Education is the cornerstone of talent cultivation and is also seen as a way to reverse poverty and promote class mobility. Since the founding of Singapore, the Lion City has emerged as an upper-middle-income country. We have witnessed how education has gradually improved the living standards of countless low and middle income families over generations.
While the material aspect of life may have improved due to technological advancement, the gap between the rich and the poor has also widened, leading to the silent evolution of social inequality.
Children from underprivileged families not only live in poor living environments and economic conditions but are also often neglected by parents. When the pandemic accelerated digitalisation, the digital gap caused by the uneven distribution of computer and network resources and the lack of supervision of online learning, have all further widened the gap in educational resources. Throughout their schooling days, students from underprivileged families may also face pressure from further studies, campus bullying, information overload and temptation, etc.
People grow up in many ways. Besides financial aid, what other forms of support do these children need?
Here are the stories of three students from different stages of growth. The child in each story is like a sprout waiting to bloom one day.
Where education is concerned, there is an African proverb that goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.”
The local funding for education has been increasing year after year. From 2000 to 2020, government funding for education has doubled from SGD 5.8 million to SGD 12 million, covering preschool education to higher education. Low to middle-income households were allocated a higher amount of subsidies to ensure equal opportunities in education and eventually move the overall society up the social ladder.
However, mere financial assistance is not enough to support students in their studies. The issues of absenteeism and school dropout stem from parents’ inability. Therefore, NGOs and charity organisations make up for the aspect that is still slightly beyond the reach of government policy.
Most scholarships and bursaries given by clan associations and religious institutions or schools are mostly one-off and target only particular beneficiaries belonging to specific categories.
There are more than a dozen local charitable organisations that are providing education aid to students in need. The beneficiaries are divided across different educational institutions, ancestry, religions and cultural backgrounds. Working together with volunteers, these organisations provide non-monetary grants and regularly respond to students’ academic, social and emotional needs. Typical forms of educational assistance include online and offline tuition and mentoring classes. Some organisations also provide space for after-school activities to develop positive personalities, social skills, skills, and hobbies of students through group activities.
Student education has long been the focus of Tzu Chi’s charity work. Master Cheng Yen opines that it is difficult to educate a child who deviates from the right direction into a good person no matter how rich the family is. As long as the child has self-love, there is hope even for a low-income family no matter how difficult life is.
Tzu Chi firmly believes in long-term and customised support and companionship. Although it may seem to require a lot of money and manpower, it could reduce many unnecessary social costs in the future. Due to improvement in children’s knowledge and skills, coupled with the instillation of positive attitude and moral values in them, not only can they take care of their families, but they can also abide by their duties and benefit society.
You need sunlight, breeze, rainwater, and soil to grow a seedling.
To nurture a child, it requires a lot of love and care.
Since the inception of Tzu Chi’s charity education programme, providing a financial subsidy has always been merely the first step in Tzu Chi’s approach. Besides filling in the gap of education supplies, Tzu Chi volunteers also accompany students at different stages of their growth and education. The warm companionship is available for both the children and their parents because parents are often their children’s role models. Teaching by words and deeds can both affect children’s personality development.
Tzu Chi worked with schools to identify disadvantaged students who needed extra attention to prevent them from becoming marginalised youths. Through long-term companionship, volunteers strived to bridge the relationship between family members, hoping to create a more harmonious environment for children to grow up. Volunteers visited these student beneficiaries at their homes every month to find out the different needs of each child and their family from time to time to provide diverse and customised aid to help them.
When in need, Tzu Chi would combine its charitable, medical, educational and humanistic resources to provide comprehensive assistance to these families. Therefore, the care recipient could be the parents, the child or their grandparents.
Besides making up for the shortcomings of each child, the charity education programme also enhances children’s strength by affirming their outstanding performances or behaviour, thus developing their potential and fostering their enthusiasm for independent learning. To this end, Tzu Chi has added incentives other than stipends, such as empowering students with the Diligence Award, Filial Piety awards, Outstanding Talent Award, etc., and guiding children to set goals and recognise their progress through long-term companionship.
Some of the volunteers are educators, but most of them are a group of dedicated people with rich social experience who believe that education can transform life and destiny. After receiving some basic training, these volunteers set out to visit each household and became listening ears to the parents. They are also the teachers to the children, uncles and aunties who cheer for them.
These volunteers live in the neighbourhoods nearby to these families and thus can unleash the kampong spirit at any time. Even if the care recipient had moved several times, the volunteer team would inform each other to keep the companionship uninterrupted.
Backed by such volunteer spirit, the Seeds of Hope Programme had evolved several times between the years 2009 to 2021 to include the four key sections, namely, Bursary Programme, Merit Awards, Nurturing Fund, and Mentoring Programme.
When I was in Sec One, I thought of many ways to save money. Some of the means I took were having very little for breakfast and only drinking water when I felt hungry. I also cut down on taking public transport and walked to school as often as I could. Luckily, Tzu Chi started subsidising my meals and transportation.
The challenges faced by students in each generation are different. In the past, Tzu Chi had safeguarded the underprivileged groups during two global crises by devoting a lot of resources in subsidising the educational needs of students to avoid any disruption to their studies.
Formerly known as the “Seeds of Hope Bursary Programme”, the name signifies the thriving and growing of seedlings. Over the past ten years, Tzu Chi’s Seeds of Hope Programme has been revamped several times to adapt with policy and societal changes. However, what remains unchanged is the sincere companionship by volunteers that helped develop independence in those who were receiving aid.
We have witnessed the growing up journeys of three children. One of them takes up family responsibilities despite her young age while the other two are studying the best they can in order to give their parents a better life in the future.
Master Cheng Yen always said that receiving help is temporary. The goal of helping others is to slowly develop self reliance in the aid receiver, or even help them become someone who can in turn help others. The core of Tzu Chi’s charity education is to cultivate children’s ability to face the challenges in life. Even if they grew up in a family with insufficient educational resources, children have the resilience and potential to overcome difficulties and grow up. This is where the hope of turning one’s life around lies.
There isn’t only soothing breeze and drizzling rain in nature. Sprouts that survive and stand tall amid strong winds and heavy rains will one day grow into big trees and provide shades for others.
Project coordinator: Wong Twee Hee
Writing and data compilation: Bernard Ng Jia Han
Photography: Chan May Ching, Wong Twee Hee, photography volunteers
Short film planning and production: Chua Poh Ling, Chong Yu Jia, Lee Chia Yee, Chen Ya Yin, Teh Siau Ching
Web design and creation: Tey Inn Ping
Art design: Jeff Lai Kin Wee
English translation and editing : Chong Sin Yin, Pan Zaixiang
Publicity (social media): Mavis Yeow Lin Ling
Information provided by Tzu Chi Charity Development Department
25.03.2022 A Tzu Chi Singapore Production