By Rachel Chan
Ever since most of us bade farewell to our free-spirited days in hall, scrambled to pack our overly-cluttered rooms up, and get accustomed to online finals and completing our assignments at home due to the implementation of Circuit Breaker, this pandemic has turned the world into a chaotic shamble that many of us are still trying to comprehend.
Despite the not-so-pretty side of Singapore that has emerged over the past few months, be it the hoarding of groceries or mistreatment of service staff, we should focus on the positives through the displays of kindness and selflessness during this pandemic. As we soon enter the month of June and Phase 1 of the post-Circuit Breaker period, U-Insight spoke to four NTU students who have founded campaigns and initiatives during this pandemic to help those in need.
1. Donating Thai Milk Tea To Needy Families During Ramadan
With the extension of the Circuit Breaker period being announced on 21 Apr by another month, it also meant that the month of Ramadan – which began two days after the announcement – would likely be significantly different this year for Muslim families in Singapore. Knowing that those families in need were going to be further affected by the distancing measures, Qistina Warren, 22, a first-year Sociology student, together with her boyfriend, 25-year-old Safeel Noor, a year 4 Psychology student from Singapore University of Social Sciences, decided to give back by donating three litres of Thai milk tea drinks from local beverage shop, BROTI.
Warren said: “We wanted to give back this Ramadan by doing some charity work. Our initial plans were to give out food rations to needy Malay families or cook food for dormitory workers, but with Covid-19 and the restrictions in place, we were unable to fulfil them, so we decided to plan an initiative that we could do remotely.”
She then chanced upon BROTI’s Instagram page, and found that the business was currently offering free island-wide deliveries, thus prompting her with the idea to tap on that service to donate to needy Muslim families. Noting the popularity of BROTI’s Thai milk tea drinks especially during the annual Geylang Serai Ramadan Bazaar, Warren added: “Many of them are hit the worst during this pandemic – they live in rental or small flats with up to 10 members per household. They don’t get to enjoy the same bazaar food as they usually do, especially due to the spike in delivery fees and a minimum delivery amount.
“Most needy families will not be able to afford buying them, and some even expressed that they do miss these drinks at the bazaar, so we wanted to donate [the drinks] and give them the ‘bazaar’ experience as much as possible. While we see many middle-class and upper-class Malay families being able to afford food deliveries whenever they craved it, it is not as easily accessible those needy families.”
During the initial stages of their initiative, it had led many to question them as to why they didn’t want to give out food rations instead, and why the choice of drink. “We understood that basic food rations were a norm, but we also understand how food deliveries and especially BROTI milk teas were seen more of a ‘luxury’ to those families, and we wanted to gift that to them this Ramadan… The least they could receive during this trying time is something out of their reach to make their month a little more bearable at home while fasting,” explained Warren.
Together with her friends and family, Warren procured donations in multiples of $18 – each cup of Thai milk tea costed $6 with a minimum order of three cups – and posted their initiative on the Blessings for MUSLIM NEEDY (Singapore) Facebook group, which immediately garnered much interest from needy families with over a hundred likes and comments, ranging from single breadwinners to those who wanted to give their children a little treat while preparing for PSLE.
“In light of Ramadan and Covid-19 combined, I have seen many individuals targeting needy Muslim families to help them out as they are at a more disadvantaged position during this time. So, looking at how individuals are doing the best they can under such circumstances to still do good for the community is heart-warming and brings an admirable sight,” said Warren.
“We could be doing anything else in the world especially being stuck at home, but going the extra mile to initiate funds/help for those who need more support than us is laudable… it is important we learn the value of giving; we then become more grateful for what we have.”
2. Temporary Academic Assistance (TAA)
Andy Teo was on his run at East Coast Park on 4 Apr when the thought of his two tutees popped up in his mind. With the Circuit Breaker period hindering the normal school curriculum and replacing it with home-based learning (HBL), the part-time tutor of two and a half years had one of his tutees cancel classes twice consecutively due to fear of the virus, while the other was placed under the Stay-Home Notice after a family member travelled overseas in March.
The 25-year-old final-year Accountancy student said: “At that point in time, I was thinking of how to help them, especially since schools are moving to HBL. Then, I then thought of how students without tuition are going to cope with HBL, as I know for sure that they will face some problems.”
Teo then flashbacked to his secondary school days, where he was worried that he would fail his English subject for his ‘O’ Levels, thus requiring a lot of help from his teacher. “I basically booked consultations practically every week to improve my composition skills,” said Teo.
Understanding the plight of those undergoing HBL, Teo then wanted to volunteer his time to help them, especially the students who are unable to afford for tuition.
However, Teo added that the only subject he knew how to teach was Principles of Accounts, where he realised his efforts could help three students at most. This then gave rise to another idea.
“Wouldn’t it be awesome if I can get Singaporeans who are able to help in other more common subjects where they can volunteer 30 minutes of their time to help students with their academics?” said Teo, who then rushed home after his run to create a Google Form which led to the birth of TAA.
According to Teo, volunteer tutors can sign up and help out in the different subjects or assist the tutees with their homework and clarifying concepts they are not sure of. He added: “On the other hand, students or parents can head over to the database to get academic assistance. As the volunteers are sorted based on subjects and levels, they just need to go to the appropriate tab, find a tutor that meets their needs and email them, where they will link up from there.”
This meant that the duration of the tuition sessions depends on the tutor’s availability and the students’ needs, as shared by Teo.
He said: “As you can see, there is no matching of students and volunteers, so therefore TAA is really a community-driven initiative. The TAA team will help parents or students to find tutors if they are facing problems or do not understand how the initiative works.”
Currently, TAA has over 1400 volunteer tutors – from working professionals to teachers – under its arsenal, with the initiative benefiting more than 100 students. Teo was also featured on Channel NewsAsia (CNA) about his unique initiative.
He said: “At first, I was just sharing [the initiative] on my social media such as Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn, and it maybe garnered around 20 to 30 volunteers. My initial goal for TAA is that I’ll be very happy if I’m able to get around 50 volunteers to help out. It never came across my mind that TAA would attract so many volunteers.”
Our society has witnessed copious outpours of kindness and generosity from Singaporeans from all walks of life lately, such as distributing hand sanitisers to the elderly or sewing 50,000 reusable cloth masks for the needy. Keeping up with hundreds of such initiatives, however, can serve as a little confusing, which gave rise to #HowCanIHelpSG-Covid, a website that complies initiatives that came about due to Covid-19.
The person behind the #HowCanIHelpSG-Covid website is Ding Si Han, a Year Two student under the Renaissance Engineering Programme specialising in Computer Science. The year two undergraduate came across a Thir.st article on some of the initiatives Singaporeans could play a part in during the Circuit Breaker period, when its fifth entry about a master Google Sheets, named #HowCanIHelpSG, collating the ongoing ones piqued his interest.
Ding said: “I went to check the master spreadsheet and was quite awestruck to find more than 20 people active on the sheets at that point of time, and more than 100 initiatives listed neatly categorised into different sheets.”
This, however, wasn’t the most user-friendly. “The sheets were quite tough for users to view in its current format. This sparked a thought, that wouldn’t it be helpful if these volunteering opportunities were presented in bite-sized chunks?
“It seemed like this sheet had so much potential to bring people together and what was needed was a neat interface to help people find a cause that connects with their hearts and they want to contribute to,” explained Ding.
Thus, over the course of a week, he began to prototype a concept that would transform the spreadsheets available into a real-time database, allowing the sheets to be updated regularly without changing the previous workflow for the users.
With the completion of the prototype, Ding then contacted the brainchild behind the master Google spreadsheet, Joanne Tan (who Ding found out was actually an alumnus of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information), to share what he had created. “After five days of multiple iterations, testing and troubleshooting, we launched the site on 27 Apr, which actively updated new initiatives that were being shared on the sheets,” said Ding.
The creative amalgamation of the website comprising of eight different categories – Migrant Workers, Appreciation, Mutual Aid, Businesses, Education, Groceries, Jobs/Internships, and Specific Communities – and Google Sheets by Ding and Tan respectively brought about an initial response to #HowCanIHelpSG-Covid which he found “heartening”.
Ding said: “Multiple individuals approached us to ask if they could share this with others on Instagram, and one group of 10 [people] even emailed us to ask for the go-ahead to spread awareness of this site through a digital campaign. It was immensely encouraging to see how a small initiative can continue to grow when like-minded individuals commit to a cause they believe in.”
Regarding initiatives from the website which he found most memorable, Ding mentioned two which he also shared with his friends, namely Healthserve, a health initiative aimed at migrant workers in Singapore, and Food from the Heart, a non-profit charity that distributes food to the needy.
“Reflecting on this journey, it’s heart-warming to see how a seed planted, watered and then shared could help bring awareness to the struggles of many, especially migrant workers.
“If you are looking for something meaningful to help or give, we hope the website will be a useful avenue in your own personal journey to bring joy to someone else during this period,” said Ding.
4. Raydy Gives
Too lazy to head out of hall back then for some ah lian bee hoon? You might’ve come across Lee Ray Sheng’s bee hoon stall, Raydy Beehoon, conveniently situated at Hall 13 for those late-night hunger pangs.
Following the implementation of the Circuit Breaker, the 20-year-old second-year Computer Science student started gaining widespread recognition when he was featured on CNA about his Covid-19 initiative, Raydy Gives, which seeks to donate packets of bee hoon as a breakfast meal for the needy in Singapore.
Before the birth of the initiative, however, Lee and his three managers – 21-year-old Data Science and Artificial Intelligence student Ye Anran, 19-year-old Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information student Sheila Lim, and 22-year-old Mechanical Engineering student Zechary Hoe – had to eventually close his stall, which began its operations in February.
Lee said: “Having to close our store on such sudden notice, paired with the majority of residents moving out of hall, we were suddenly left with a bunch of time and nothing to do.”
Worried about how the future of their business would be affected, many questions were raised. “We had hours and hours of meetings just to discuss our action plan. Is the store going to remain open despite majority of residents moving out? If we kept the store open, did the four of us have to travel down to NTU every day to run the store? If we closed, what were we going to do with the existing stocks?” said Lee.
As with every business, Lee and his team had to factor in their finances as well, which concerned them as they had to continue to pay their rent.
With their plans to rely on hungry students during the finals period and providing food for Freshman Orientation Programmes to ease their financial strain being foiled, Lee said: “We eventually resigned to fate and braced ourselves to pump in more money into the store as it remained closed during this period of time so that we can continue to open when this whole pandemic ends.”
However, Lee also had the desire to help those affected by Covid-19, which then led him to launching the Raydy Gives campaign, which has currently raised $163,273 on GIVE.asia, and served 32,000 packets of bee hoon along with over 15,000 masks as of 16 May.
During its infancy, Raydy Gives’ support derived from friends and families of the team, where Lee said that a $40 donation “was already considered a large donation” to them. He added: “Help came in small ways, where just simple words of encouragement were enough to spur us on. We started out with roughly 200 packets a day, with just four people in our small store located in NTU.”
Lee and his team then reached out to Food Bank Singapore with their proposal to garner more support for their cause and to collate the contacts of those who will receive the bee hoon packets, and posted their campaign on GIVE.asia for more crowdfunding to kick their campaign into high gear.
Much to their surprise, Lee’s CNA feature would see their campaign gain such incredible traction in a short amount of time, where their rate of operations continued to double as the weeks went by. They also didn’t realise the magnitude of the impact their campaign had and how far they have gotten, until Lim came up with weekly updates on the Raydy Gives webpage.
From their initial goal of cooking a few hundred packets of bee hoon, Raydy Gives has since increased their production to 2000 packets a day, spanning across five kitchens all over Singapore.
“We always start out with big goals in mind, and producing at a large scale was definitely the end goal we had in mind. But the speed at which we reached our target was what astounded us,” said Lee. “As surprised as we all were, we knew that after garnering this much support from the public, we could not let them down.”
Lee added: “Each and every one of us had to step up to meet everybody’s expectations and through this, we gained wisdom and knowledge from the people we met and learnt so much valuable skills – skills that veterans decided to pass down to us.”
When asked about how Lee and his team juggled the production schedule and prepared for the last round of exams and assignments, he attributed it to the two-month experience they had while operating their stall in Hall 13.
Before the inception of Raydy Beehoon, Lee shared that the stall was “managed on a rotation basis” every day, where each one of them took turns to man it.
“Likewise, among the four of us, those who were busy rushing their assignments got to take a break and work from home. In the event that all of us had assignments at the same period of time, we had to come to an agreement amongst ourselves on who would be the sacrificial lamb that would have to go down to the kitchen,” said Lee.
Looking back at the course of Raydy Gives and instances that have touched Lee’s heart, he said: “Having pure hearted individuals approach us to help us out is one thing that never stopped happening. We have had our partners approach us to provide us with kitchens and labour – all for free – and all we had to provide was ingredients…
“Having endless donations weekly just shows how big of a heart Singaporeans have.”
Since closing their GIVE.asia funding having raised enough funds, Lee was asked by U-Insight on his thoughts about how such campaigns and initiatives like Raydy Gives garnered positivity, and how it quelled the kiasu-ness brought about in some Singaporeans since the Circuit Breaker.
“I believe the kiasu-ness stemmed from fear amongst citizens; the uncertainty of how things would turn out and what our future holds,” expressed Lee. “After being educated on the situation, Singaporeans began to focus on the positives instead, and that has helped improve the situation in Singapore.”
Crediting how the media has also shed light on the optimistic side of Singapore, he added that Singaporeans must have faith in each other, and that “people have the genuine heart to help others”.
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