Youth Corps’ programme puts youths together with socially-isolated seniors for 10 weeks in hopes of building lasting friendships.
BY: Eleanor Yap
Lee Kuang does not get many opportunities to interact with youths besides school events organised through Lions Befrienders. However, thanks to Youth Corps Singapore’s Engaging Youths, Empowering Seniors (EYES) programme, the 84-year-old has had a chance to gain lasting friendships with youths, and at the same time, pick up some IT skills.
EYES, which was started back in 2016, is around a 10-week programme where youths befriend socially-isolated seniors through weekly house visits as well as outings. The youths and seniors are grouped at the start of the programme and they stay in those groupings throughout the programme to build deeper bonds. A more experienced volunteer (volunteer coordinator or EXCO) is tagged to each group to provide further guidance.
At the end of the programme, there is an outing finale where seniors and volunteers in the programme come together for fun and food, and the volunteers present their seniors with a scrapbook of their journey together. So far, Youth Corps has done four rounds of EYES where a total of 124 youths and 44 seniors have participated.
For Lee, joining the programme has brought happiness into his life. He has been a part of two rounds of EYES through a collaboration between Youth Corps and Lions Befrienders. Over the course of these sessions, the volunteers that he was paired with in the programme taught him how to use a tablet to take photos and they formed long-term friendships. “Time spent with youths are always fun, full of laughter and a lot of chatting,” shared Lee, who is single and with no children.
Specifically, one of the volunteers, 24-year-old Ong Jing Wei, has also changed his perspective of how he viewed youths. “Most of the youths in Singapore don’t really talk to seniors as they are not good with languages like Mandarin but with Jing Wei, language was not a barrier.” Lee can speak some Cantonese, Hokkien and Malay, but prefers speaking Mandarin to the volunteers.
For those volunteers paired with him who could not speak fluent Mandarin, it was still manageable as he understands basic English words. When volunteers could not explain certain words in Mandarin, they would use English words or simpler Mandarin words to describe what they wanted to say and he understands. For those who cannot speak Mandarin at all, he suggests using simple actions and common expressions to convey their message and get the help of the other volunteers to translate.
He also added that it is about having an open mind and to accept a new person in one’s life regardless of age. He recommends that other seniors should befriend youths. “I feel younger spending time with the youths as they are always in a happy mood and I feel comfortable joking around with them.”
For Jing Wei, she is all praises about programme and interacting with ‘Uncle Lee’. At the time of joining EYES, she was in her second year, studying business and management by the University of London at the Singapore Institute of Management (SIM).
“I signed up for EYES because I wanted to explore my interest in interacting with seniors. Additionally, it was not an ad-hoc/one-time programme so the idea was befriending seniors in their own homes (compared to an old folks’ home) attracted me to sign up for it.”
She added: “A quote to describe my experience – ‘When you give yourself, you receive more than you give’ by French poet and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I realised that I had not only gained a friendship and bond with Uncle Lee and other volunteers, I have also received emotional/social support and learnt life lessons from him during this befriending journey, which I did not expect to last after the programme ended.”
Jing Wei explained that she and other volunteers – Oh Hui Ling and Loy Yong Shin – that were paired with Lee in EYES continue to see Lee monthly and would bring him out to explore places such as Funan, Gardens by the Bay or to the movies. She added: “Uncle Lee treats us as his own grandchildren and sometimes calls us when he misses us, which I feel really heartened knowing that he enjoys and appreciates our company.
“He is very positive and carefree despite his age. He always tells us to live happily and not be frustrated or angry over things, which motivates me to live life like him.”