January 19, 2021
Video by: Andy Tay | Words & Photos by: Marcus Khoo
(Video above) As international borders closed, these Singaporean youths still found a way to volunteer “overseas” to help children from disadvantaged communities in remote areas in Vietnam.
While most youths spend their weekends catching up with friends or binge-watching the latest Netflix series, Ms Caroline Koh and other youth volunteers set aside time from their busy schedules to teach children overseas, make new friends and develop themselves holistically — without ever leaving the country!
Introducing Project HerePhoGood2 — the first Youth Expedition Project (YEP) under Youth Corps Singapore (YCS) to be conducted digitally, also known as YEP-GO (YEP Goes Online). The 16-week programme includes 10 weeks of intense planning before the team engages with children in Tra Vinh Province, Vietnam over five weeks. At the end of the project, the volunteers spend a week on personal reflections.
In any other year, the usual YEP programme requires volunteers to pack their bags and travel to countries within Southeast Asia to make a difference through service-learning activities for communities in need.
(Above) Project HerePhoGood2 volunteers perform a dance to entertain children in Tra Vinh Province, Vietnam over Zoom.
Even though there was no travel this year, youth volunteers from Singapore were still keen to participate to keep the spirit of YEP alive and help educate children from disadvantaged communities in remote areas in Vietnam.
The engagement activities were part of a continued partnership with Eco Vietnam Group (EVG) Community Volunteering Centre, who was part of 2019’s YEP+ Project HerePhoGood. The group helps disadvantaged communities in remote areas of the country improve their quality of life through education beyond their classrooms, which includes things related to community responsibility, such as climate change, water pollution, financial literacy, emotions management, and even making their own hand sanitiser.
(Above) In conversation with the children from Eco Vietnam Group (EVG) Community Volunteering Centre, volunteer Ms Caroline Koh shares that she’d like to learn Vietnamese in the next year.
Serving overseas communities through Zoom
After almost three months of planning, Ms Koh, 20, gathered with like-minded youths every Saturday in late October to November 2020 to conduct the digital YEP. Held at The Red Box, headquarters of YCS, volunteers, armed with their laptops and a cheery attitude to serve, sat themselves in two separate rows, ensuring safe-distancing protocols were met.
While these sessions were meant to help the children, they also turned out to be educational for volunteers too. The key thing for volunteers was that they had to learn to adapt to the differences that came with a digital form of the programme.
“While Zoom is more effective and efficient in terms of time management, I found that conducting the sessions over Zoom was more tiring than being there in person,” says Ms Koh, comparing her experience with a Myanmar-based YEP that she previously attended in March 2019.
She highlights that a normal YEP would involve a lot of physical contact and face-time with the children, but she appreciates that the project is now digital, which allows her to plan her time and not take leave from work to volunteer “abroad”.
(Above) Volunteers have to be exceptionally expressive via Zoom. Ms Rafidah Binte Ramli, 36, self-employed external trainer, gets up from her chair to greet the students with vigorous hand actions to show her energy and enthusiasm online.
Ms Koh, a supply chain management student at Republic Polytechnic, joined YEP-GO as she was looking to occupy her time in a meaningful way outside of school and work, while forging new friendships at the same time. The experience offered her so much more in terms of personal development, as she also improved her communication skills and time management.
“How I portray myself in front of the camera has changed as I am used to planning (behind the scenes). I got to try out a different role where I had to let go of myself and step up to entertain and interact with the children over Zoom,” said Ms Koh on how she learnt to be more comfortable communicating with children compared to her previous roles for YEP.
“Since I’m juggling work, school, and YEP, I [also] needed to learn how to [manage my time with] the three. When my group mates realised that I had a lot on my plate, I had to learn how to let go of things and share tasks with them,” said Ms Koh on learning the value of teamwork through this programme.
(Above) With language being a barrier, children from Tra Vinh Province use hand gestures to acknowledge and interact with the volunteers during the session.
Making the digital switch
Working digitally for a programme that normally required travel was the biggest challenge for co-leaders, Mr Chan Ming Hui, 26, and Mr Muhammad Zaki Djuanda, 29. They had to think of ways to achieve the same experiences and outcomes as previous YEPs — via a computer.
Team bonding was essential to help the group overcome obstacles. The volunteers spent a lot of time together refining the content being taught to ensure that it would be practical and feasible over Zoom.
“Together, we wanted to challenge the limits of e-learning, to be that positive impact while learning from and enjoying this journey of growth,” said Mr Chan. “While Covid-19 may have disrupted air travel and building connections with students required more effort, it is rewarding once you’ve managed to forge those bonds with the students virtually.”
(Above) As volunteers wear masks throughout the session, they write their messages on paper to communicate more effectively.
While the project may have been conducted digitally, Ms Koh agreed that they met their objectives of “bringing joy and laughter to the kids”.
Project HerePhoGood2 was one of the first YEP-GO teams to make the digital switch and has spurred other youths to do the same. The project is currently looking for potential leaders to lead its third edition.