Life Hacks

Volunteer Gio Jason Tarlac (centre), installing a solar panel for a homeowner on Koh Phdao island.

Engineering Good, a Singapore non-profit organisation, implements innovative solutions to improve the lives of disadvantaged communities at home and abroad.

BY SOL E SOLOMON
PHOTOS CHERRY GOH, TEAM ONE CLAP
 

S

ingaporean Hannah Leong, who was trained as a sustainable energy engineer, believes in leaving the world a better place than when she found it. So, in 2014, she set up a non-profit organisation called Engineering Good to provide opportunities for those in her profession to apply their skills in service projects.

She says: “I guess this is what keeps me internally motivated – that the work we are doing is aligned with my personal long-term goal.”

At home, Engineering Good works with various special needs schools to understand the needs and challenges of people with disabilities, in order to develop technology that helps them live more independently.

In its Hack-a-Toy project, volunteers attach large push buttons to toys that have small power buttons so that children with special needs can easily activate them and not miss out on play. Therapists can also use the toys to encourage the children to make certain movements and improve their motor skills.

Engineering Good also works with teachers from the Cerebral Palsy Alliance Singapore School to create equipment that will enable students to conduct science experiments as part of their curriculum.


ENGAGING COMMUNITIES

In its work overseas, Leong, who is the executive director of Engineering Good, says it puts a premium on understanding the needs of those they help. She says: “We don’t want to be coming in with our values, our way of getting things done, our high-tech equipment, and imposing these on them. We need to have humility and an open mind to learn first, then after that, see how we can contribute what we know, transfer knowledge and build their capacity.”

Overseas, Engineering Good works with Youth Corps Singapore (YCS), a national institution that supports young people keen to volunteer their time and skills. They are now collaborating on two projects in Cambodia. YCS also helps to provide 80 per cent of the funding for both projects.

The first project, Energy for Cambodia, started in December last year, and helps to provide power to the community on Koh Phdao island on the Mekong River. Together with local non-governmental organisation (NGO) Cambodian Rural Development Team, volunteers installed solar power systems and trained the villagers on their use during their 10 days there.

Previously, villagers depended either on kerosene lamps or candles for their light source. Some also relied on car batteries to power the light bulbs in their house, says volunteer Gio Jason Tarlac, 21, a student from ITE College Central’s School of Engineering. Born in the Philippines, Tarlac has been living in Singapore since he was 12 and is a permanent resident.

Before starting the project, Tarlac and eight other volunteers – mostly students and fresh graduates from tertiary institutions – interviewed the villagers to find out their needs. Through this exercise, the volunteers learnt that the villagers also need electricity to power their fans during the dry season. But because most of the villagers earn only US$1 to US$2 a day, recharging their batteries daily is too costly for them.

Dividing themselves into two groups, the volunteers erected the solar panels and wired up the houses. They helped to install solar panels for seven families in the village. When it was all over, one family threw a big party to celebrate. Many of those present also thanked the volunteers personally for their help.

“It’s always a mix of emotions whenever the villagers express their gratitude for the work we’ve done. Mostly, I feel satisfied and blessed as we made them happy and had a positive impact on their daily lives. The feeling is addictive, and I feel I can do more to provide my assistance to others,” says Tarlac. In return, the Cambodians taught him the Khmer language, as well as the value of humility and how to appreciate all that he has been given. He says: “It helped me to grow as a person. We’re often not aware of the challenges other people face. Only when you’re exposed to such projects do you realise how lucky you are.”

The volunteer team hands over a battery to one of the community cooks on Koh Phdao island. Families whose homes did not have any electricity received batteries that were collected from houses installed with solar power systems.


TAPPING LOCAL KNOWLEDGE

The second project also took place last December. Over 10 days, Engineering Good worked with the NGO Rainwater Cambodia to bring safer drinking water to Sre Chea village in Kampot province in south-west Cambodia.

Singaporean Thye Yoke Pean and 14 YCS volunteers – students and working adults – installed rainwater harvesting systems for 15 households in the village. The team taught the beneficiaries how to operate and maintain the systems, and ran campaigns at the local school to promote the use of clean water.

Before the project, some volunteers went on a reconnaissance trip to better understand the needs of the villagers. Engineering Good also worked closely with Rainwater Cambodia throughout the project to ensure that its plans were appropriate to the situation.

“We relied a lot on Rainwater Cambodia for advice because they had the local knowledge and networks, rather than us deciding what the best solution was,” says Thye, who is pursuing her doctorate in emergency sanitation at Indonesia’s Bandung Institute of Technology and is the international programmes coordinator of Engineering Good.

Her stint allowed her to better understand how the villagers live. She says: “This kind of understanding helps bring people from different cultures closer together. As a sanitation enthusiast, I really enjoyed it when our host showed us his sanitation facilities, namely, the toilets he had built and designed himself, and the biogas reactor where he would put manure to produce gas for the stove.”
 

“Itʼs always a mix of emotions whenever the villagers express their gratitude for the work weʼve done. Mostly, I feel satisfied and blessed as we made them happy and had a positive impact on their daily lives.”


Engineering Good volunteer Gio Jason Tarlac

ABOVE: Hannah Leong and a volunteer wiring up a house on the island.

Aside from contributing as volunteers, Thye’s team also helped to fund the rainwater harvesting by raising S$3,400 through online crowdfunding and donations from friends and family. The rest of the cost, about S$13,500, was covered by a YCS grant.

Thye says Engineering Good’s projects provide much-needed funding to poorly resourced NGOs and communities as well as provide skills and knowledge that local communities lack, beyond simply providing manual labour.

Engineering Good plans to return to Koh Phdao with Cambodian Rural Development Team in May to provide more solar home systems and to Sre Chea with Rainwater Cambodia this June. For now, it has no firm plans to expand its work elsewhere as it wants to focus on building up its relationships with the two Cambodian partners.

Says Leong: “I hope that by staying close to the ground, responding to local needs and designing with the end users in mind, we can create real impact through our work. Through skills-based volunteering, outreach and education, we also hope to shape perceptions of engineering, both within and outside the engineering community, as a profession that can and does make a positive difference to the world.”

 


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