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Covid-19: Hit by hurdles such as fewer volunteers, social enterprises adapt services to help S’pore’s needy

SINGAPORE — Charities and social enterprises here are striving to keep helping the needy amid the Covid-19 crisis by adapting their services to comply with the circuit breaker restrictions and cope with dwindling volunteer numbers. But they warn that some low-income families may fall through the cracks since certain services can no longer operate for now.

Volunteers at Food from the Heart's packing facility in Joo Seng Road.

Volunteers at Food from the Heart's packing facility in Joo Seng Road.

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SINGAPORE — Charities and social enterprises here are striving to keep helping the needy amid the Covid-19 crisis by adapting their services to comply with the circuit breaker restrictions and cope with dwindling volunteer numbers. But they warn that some low-income families may fall through the cracks since certain services can no longer operate for now.

One social enterprise, Dignity Kitchen, has been hard-pressed to keep its 58 physically or intellectually disabled staff employed at its Serangoon food court with seven stalls since the circuit breaker started on April 7.

Founder Koh Seng Choon told TODAY that with walk-in customers to Dignity Kitchen’s food court dropping to zero, he has deployed the stallholders to cook 500 meals a day for nursing homes, hospital support staff and migrant workers. Even in normal times, the food court provides lunch treats for the elderly at nursing homes across Singapore.

Dignity Kitchen is part of a wider social enterprise called Project Dignity set up in 2005 when Mr Koh met polio survivor Tony who dreamt of becoming a chef — but with only one functioning hand, no one would employ him. That was the spark that ignited Project Dignity, allowing Tony and many like him to live out their dreams.

Project Dignity’s hawker training business, Dignity Learn, has shut down for now, and Mr Koh is using those training staff as delivery drivers. While Dignity Kitchen has received sponsorships from several individuals and Deutsche Bank, Mr Koh said that it is still losing a significant sum.

“I can’t make money. All I can do is keep my staff employed,” he said. Any profits would usually be ploughed back into the social enterprise.

Social enterprises and non-profit organisations like Project Dignity face other challenges in addition to the movement restrictions of the circuit breaker period: Volunteer pools they used to rely on are dwindling and some partner organisations are dropping out of their programmes.

Some have had to cease certain services completely, and they warn that some lower-income families will not be reached by relief schemes and social programmes.


Food charities that TODAY spoke to have been able to evolve their services, though some said that it has not been smooth sailing for all of their operations.

Ms Sim Bee Hia, the chief executive officer of Food from the Heart, said that after the food charity saw 30 per cent of its partnering distribution centres shut down after the circuit breaker period started, it is collaborating with courier service uParcel to make door-to-door deliveries to some 1,000 lower-income households.

Ms Sim said that Food from the Heart’s volunteer sources have also changed. It used to rely largely on volunteer teams from schools, corporations or non-government organisations (NGOs) for its food packing operations, but that source of manpower has dwindled.

She said this was due to uncertainty over the virus and the fact that most of these organisations had a large proportion of their workforce working from home and could not spare them to volunteer. Also, schools have been required to cease large activities since early February.

In their place, more individual volunteers have stepped up to serve, she said.

“Our packing is now at half capacity, because of the social distancing measures. I can take only 10 volunteers at a time. And once they are not feeling well, we ask them not to come in. If 10 sign up, I might only have two show up… that has happened before,” she told TODAY.

To aid with Food from the Heart’s labour crunch, several of the premises that used to hand out the food, such as schools and grassroots organisations, have agreed to pack the food items themselves.

Another food charity, Free Food for All, has stepped up home deliveries for needy families, a practice it first tried in October — well before the Covid-19 outbreak — when it delivered food to 100 households a month.

Mr Nizar Mohamed Shariff, founder of Free Food for All, told TODAY: “After this Covid-19 thing came about, we already knew what we needed to do was to scale up our daily deliveries.”

Now, Free Food for All aims to make 600 deliveries monthly, and continues to distribute food to 1,200 other households every month at various Community Centres nationwide.

Though its usual base of third-party volunteers has been deactivated, it has rallied some of those who receive its food parcels as volunteers. They collect food at Housing and Development Board void decks to distribute to other lower-income families living in their blocks.


Non-profit organisations have also switched track to provide devices such as laptops to low-income families with children, after schools started full home-based learning, which is set to be in place until May 4.

Volunteer initiative 6th Sense, which regularly befriends needy children living in two-room flats in Kebun Baru, restructured its services to start giving donated laptops to those kids when it realised that many of them did not have devices for home-based learning.

Co-founder of 6th Sense, Mr Abhishek Bajaj, told TODAY that although lower-income families can apply for a laptop or tablet loan from the Ministry of Education, some choose not to do so despite needing such devices.

“Many of these families don’t want to take the risk of loaning a laptop from school. Because if it breaks, they don’t have the financial capacity to pay for it,” he said.

Similarly, Children’s Wishing Well (CWW), which serves around 1,000 children and youth, is working to provide some 80 students with donated laptops for home-based learning.

Ms Joanna Tan, CWW chief executive officer, told TODAY: “In some families, they don't have computers, so multiple kids are sharing one mobile phone for their home-based learning. This is not conducive for their learning, and they will fall further behind in school.”


Not all social services can be successfully refashioned. For example, all of 6th Sense’s usual programmes, which include taking children on outings and conducting training programmes for young mothers, have ground to a complete halt under the circuit breaker measures.

The Ministry of Social and Family Development released an anvisory on April 13 stating that social services seeking to continue essential aid during the circuit breaker month must apply to be “whitelisted”, in effect granted approval, by the National Council of Social Service.

Mr Bajaj said that 6th Sense has not applied because the group felt it should discontinue its regular services to focus on other needs of its beneficiaries while keeping to circuit breaker measures

He said that in the meantime, 6th Sense has started contacting those it helps via WhatsApp to ask them if they urgently require any food or essentials, passing on the information to other social services.

CWW’s counselling services, which it provides in normal times at its centre to children, parents and caregivers, have not been given the all-clear by the authorities.

Ms Seow Hui Ting, 29, who normally runs weekly counselling sessions at CWW, said the centre decided not to move its counselling services online because face-to-face interaction and physical presence are key to the therapy sessions it runs.

“Many of the children we serve are staying in small rental flats where there is no space for privacy. They won’t be able to open up as much if they were calling from home,” she said.

Nominated Member of Parliament Anthea Ong told TODAY that living in small quarters such as one- or two-room rental flats also poses a health risk to lower-income families, especially those with five or more members.

In her speech in Parliament on April 6 during the Resilience Budget Debate, Ms Ong said that cramped living conditions “create a ripe environment for infection” which could later threaten the rest of the community.

When speaking to TODAY, Ms Ong stressed the need for pre-emptive measures to support lower-income families living in small homes, similar to steps being taken at foreign worker dormitories, which have seen hundreds of cases in recent days.

“There needs to be a concerted effort to go down and find out how these families are doing, to give them proper guidelines on what to do if one of them falls sick,” she said.

Ms Ong added: “There may be merit in proactively testing those families with large numbers of people living in small spaces.”

She also said that some lower-income families do not apply for Government relief schemes intended to support them because they may not be aware of the schemes.

“They may not be reading the papers every day because they have other things to worry about like work and school,” she said.

Ms Tan said that CWW noticed a similar issue where some children who need to borrow laptops for home-based learning did not do so, because their parents missed application deadlines or were unaware they had to apply for one.

Social issue cooperative A Good Space said that when it spoke on April 3 to residents living in rental blocks at Merpati, many of them had not considered themselves eligible to apply for relief schemes.

Mr Vincent Ng, community lead at A Good Space, told TODAY: “Some of them are immobile and cannot go down to apply. Some of them didn’t know about the nuances of a scheme’s criteria.

“Some of them applied for Government schemes in the past and did not receive them. So they gave up trying.”

Related topics

circuit breaker charities Covid-19 coronavirus

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