Lee Poh Leng loved his volunteering experience at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) so much that he decided to join as a part-time staff.
BY: Joanne Tok
Lee Poh Leng, 58, started out as a volunteer at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH). During his stint there, the patients he encountered inspired him and his enjoyment for volunteering grew. So when the opportunity arose to make a bigger difference in the lives of volunteers as a part-time volunteer coordinator, the father of two took the leap. He not only works there on the weekdays, but continues volunteering even on the weekends.
He shares with Ageless Online his volunteering journey and why joining IMH was the best decision he has made:
When did you start volunteering with IMH? What were your roles?
I attended the IMH Open House and New Volunteers Briefing back in 1999. Together with seven others from the same orientation batch, we started our volunteer sessions almost immediately after the orientation and decided to name ourselves “The Achievers”. The startup has grown so much over the years. Today, the group is very active as we come to the wards on every alternate Saturdays.
Our main role is to keep patients engaged with meaningful activities such as befriending them, social, recreational and rehabilitative activities in the wards. We also play mahjong, board games, bowling, organise strolls within IMH premises and outings to places of interest, etc.
We spend most of our volunteer time socialising and engaging patients in such recreational activities and sharing our experiences with our colleagues, family and friends. Through these casual sharings, they become curious and some even join us in our subsequent sessions.
Was this your first time volunteering? Are you currently volunteering elsewhere?
This isn’t my first time volunteering, as I was and am still volunteering at several other places. I remain active in the Residents’ Committee since 1989; community mediator since 2004; friend of the Library since 2009; citizen partner with Southwest Community Development Council since 2009; and invigilator at ACCA examinations each June and December since 2010.
I started volunteering because I strongly believe in giving back to our society and feel that it is necessary for all of us to keep in touch with the less fortunate and needy in order to better appreciate what we have at the present. Volunteering helps me feel deeply grateful for what I have and gives me a sense of purpose and satisfaction that paid-work cannot.
In volunteering at IMH, I feel that there is a need to help in the area of mental health, as I know most people would shun from this area. I feel that I can do and achieve something different and unusual to make a difference in the lives of those struggling with mental illness in IMH with meaningful activities. I hope that through my volunteering and sharing of my experiences with those around me, I can help to dispel misconceptions about mental illness and reduce the stigma.
What was your most inspiring experience volunteering at IMH and what has kept you coming back for more?
I get my satisfaction from having the patients recognise and call me by my name in the wards and whenever I meet up with them at the void decks or canteen. Their smiles and laughter brighten up my days. It also motivates me to make a difference in the lives of those with mental illness.
Like everyone else, patients crave friendship. They want someone to talk to and listen to them, to play with, to share tidbits with and most importantly, to be treated with due respect. Occasionally, there are wards that were cordoned off for a few weeks, as they were declared as flu/fever clusters hence visiting was minimised. One particular incident that touched me deeply was when I visited a ward after it was declared open for visitors. The female patient was overjoyed to see me again that she ended up crying. I was so touched by her that I spent the next 15 minutes consoling her and trying to calm her down.
There are also patients who call me ‘daddy’, asking me to bring them home, wanting to work for me, etc. These patients are often misunderstood though they are just like any of us – yearning for companionship, and they too have friends and family. As far as possible, I try to offer a helping hand and a listening ear to make them feel better.
You enjoyed your volunteering so much that you converted to a part-time job. Tell me more about your role?
I retired from being a HR personnel in 2008 due to medical reasons. Thereafter, I took up part-time jobs to lead a simpler, happier and less stressful life. I was introduced to my current job at IMH as a volunteer coordinator through the recommendation of IMH’s volunteer programme manager, Catherine Chua. She told me that she needed someone to assist her in the coordination of the volunteer activities, and thus I got onboard. I’ve officially been with IMH since 2010 and together with my manager, we look after a pool of 900 volunteers.
My job scope includes maintaining the database of volunteers, organising orientation sessions for new joiners, and assisting during volunteer events, such as the monthly volunteer orientation programme, annual retreat and volunteers’ appreciation day.
I also mentor the volunteers when they are carrying out their community involvement projects, celebrating patients’ birthdays and festive parties. I help to get them to run events like fundraising. I also try to encourage regular attendance by the volunteers so that they can have a more meaningful, rewarding and fulfilling experience.
Officially, I work three days a week – Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays, clocking 21 hours per week. On top of that, I volunteer on Saturdays and occasionally on Sundays.
How has the experience been for you thus far? What have you learnt?
I’ve learnt not to take things for granted, to be extra patient and to share my positive experiences with other volunteers and like-minded individuals. Besides, I’ve also gotten to make more friends, and to even look at life from different perspectives.
In our society there are also needy and underprivileged people. Over time, rapport is built and friendships are forged among the patients. It is thus important to make them feel wanted and loved when the community has forsaken them; to render appropriate assistance but staying within the boundaries. Hence, I constantly encourage more volunteers to join IMH, to share their meaningful and rewarding experiences with others, visit the patients regularly and accompany them out of the wards.
Through volunteering at IMH, I have learnt to be extra patient with people especially the mentally-disadvantaged, to listen more attentively and to probe further in order not to jump to conclusions prematurely. I have also learnt to better motivate our young and matured volunteers, and to sustain their interests by being a role model for them.
All these that I am doing will not be possible of course, without my family’s continuous support, a blessed family and the wonderful, cooperative colleagues.
Any challenges with your role?
As with all volunteer groups, the greatest challenge is always of retaining the volunteers, keeping their interest strong for a sustained period. For new volunteers, some may be apprehensive when they first start out and therefore, I constantly need to allay their fears and reassure them. I do try to make their experiences as positive as I can.
Managing the patients can be a challenge at times as well, due to their unpredictable mood swings. However, we should always remain calm and not get angry with them because they may not be aware of their mood swings. More likely, they will behave in a different way the next time we see them. On a positive note, this also shows that our patients do not hide their emotions and are true to how they express themselves. When they are happy, it will be written all over their faces and if they are not, we will know when to let them have their own quiet space.
By working with IMH, has any of your own perceptions about mental illness changed?
I have gained a better understanding on mental illness. With my knowledge, I try to dispel misconceptions about mental illness, to tell others that this illness is just like any other chronic disease like diabetes or other physical ailments. If we are able to detect the symptoms and call for help early on, mental illness becomes highly treatable. I find that we also need to treat patients with more empathy when we engage them.
How long do you think you will continue as a volunteer coordinator or will you want to do something else at IMH?
As long as IMH is willing to continue to hire me, and with good health status and continued strong support from my family, I would carry on despite having to take about 1.5 hours travelling to IMH as I stay on the other end of Singapore.
What would you say to those who might be hesitant about volunteering?
I would highly encourage students, adults and retirees to sign up as volunteers to help, contribute and give back to society. People with mental illness are not as scary as many think, or as I’d thought before I became a volunteer. Many of them have streaks of innocence in them, child-like and their needs are very basic. All they look forward to sometimes is the care that you show and the small conversations you make with them.
(* PHOTO CREDIT: IMH)