Young Heroes

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Serene Koh (circled) organised an expedition to West Bengal, India in 2010. She was accompanied by 10 youth aged between 15 and 22. They spent 10 days building an extension to the Kolbung Primary School in Kolakham Village in Neora Valley.

From this year, young Singaporeans will have more opportunities to do good locally and overseas through a new national initiative — Volunteer Youth Corps, that is scheduled to launch in the coming months.

By Cynthia Chung

S

ome young people like Cindy Chng and Serene Koh got a head start in volunteering through structured programmes. They started out as volunteers with the Young Expedition Programme (YEP) during their university years. Both went on overseas expeditions to Thailand and China, organised by National Youth Council (NYC), which supports service missions undertaken by students and youth (between 15 and 35) to China, India and ASEAN countries.

Thilagavaani d/o Bakavathi, a second year Chemical Process Technology ITE student, had the opportunity to volunteer with the Singapore International Foundation’s (SIF’s) Water for Life project in Cambodia in 2013. This was part of a collaboration between the SIF and the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) entered into in August 2013, that will make overseas volunteers out of ITE College East students. They will be able to contribute to sustainable development through this project by building bio-sand filters, which enable Cambodian households to gain access to clean drinking water. The collaboration also provides a platform for pilot testing of ITE-designed water cleaning technology. In 2013, 50 ITE students volunteered with the project.

For other students without the means or opportunity to be involved in such volunteer programmes, they can look forward to participating in volunteer youth corps — a new national do-good initiative, targeted to launch in early 2014. Directed at the youth, it aims to nurture a civic-minded young generation.

This NYC scheme hopes to drive sustainable volunteering at local and regional levels and increase opportunities for youth to volunteer in more community projects. It’s open to students in the Institutes of Technical Education, polytechnics and universities and young adults.

From 2014, students can take time out from their studies — a semester, for example — to do full-time community service. NYC will provide the financial support and when they complete their projects (local and overseas) grants will be given to encourage them to continue serving. Training and mentoring modules are being developed by NYC in collaboration with several youth organisations, and community groups will provide the practical opportunities.

Making a Difference

Chng’s first YEP trip to Thailand in 2009 was when she was only a 19-yearold freshman at Nanyang Technical University’s (NTU) School of Business. After she came back from Chiang Mai, she said “It got me thinking…about how I can make a difference — no matter how small or big — at a regional level.”

After the 2004 Asian tsunami, Chng galvanised 12 volunteers in recovery efforts at Baan Nam Kem, a ravaged fishing village 112km north of Phuket in Thailand. They dug through debris, rebuilt roads, comforted the grieving, and fed the poor. Three years later, Chng started Eco Travel, which specialises in eco-tourism and habitat conservation with a grant of $50,000 from SPRING Singapore and $10,000 love gift from her mother.

Reaching Out to Troubled Youth

It is this same desire to make a difference that drove Serene Koh to participate in YEP trips in 2004, during her university days from 2002 to 2005. Koh helms Expedition Agape, a volunteer initiative where adults commit to a sixmonth programme to mentor troubled teenagers. Her company’s social mission is to help youngsters who embark on a healing journey — emotional, spiritual and physical — that culminates in an overseas outreach effort in Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam.

“I see the brokenness in young people who are hurting, and realise I can no longer be a bystander,” says the tireless volunteer who works at the Ministry of Social and Family Development. “There is a need to invest in the next generation, particularly in the children and youth deemed ‘at risk’.”

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Cindy Chng was conferred the ASEAN Youth Award last year for her concerted efforts in promoting eco-tourism and supporting environmental causes.

Like Eco Travel, Expedition Agape forms alliances with local NGOs and community leaders in India and Timor Leste. With the help of volunteer tourists, Chng and Koh seek ways to improve the living conditions of locals through education and the enhancement of basic infrastructure and amenities.


“It got me thinking…how I can make a difference — no matter how small or big — at a regional level.”

— Cindy Chng, Eco-Travel, when she came back from a youth expedition to Chiang Mai


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Student volunteers build bio-sand filters as part of SIF’s Water for Life project in Cambodia, which helps provide rural communities with access to clean water. The collaboration between SIF and Singapore’s Institute of Technical Education makes such overseas volunteering opportunities possible.

Building Empathy

The NYC is looking at developing programmes that will encourage volunteering to become a part of the youth’s lifestyle. Tong Yee, co-founder of the Thought Collective, which runs several socially-conscious businesses, and a NYC member explains, “We want these kids to have a genuine experience so they begin to feel empathy….”

Yee says youths are currently engaged in community work because they’re required to clock a certain number of hours to gain credit for school. He notes, “Youth today are finding their way, looking for direction, steering their own narrative on what it means to be who they are and why they are here. With volunteer youth corps, we’re giving them the information and saying, ‘We’re not telling you what to choose, but we’re telling you to choose’.”


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