Eyes glued to their iPhones, five secondary school students were so engrossed in playing mobile games and puffing cigarettes at a Tampines void deck that they did not notice three youth workers approaching.
They barely batted an eyelid when they saw them. Smiling in recognition, they automatically moved over to make space for the workers at the stone table.
One girl showed youth worker Teresa Quek, 24, pictures of them playing a prank on their friend on his 17th birthday while another showed youth worker Low Kar Leong, 35, how to download the game he was playing. Ms Quek and Mr Low are part of a roving team that patrols neighbourhoods in the North East District. They are social workers from voluntary welfare organisation Care Corner Singapore and pound the streets until the small hours, befriending youth at places where they hang out.
Once a rapport has been built, they try to counsel those deemed to be at risk. To break the ice, they show them magic tricks, join in skateboarding and teach them how to juggle or play the guitar.
Modelled on established street outreach services overseas, the idea is for them to help young people in a casual and flexible way instead of via formal counselling sessions.
"Understanding and resolving the issues they grapple with early helps keep them on the right side of the law," said Mr Low.
The scheme is part of a $1.2 million pilot programme, funded by the Government, called Youth GO!.
Mr Low said it takes a great deal of time and effort to get some youngsters to open up. When the team first approached the Tampines group a few months ago, they were either ignored completely or greeted with icy stares.
The coldness thawed only after a youth worker went to buy ice from a nearby coffee shop when a girl hurt her hand playing a game. From that moment, the young people did not reject their company.
Two weeks ago, when The Straits Times tagged along with the team, the youth workers shared study tips and gently nudged the group towards adopting better habits.
While the rest were smoking cigarettes from packets, one teenager was busy rolling his own. "It costs just $5 to roll 80 cigarettes," he bragged. Another rebutted: "By the time you finish rolling, I would have smoked three packets."
Mr Low took that chance to jokingly add: "But that also means he dies slower lah!"
Mr Low said it is important to seize the right moments to guide them so that it does not come across as preaching.
This same buddy comradeship enabled Mr Low to interrupt another group of boys doing stunts on bicycles and ask: "How's life?"
The candid reply: "Got another case." The 18-year-old shared how he had been hauled up by the police for another stealing case.
Instead of probing what the youth did, Mr Low chose to show his support by checking if anyone is going with him to court. Eventually, when it was time for the team to continue their patrols, the boy gave the most succinct form of appreciation: "Why go so early?"
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