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After ‘drifting’ as a teen, Mr Akram Hanif set up a group to mentor students from low-income homes

SINGAPORE — An initiative started by Mr Akram Hanif got its name up in lights during the Feb 18 Budget statement but it was a more low-key moment last year that made Mr Akram realise that all the hard work had been worthwhile.

Mr Akram Hanif (left), Mohamed Irfan (centre) and Abdul Kadir Alimun are the team behind Progress Nest, seen here at Marsiling Community Cemtre on Feb 21, 2020.

Mr Akram Hanif (left), Mohamed Irfan (centre) and Abdul Kadir Alimun are the team behind Progress Nest, seen here at Marsiling Community Cemtre on Feb 21, 2020.

SINGAPORE — An initiative started by Mr Akram Hanif got its name up in lights during the Feb 18 Budget statement but it was a more low-key moment last year that made Mr Akram realise that all the hard work had been worthwhile.

During a student camp, one of the students he was mentoring stood up on a table and declared his admiration for him. The student said that he saw Mr Akram as a father figure and was thankful for the guidance he had received from him.

Even now, the incident moves the 24-year-old emotionally and it made him realise that his decision to start Progress Nest was the right one.

Progress Nest is a ground-up initiative started by Mr Akram on June 20 last year along with his two friends — Mr Abdul Kadir Alimun and Mr Mohamed Irfan. The aim is to support the emotional growth of secondary school students from low-income families.

The initiative is backed by Our Singapore Fund — a fund that supports meaningful projects by Singaporeans who have a passion to meet community needs.

The initiative got a mention in the Budget speech delivered by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat as an example of the Government’s efforts to support meaningful projects that contribute to Singapore’s nation-building.

To date, Our Singapore Fund has committed close to S$4.3 million for more than 240 ground-up projects across different domains such as the arts, sports and heritage. It is set to receive a S$20 million top-up from this year’s Budget and will be extended until 2025.

Mr Akram and his team mentor the students in their homework and organise character-building activities for them in a voluntary capacity, without charging a single cent.

One such activity is called "frostbites" whereby some students are not permitted to use their hands while others are blindfolded.

Working in a team, they then have to communicate with each other to build a mini fort or shelter using some items such as groundsheets and poles.

Right now, Progress Nest has 40 students under its wing.

Mr Akram got his first taste of mentoring students from lower-income families when he volunteered to be part of an earlier initiative called Marsiling Progress Class.

It was set up in 2015 with the encouragement of Singapore's President Halimah Yacob and managed to help 140 secondary school students.

It was there that he developed a passion to mentor such students after forming a strong bond with most of them.

'NO IDEA WHAT MENTOR MEANT'

Mr Akram, whose full-time job is working as a secretary at a private shipping company, also noted how his own background played a part in him wanting to help these students.

“I was drifting, neither here nor there, when I was a teenager,” he said.

“I needed someone to guide me. There were figures here and there but no one permanent. I had my teachers but obviously, when you talk to the teachers ,you get labelled a teacher’s pet.

“So it was a late realisation that I needed a guiding figure because I didn’t even know the word mentor back then. This contributed to why I wanted to start Progress Nest — to be that sort of mentor for my students.”

He also came from a low-income family — his mother had to work three jobs to supplement the family income. His father’s work as a security guard meant that he returned home late at night. Only his grandmother was able to take care of him.

Getting Progress Nest off the ground presented its own challenges.

“Resources were an obstacle we faced. We are a ground-up initiative, so we do not have the necessary resources to cover the programme expenditure,” Mr Akram said.

It was a good thing that Our Singapore Fund has been able to defray a portion of the programme costs, which allows Mr Akram to provide activities or outings for the students that will help his team build a strong rapport with them — enabling them to deliver on the lesson objective.

The impact on the students has been fulfilling for him; the students have shown “a drive to do well” and have shown “a lot of care for each other”.

Above all, the secret behind his positive results in getting through to the students lies in him being relatable to them.

“Though I have never done a Tik-Tok video (a video application that is the latest craze among the young), I try and be as genuine as I can... to be at their level,” he said.

For instance, if a student doesn’t do his homework, Mr Akram would tell him or her to do something else instead of reprimanding him. As much as he wants them to meet the lesson objective, he also understands where they are coming from.

“For example, we were going through teamwork the other day and I told them that sometimes in life, what you plan in life, it might not turn out that way.

“So I gave them a story about my educational journey and all of them were dead silent and just listened. Keeping it real and sharing wisdom from my own personal life is what I do.”

'NOT FOR THE FAINT-HEARTED'

When asked if he had a piece of advice for those who intend to follow in his footsteps, Mr Akram said: “It is not for the faint-hearted but if you have the heart and sincerity, then go for it."

It is worth it to be able to touch someone's life, he added.

“I remembered many years ago, I had a student. When you look at her, you can tell she was very troubled. She was very tomboyish. She had many issues — drugs, tattoos.

“When she was in Primary 6, she disappeared and after I started Progress Nest, I saw her and she came up to me to ask how I was doing.”

The young woman then said she had just been released from a girls’ home.

“But the point is that after all those years, she still remembered me and till today she still says ‘hi’ to me,” Mr Akram said.

“You never know if you can make an impact until you try. Nothing will happen overnight, but the connection, when it does (happen), the feeling is memorable.”

Related topics

Progress NEST Our Singapore Fund secondary school students low income

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