Goodwill Building

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Helping villagers move tiles from earthquake-damaged homes to their temporary shelters.

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Three friends took the plunge to go on a disaster relief volunteer trip for the Szechuan earthquake; and found unexpected personal rewards.

By Melissa De Silva

T

hey had never gone on a disaster relief volunteer mission before, but Zhou Ji and his two friends went ahead anyway. The two Chinese nationals and one Singaporean went on a trip to Szechuan from 24 to 27 November 2013 as part of the CapitaLand Building for Tomorrow International Volunteer Expedition, in response to the earthquake that struck on 20 April 2013.

“The biggest challenge for us was the lack of experience in disaster and earthquake activities, and expertise in rebuilding houses. We were all worried if this was a task we could take on adequately,” says Zhou, 36, one of the Chinese nationals.

Zhou, Tang Zhong Hui, 42 and Rebecca Koh, 26, a Singaporean, became friends through the Singapore International Foundation’s (SIF) Singapore-China Young Business Ambassadors (YBA) Programme. Zhou, an alumnus of the YBA programme from 2010, and SIF’s alumni representative in Shanghai, sounded a rallying call during his re-appointment ceremony at the SIF Connects! Shanghai networking event in May 2013. He urged guests and YBA alumni present to join him in giving back to society and building a better world.

As serendipity would have it, it was at that very same event that he got acquainted with Lydia Ang, a Singaporean manager at the CapitaLand Hope Foundation (CHF) based in Shanghai, who was invited by SIF to meet with, and get to know the foundation’s Friends of Singapore community in Shanghai. It was Ang who introduced Zhou and his friends to the Foundation’s volunteer expedition to help rebuild homes affected by the Szechuan earthquake.

The disaster relief volunteers made a two-and-a-half-hour journey from Chengdu to Tiantaishan town, located 5 km from Lushan county, right at the epicentre of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that affected hundreds of thousands in the province. The volunteers dug foundations for new homes, helped villagers with building and relocation to temporary shelters, among other tasks.

The shared experience by the YBAs made their friendship even stronger. “The three of us have forged stronger bonds and strengthened our understanding of each other. Together with other volunteers, all three of us ate, worked and rested in unison; all striving towards the common goal of finishing what we needed to do. Through this experience, I realised the impact of teamwork and strength in numbers,” explains Zhou.

Ultimately, they found that the trip was about far more than rebuilding efforts. “Not only did we help the villagers with building temporary shelters and kick-start the work of rebuilding their homes, we also interacted with them, gave them care and support, and helped boost their confidence. At a deeper level, this collaboration among YBA alumni demonstrates the potential and possibilities of harnessing friendships to build a better world.”

The expedition was also a chance for Koh — one of the five Singaporean YBAs in Shanghai during the period for the business exchange programme — to experience rural living in China.

“I jumped at the chance and flew to Szechuan with Zhou and Tang to join a group of 80 volunteers from all walks of life. If I had not gone on this trip, I would not have had the chance to meet people from other parts of China, such as Chengdu, Harbin, and Beijing.”

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Singaporean YBA 2013 alumna Rebecca Koh (centre), who flew from Shanghai during her YBA attachment for the volunteer expedition, enjoying a lighthearted moment while digging trenches with fellow volunteers.

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“Although the villagers had very little to eat themselves, they were very hospitable and shared whatever they had with us and were more than generous.”

— Rebecca Koh, Singaporean YBA 2013 alumna


Besides the manual work, Koh also cherished the interaction with the villagers, recounting a session where she and other volunteers visited the homes of the villagers. “Although the villagers had very little to eat themselves, they were very hospitable and shared whatever they had with us and were more than generous.”

Koh also shared that the trip has inspired her to make volunteerism a bigger part of her life. “The experience made me think about what else I can contribute to society as an individual. It made me really cherish what I have and has inspired me to do more of such work in the future.”


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