lived in rental units in old Housing Board blocks in the area.

"A lot of neighbourhood kids started to join us because they had no football ball," said the 52-year-old.

They started at a multi-purpose hall before moving to a court near his five-room flat. Older youth also joined in.

One day, Deputy Prime Minister and Taman Jurong MP Tharman Shanmugaratnam chanced upon Mr Ang and his family at the Taman Jurong hawker centre. After finding out what he had been doing, the minister persuaded him to get into grassroots work.

Knowing that football was a healthy distraction, Mr Ang began organising leagues for the children during the school holidays and opening up his home to help them stay away from trouble.

"Over time, we built trust. But it takes years," said Mr Ang, who twice helped two early school-leavers return to school. He was also a go-to person for others, helping them with matters such as registering on the national-service portal and signing up for a SingPass.

Eventually, he found himself helming two outfits.

One is Gift of Development, co- founded in 2011 with entrepreneur Maurice Alphonso and fighter pilot Shawn Ingkiriwang. It provides a space for vulnerable youth to study and get help with schoolwork from a group of volunteers.

Another is woodwork company Aestiwood, co-managed by Taman Jurong community volunteer Patrick Chan. The company hires former offenders, including some who did time for taking drugs or for their involvement in secret society activities.

Looking back, Mr Ang said: "I would not have been able to do this without my family's support."

His wife helps out at the Gift of Development centre when many children turn up, by providing them with newspapers, reading to them stories and helping them with homework.

Up to 40 children use the centre, though not all are regulars.

"Almost every night, we would discuss the things that happened in the street football court, talk about some of the kids and what they are doing," he said.

"There was a lot of stress initially, because of a lack of income."

Mr Ang has been living on his savings since quitting his job.

But helping the people in his community has not been a one-way street. "What I didn't expect was how it benefited my son," he said of Qi An, now 17. The teen's involvement with his father's community work has helped him develop a strong social conscience.

Seeing the children's progress is what keeps Mr Ang going.

One of the seven children who visited the learning centre when it first started still goes there now.

He said: "Indirectly, we've watched the kids grow up."

This article was first published on Jan 11, 2016.
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