Joshua Tay spent his post-National Service days a little differently from how most of his peers likely spent theirs.
While many who are university-bound may have a few months to do an internship, find a part-time job, or just chill, Tay, now 26, decided to take two gap years before starting college.
And one of the ways he spent his gap years was by working as a supervision staff at the Singapore Boys’ Hostel.
The role would later lead Tay, who is now a senior at Yale-NUS College majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, to start a non-profit organisation focused on this group of people that he still runs today.
Journeying with at-risk youths outside of correctional institutions
During his time at the hostel, Tay was inspired by the support provided to the boys in the hostel, both in the form of resources such as academic tutoring, sports training, and even guitar lessons, as well as great relationships with life coaches and caseworkers.
But once the boys left, there weren't any robust support systems to help them re-integrate into the community.
He was troubled to see a huge disparity between the ample support the youths received while in the hostel and the lack thereof once they left.
Together with a group of friends, Tay set up the organisation in 2017, which he calls Impart, in response to the gaps in the system that he noticed.
The group felt that the range of support systems for youths who were facing adversity was lacking. Tay identifies it as “both a deeply human and national problem”:
“Human, in the sense that young lives are being left in the lurch. And national, in the sense that we need better systems of mobility to grow as a society.”
The motivation for Impart went further than just plugging the gaps, though, Tay explains:
“We did not merely want to fill gaps; we wanted to build bridges.”
Impart focuses on supporting youths-at-risk and underserved youths who have left correctional or rehabilitation institutions and need assistance re-integrating into society, by pairing them with communities and volunteers to assist them in areas such as education, sports, and their creative passions.
Working with social workers and volunteers
Social workers have been an integral part of Impart’s education programming, since they are the ones working on-the-ground in the communities they serve.
Impart’s programmes are conceptualised carefully in order to engage existing community stakeholders rather than being stuck in their own bubble, detached from the situation on the ground.
“We wanted to make sure that the zeal for volunteering was coupled with healthy volunteering practices.”
To do this, the Impart team learns extensively from the social workers about the needs of the youth and to understand what might work best, before then recruiting and training volunteers as necessary.
The volunteers are then connected to youths through the social workers, in order to build on the pre-existing relationship between the social workers and the youths.
The volunteers also work closely with the social workers to provide quality resources to the youth under their care.
Shaping larger narratives through one-on-one moments
Tay’s team chose to stray from the typical model of volunteer-driven academic programmes, which is group-teaching held in a centre at a common time.
This is because Impart has a commitment to “the significance of little moments that go toward shaping larger narratives”, says Tay.
Instead of group courses, academic support sessions are on a one-to-one basis, with some youths being assigned two or three tutors.
Tay recognises that Impart’s approach might not be able to scale at the rate that other group-based programs do, but stresses that it prioritises the significance of “little moments”.
But how do these “little moments” in one-to-one sessions change the narrative for the students?
“The interesting thing about narratives is that they can’t merely be communicated,” Tay says:
“It is not enough for youths to hear through a speech that they have potential, nor is it enough for them to attend a camp to ‘get inspired’.
Rather, narratives have to be experienced, and these little moments of interaction during our academic support sessions help youths-facing-adversity to experience a span of new narratives about themselves, their prospects, and their communities.”
And Tay and his team feel that developing these narratives can have compounding effects for both the youths themselves and their communities:
“… it is only when these youths experience such change that they are able to bring these new narratives back to their own communities, thereby reshaping their communities from within.”
Student couldn’t understand why strangers were helping him
Along the way, the Impart team also learnt that persistence and patience, along with “a healthy dollop of empathy”, pay off, says Tay.
One youth who brought home the value of “little moments” for Tay was the first student Impart worked with.
He was preparing for his N Levels as a private candidate at the time, but in the four months leading up to the exams, he would either be an hour late for or skip almost half his scheduled lessons.
“The only thing that kept us going was his caseworker’s unyielding refrain that this was a youth who simply needed to be understood and pursued,” Tay explains.
So Tay and his team kept going with the student, and he ended up scoring mostly B’s and C’s, a vast improvement compared to his first failed attempt.
Tay explains that the student then told his case worker that he couldn’t understand why strangers were pursuing him:
“No one had ever believed he was able to make anything out of a formal education, and their persistent support was thoroughly confusing from his perspective.
So confusing, that every time he knew someone was waiting for him even though he was late or absent, he went back home and studied twice as long.”
And that experience reiterated to Tay and his team the value of “little moments”:
“This experience cemented our belief that the little moments matter, even if they seem like failed moments in the short-run.
It also reminded us that successful engagement can take on a myriad of forms, and that it is foolish and myopic to shoehorn any one youth’s experiences and responses into a standardised model.”
“Sometimes a little heart can go a long way,” he adds.
“I remember the word ‘potential’”
Tay brings up another student who stands out in his mind, whose experience reminded him of the value of potential and the role of community change in creating it.
The student, whom he calls “Sarah” (not her real name), was one of six children in her family, and had stopped attending school when she was 14.
“The age-old combination of poverty, alienation, and displacement precipitated Sarah’s delinquency,” explains Tay, and by 18, she had been remanded in the Drug Rehabilitation Centre for 12 months.
In 2019, Sarah was 20 years old and had reached out to Impart for support after leaving the rehabilitation centre, as Impart had already been working with various members of her family for the previous three years.
Impart volunteers curated an education program to equip Sarah with tools for reintegration that included skills such as workplace literacy and numeracy skills.
And very soon, Tay says, Sarah’s personality began to shine through: “Her sincerity, spunk, and desire energised us even on the longest of days.”
However, the moment that stands out in Tay’s mind the most is the Tuesday morning Sarah told him she found out that she was five months pregnant.
“The news was punctuated by deep sorrow, and I felt a mounting sense of dread at the sheer immensity of her predicament, which threw off the neat timelines that we had sketched together for her future and imminent employment.”
However, Sarah’s words in the conversation stood out to him, and have stayed with him ever since:
“I remember the word ʻpotentialʼ. My tutor taught me this word last week, and she told me ʻyou have potential.ʼ
So things now very messy, but I keep remembering ʻpotentialʼ. I want to keep trying.”
Sarah’s reaction to what Tay saw as “debilitating circumstances”, since the pregnancy would likely incur heavy financial, emotional, and developmental challenges for her, gave new meaning to the word “resilience” for Tay:
“[T]he fact that Sarah persisted at such a time taught me that the heart of resilience is honesty – that it meant first taking personal ownership of one’s actions.
And in admitting fault and honestly facing up to the weight of consequence, her conviction to persevere and strain against a return to delinquency grew all the stronger.”
He was also extremely heartened to see the real effect that community and relationship-formation played in Sarah’s life:
“Inasmuch as Sarah’s perseverance was a reflection of her personal development, it was also testament to the instrumental nurturing that her volunteer-teacher had provided.
While their lives would not otherwise overlap on a good majority of Venn diagrams, the grace and goodwill that had marked their relationship grew all the stronger when crisis struck.”
And the importance of community that shone through in this instance strengthened Tay’s belief that organisations such as Impart can make real communal change.
What’s next for Impart?
Since 2017, Impart, which is entirely volunteer-run, has grown from just three volunteers and one youth to more than 100 volunteers working with 80 youths.
A group of around 20 individuals help run the organisation, which has teams focused on partnerships and funding, curriculum development, volunteer engagement, communications, and operations.
While Impart has grown significantly in the past three years, Tay says they avoided scaling up their operations in the first three years so that they could be certain their systems and processes were set up properly and that they were actually making a sustainable impact in the lives of the students they worked with.
So now, after hearing from many youth, social workers, and volunteers, they are ready to take their next steps.
One way that they expanded in 2019 was by setting up two pilot programmes — a Sports Engagement pilot in partnership with SportCares and an independently-sourced Passion Project pilot — to address the lack of accessible and integrative sports engagement programmes and programmes to nurture passions for youths-facing-adversity.
Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic has put Impart’s plans for an official launch on hold.
Still, Tay says, the intention is for the organisation to leverage on areas of strength in order to develop programmes that meet neglected areas of impact, as well as work with a growing list of partner organisations to meet needs outside the scope of Impart.
“The goal is to play our part in nurturing healthy ecosystems of community growth,” says Tay.
Impart has also mostly grown through word-of-mouth, as the organisation has never done any widespread publicity.
However, after seeing a steady flow of social workers from a range of organisations approaching them for support, the core team began thinking about scale, which led to the founding of the communications team in the latter half of 2019.
The desire to further their impact has also brought up a number of questions for Impart’s core team. For example:
- A good portion of the founding team will be graduating in 2021 — will they be able to continue on this work as they take on different careers?
- Should Impart start charging fees to generate the necessary revenue to support full-time staff?
- Will government bodies and private groups see the value in the work that we do?
How others can get involved
For others who are interested in getting involved in their communities, one way to do so is through the Singapore Together movement, which just marked its first milestone year in June 2020.
Tay shares his thoughts on the movement:
“We understand the Singapore Together movement as the government’s attempt to model consultative and collaborative leadership, and we believe that this is a step in the right direction.
There are times when charismatic, prescient, and incisive leadership is required, and Singapore is no stranger to the successes that such leadership can yield.
However, different circumstances call for different modes of leadership, and we’re encouraged to see that the government‘s desire to be adept at adaptation.”
He explains that the on-the-ground response to the Covid-19 pandemic has shown that communities are increasingly engaged in playing their respective roles.
While Tay notes that there is a “reasonably high degree” of community trust toward the government, the government also needs to cultivate corresponding trust for community groups, which he feels is in line with the Singapore Together movement.
This trust, Tay says, would hopefully result in at least two things:
- Growing material support for non-governmental groups, especially young ones such as Impart
- A paradigm shift where the government sees the community as a partner to be empowered.
The Ministry of Culture, Community, & Youth supports individuals and groups keen to contribute to the community with resources and networks including Our Singapore Fund (OSF), which supports Impart.
OSF provides co-funds meaningful projects by passionate Singaporeans that build national identity or meet social and community needs. One-off, event-based projects can qualify for up to S$20,000 in funding
Groups of up to two Singaporeans or Permanent Residents at least 18 years or older, non-profit organisations, and social enterprises are eligible for the OSF grant.
Get involved and find out more on the OSF website here.
This sponsored article brought to you by the Singapore Together movement made the author want to get involved in the community.
Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people in Singapore and the unique ways they’re living their lives. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or the struggles they are facing, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.
Top photos courtesy of Joshua Tay.