Lessons in Empathy
Etch Empathy champions social understanding by making participants walk in the shoes of communities that need assistance.
BY DESIREE KOH
t all begins with 18 young adults and students grooving to the music of American pop icon Bruno Mars. But once they start getting comfortable with one another, their activities take an unexpected turn.
The participants are asked to dance while wearing suits designed to restrict movement. Other tasks they try to complete: Play a game of broken telephone with their ears covered by mufflers, and thread needles while donning blackout glasses.
These are all parts of a programme designed by Aaron Yeoh, director of Etch Empathy, to demonstrate to potential volunteers what the process of ageing feels like.
“Cultivating social awareness starts with stepping into the shoes of the people we’re helping, and ensures sustainable commitment to community service,” says Yeoh, who established Etch Empathy in 2013 to foster better understanding of vulnerable communities such as the visually impaired, elderly and needy.
The Singapore-based social enterprise designs programmes that highlight the social challenges faced by these communities.
“During simulations, you see participants get upset, frightened or even exhibit withdrawal symptoms, as they move out of their comfort zone to experience what the needy go through,” shares Yeoh.
The trained engineer is no stranger to adversity: His family suffered financial hardship when he was in primary school, causing them to be discriminated against by their own relatives. But what really motivated Yeoh to get involved in community service was witnessing the effects of poverty on people during the global financial crisis in 2009. His first major foray into volunteering involved helping to build sanitation systems in Cambodia. Then in 2013, after gaining experience in guiding youth volunteers, he set up Etch Empathy with the vision of a more humane society.
Despite his lack of formal training in social work, Yeoh embarked on Etch, driven by the determination to inspire social awareness in Singaporeans. What underlines his simulation exercises is the notion that innovation and leadership skills can be nurtured through failure. To bring authenticity to these sessions, Yeoh often hires facilitators who are visually impaired or come from the low-income bracket.
“ Cultivating social awareness starts with stepping into the shoes of the people weʼre helping, and ensures sustainable commitment to community service. ”
Aaron Yeoh, director of Etch Empathy
Being a one-man show, he naturally faced – and still struggles with – funding issues. But Yeoh is encouraged by data collected by the Singapore University of Technology and Design, which confirmed that his simulation exercises not only helped to build empathy in participants but also generated creativity in problem-solving.
But that’s just one piece of the puzzle. Recognising the limitations of being a singular social enterprise striving to “alleviate poverty, one family at a time”, Yeoh strongly believes in tri-sector partnerships that leverage all available resources and skill sets to achieve common goals.
From 2015 to 2017, Etch Empathy mentored volunteers from the Youth Corps Singapore, a non-profit organisation working in Vientiane, Laos.
Through its Project Shine-A-Light programme, 16 volunteers helped to enhance living and learning standards for students at Home of Light, a school for the visually impaired. Etch Empathy drew upon funding from the National Youth Council (NYC), while Lao Rehabilitation Foundation provided on-the-ground logistics.
“I chose to do this with Home of Light because I felt that the [problems of the] visually impaired are less well-known, compared to other groups,” says Wang Chiew Hui, one of the volunteers on the programme.
Through the two-year-long programme, the teams from Etch and Youth Corps kick-started and led a blind futsal programme – the first time these students were able to play a sport – and trained them in art and music. They also taught the students how to use laptops, and built a library housing books in braille.
Initially, the Home of Light executive director was skeptical of the Singaporean youths’ ability to take on projects outside their comfort zone. But by the end of their third visit to the school, however, Yeoh shares that he was sending the team off with tearful hugs.
“They reciprocated our language of love, spoken through the perseverance to succeed in the mission while learning new skills on the ground,” he shares.
“These overseas expeditions encapsulate how we leverage the strengths of each partner to complete our mission. There is a non-profit organisation with infrastructure and beneficiaries already in place, a grant-giving government statutory board, and Etch to train volunteers to prepare them for everything from overcoming cultural differences to executing contingency plans.”
Edmond Kwek, who manages NYC’s programmes and partnerships, says: “The youth are really thankful for Yeoh’s guidance, whose methods resonate with them. We’re open to these inventive ways of enabling our youth to serve with compassion.” Today, Yeoh has expanded his portfolio to include a position on the board of Cycling Without Age, a Singapore-based lifestyle movement that provides companionship – to lonely seniors and those facing mobility issues – via trishaw rides provided by volunteers. He also partners former Etch intern Olenka Lim to train the visually impaired in kitchen skills at Culina Fortitude, and runs the Singapore edition of The Human Library, a dialogue to challenge stereotypes and prejudices.
In the future, he hopes to establish a permanent home for Etch Empathy, where a larger number of programmes and simulation exercises can run concurrently. For now, Etch has left its mark on more than 3,000 participants, sowing the seeds of long-term commitment to community service.
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