August 17, 2020
Photos by: Joe Nair | Words by: Stacey Rodrigues
(Photo above) Fion Phua, founder of Keeping Hope Alive, briefs her team of volunteers before they start work at the one- and two-room rental flats in blocks 89 and 90 Redhill Close.
It’s 8am Sunday morning. Ms Fion Phua is in the zone, a familiar sight knocking on the doors of one- and two-room rental flats across Singapore.
So regularly has she done that over the years, that the founder of Keeping Hope Alive (KHA) has met just about all kinds of folks who need help.
“There is one couple — the wife can see, husband is blind; the wife is also dumb and deaf, the husband can hear and speak. Wah, combined it’s very tough to teach them how to use something like a washing machine.”
One thing that sets KHA apart from other charities is that Ms Phua and her team randomly knock doors of one- and two-room rentals to assess what their residents need, and immediately work on them.
That includes everything from the giving of food, electrical or white goods, grooming, as well as cleaning and fumigation where required.
(Above) Mr Mark Yuen, known as Uncle Mark among volunteers, is a trained hairdresser who knocks on doors to ask if residents need haircuts. If they are sufficiently mobile, he brings them out of their dimly lit homes and corridors to “set up shop” at one of the staircase or lift landings where there is sufficient light.
“Sometimes people ask, ‘How can you do that without planning?’ Or they will tell me, ‘It’s very rude, how can you just knock on doors?’,” she said.
“It depends on the individual. What is your intention? If your intention is to investigate or you have a hidden agenda, obviously cannot lah. If you come here wholeheartedly, wanting to wash their feet, trim their toenails, check their medicine, turn on their handphones to arrange video calls with their children in Malaysia, install their water heater, read letters for them and apply for government aid, then that’s different.”
KHA’s Sunday morning volunteer efforts have run non-stop for more than 20 years.
So dedicated is Ms Phua in her mission that even when she had a hysterectomy and was wheelchair-bound during recovery, she was still fixing fans at the void decks of flats while volunteers moved from unit to unit to deliver them.
Galvanising Support from the Public
It is this inspiring commitment that won KHA the President’s Award for Informal Group at the President’s Volunteerism & Philanthropy Awards (PVPA) 2015, organised by the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (NVPC).
(Above) The Keeping Hope Alive team come prepared with new goods, such as mattresses, for residents at blocks 89 and 90 Redhill Close.
“The award has generated more interest from the public to join us as volunteers,” she shared with NVPC. “We have more skilled volunteers including hairdressers, plumbers or technicians. Our nurse volunteers are able to provide medical assistance and advise the needy on how to tap into government medical assistance or schemes.
“Companies have also joined in by offering their products and services. With more participation from the corporates, we are able to extend more help to the needy.”
What keeps her going? “The needy, the donors, the sponsors, the volunteers. Everybody who wishes to know more and understand the circumstances of these people,” she says. “A lot of people ask, why do they live like this? A lot of people have the concept that they must be lazy.”
But through years of work, Ms Phua recognises that every situation is different.
“Sometimes, you can see from here (the void deck), all the bamboo (laundry poles), got so many children’s clothing. You just go and knock lah, and ask, ‘How many children do you have? Children go to school or not?’”
It also takes a keen sense of observation to find out who needs assistance. “Sometimes, you can see from here (the void deck), all the bamboo (laundry poles), got so many children’s clothing. You just go and knock lah, and ask, ‘How many children do you have? Children go to school or not?’
“A mother with too many children, living in a one-room flat that’s less than 35 sqm cannot think anymore. Turn right, turn left — not one part of the house is empty. Place a washing machine and you cannot open the window. Put a fridge, then no space for a dining table. Put a dining table, no space for a bed. Put a bed, where do you put the wardrobe?”
Pivoting to Address New Needs As They Come
Besides space constraints, Covid-19 changed things up for Ms Phua and her team as they discovered a different set of needs.
While digitalisation has helped most of us live and work fairly comfortably without leaving our homes, Ms Phua reminds us of our privilege.
(Above) Ms Fion Phua, 51, centre, speaks to two elderly men who share a flat under the joint singles scheme. One (left) is hard of hearing and the other (right), a former Taoist spirit medium, is blind from cataracts.
“Before this step, you need the computer, router, wi-fi. Some students don’t have a laptop, printer or ink cartridge,” she says.
“The elderly need help with upgrading their smartphones. For us it is so easy to use Grab or Food Panda. But for the elderly, we have to teach them how to make a HealthHub appointment because you cannot suka-suka go to the clinic.”
“I always say, please don’t describe me as God. I’m only a human on earth. I see what I can see, I do what I can do, within what I can.”
For her work, she says many people have called her the “god of mercy” or an “angel”.
“I always say, please don’t describe me as God. I’m only a human on earth. I see what I can see, I do what I can do, within what I can.
“I welcome anyone to come forward. I just have one very strict regulation. You are not allowed to cry — because they have nothing; they only have tears. Come here and treat them like your family.”
Find out how you can too can volunteer with Keeping Hope Alive through their Facebook page.
If you know someone like Ms Fion Phua of Keeping Hope Alive, nominate him or her for the President’s Volunteerism & Philanthropy Awards 2020 Special Edition – Our Finest Hour in the City of Good. Closing date: 21 August 2020.