When Monique Tugas was only 25 years old, she made the difficult decision to separate from her partner and become a single mother to her two-year-old son.
Feeling like a failure, Tugas was unsure if she made the right decision. She explains the difficult self-reckoning she experienced:
"I was completely heartbroken and worried about bringing up my son alone.
I wasn’t sure how to be mother and father to him and what the impact of my separation would be on him."
And while she was not worried financially, as she had always been financially-independent, the fact that she would have to go on the journey alone made her “really worried”.
Thankfully, she was able to make it through more than 12 years of raising her son as a single mother, buoyed by the emotional support of her friends and family around her.
Fifteen years later, Tugas is happily married, and now has two beautiful children.
The 40-year-old recognises, though, that many other women in similar situations may not have the support systems that she was fortunate to have.
So in early 2020, she decided to give back, by volunteering with Daughters of Tomorrow, a charity founded by Member of Parliament Carrie Tan in 2012 that helps low-income women achieve financial independence and enable social mobility for their families.
Has always been interested in supporting NGOs
The former learning resources manager in the banking sector had always wanted to get involved in humanitarian programmes and support NGOs.
Tugas finally had the opportunity when she left her job in November 2019 and joined Daughters of Tomorrow in March 2020 as a befriender.
Offers one-on-one support and facilitates small group workshops
What does a befriender do?
According to Tugas, she provides one-on-one support to women who are currently going through Daughters of Tomorrow’s Power Up Online programme, a five-week online course that “helps women in their journey towards employment”.
Tugas also facilitates a 1.5 hour workshop with a small group of women each week. The workshop is meant to be a place to debrief the online course, as well as a space for them to develop relationships with one another.
Daughters of Tomorrow’s beneficiaries are generally low-income women who may have gone through a change in life circumstances (such as a spouse passing away or a divorce), and who are trying to get back into the workforce.
Many have never worked before, or had to step back from their careers in order to take care of their children.
They may face a variety of challenges, Tugas says, such as depression, reliance on a spouse who is no longer around, challenging relationships with their children, or lack of childcare support for their young children while they work.
So Daughters of Tomorrow tries to build the skills and the confidence the women need in order to get back into the workforce, Tugas explains.
“One [thing we train them in] is to be able to recognise that they have the ability to create and achieve success.
So we try to expose them to women who have actually been through their story and have been triumphant as well.”
The courses also equip the women with a variety of different skills, such as personal grooming for interviews and work as well as interview skills.
In 2019, the Daughters of Tomorrow helped to bridge 110 women into employment after they finished the organisation’s programme.
Being, first and foremost, a friend
As a befriender, Tugas sees herself as a “life coach” and a, well, friend to the women.
“A lot of these women have come from really difficult backgrounds, and it's really about being a buddy to them — someone that they can talk to, someone that they can test out some ideas with, and maybe, for me as a befriender, provide a different perspective to them, so that they see that there's actually a light at the end of the tunnel.”
She checks in regularly with the five women whom she is assigned to work with — over video call or WhatsApp, due to Covid-19 — to provide guidance and one-on-one support as they make their way through the course.
The friendship she develops with the women also helps in the mentorship process:
“We send each other quotes, or we check in on each other. We crack jokes and all that.
It's really become a friendship where we're comfortable, and I sense that they become more confident in confiding in me as well and, you know, working together towards how we can make things better for the ladies and the families that they have.”
The friendships also continue after the programme ends.
Tugas makes an effort to stay in touch with some of the women she befriended, by checking in from time to time on their journey and well-being.
The work of Daughters of Tomorrow hits particularly close to home for Tugas, she explains, because of her experiences as a woman and a single mother.
And she shares her personal experiences with the women she works with:
“I’m like an open book. [...] I guess it helps because they see that you have gone through hard times as well.
It may not be the exact situation, and it may not be the same gravity of issues that they have, but just to see that you are human, and you are susceptible to making those mistakes, and be able to to shift that to something positive, to learn from it."
Mothers with concerns
She tells me about one woman, A, whom she has developed a close relationship with. A was dealing with a number of difficulties in her personal life when she met Tugas.
Initially, Tugas felt that A was making the wrong decision, but she came to realise that A was in fact, making the most practical decision for her and her children.
“That was a really eye-opening situation for me because I wouldn't have seen myself making the decision that she plans to make.
But when I step back and look at myself as a mother, it's probably a risk that I would be willing to take to make sure that my kids are fine, first and foremost."
Some people may have misconceptions about the women that Daughters of Tomorrow works with are lazy or just can’t keep jobs, explains Tugas.
In reality, though, they are mothers who have concerns, and who are balancing motherhood with trying to get used to a different environment, she says.
Online community of Dotters
In addition to being a friend to the women and running weekly workshops, Tugas — together with some other beneficiaries — is one of the administrators of an Facebook group for women who have graduated from the programme.
The group — called Dotters — is an opportunity for the women to build a community among themselves and get to know each other, Tugas explains.
“I think what’s really great about the programme is that they get exposed to other women as well, who have either similar backgrounds or completely different backgrounds, and they are able to support and help each other.”
In the group, which was just launched in September, the women post motivational quotes to encourage one another, share questions about their situations and ask for advice from others, and even promote their own home-based businesses.
“It’s a safe space for them to be able to share their inner voice and to be able to help each other well as well.”
Meaningful but heavy work
While the work is not always easy, Tugas says that it has been meaningful:
“When you talk to the ladies, sometimes it can get pretty heavy. Or when you run a workshop, you know, it's running late at night, sometimes you're just exhausted and wishing it happened earlier.
But every time I have these interactions with the ladies, it's just very fulfilling because I learn a lot, and I see how it's helping them as well.
So it makes it... it just makes it worth it.”
In fact, she has learned a lot from the women: their ability to think on their feet, to share their perspectives with other beneficiaries, and resilience.
Her experience with A also taught Tugas more about her role as a friend and mentor:
“Sometimes, you try to steer them to a situation where there are no more mistakes, but in reality, life is not about that. There are some risks that we have to take that make it worth it.
[...] There are some really difficult decisions that you have to be able to support, and just let [the beneficiaries] know that you're behind them no matter what."
Giving back this holiday season
Tugas, through her work as a befriender and listening ear, is a classic example of how women can help and empower other women.
The Body Shop Singapore has been in constant collaboration with Daughters of Tomorrow since the start of 2020. Besides donating to the organisation, they also organised skincare and water calligraphy workshops for beneficiaries.
In addition, child-minding services were also provided during these workshops to allow the women to have some me-time and headspace for self-care.
This Christmas season, The Body Shop Singapore will donate for every transaction made in stores and online from November to December to support Daughters Of Tomorrow’s courses.
You can give back to those in our community who are less privileged this holiday season by gifting with a purpose. You can check out The Body Shop’s range of products here.
This sponsored article is brought to you by The Body Shop. Top photo courtesy of Monique Tugas.