There’s a quote by Beyonce about female friendship that goes: “There’s nothing like a conversation with a woman that understands you.” That’s the exact feeling one gets observing Anna Kwan and Monica Rufina interact over lunch in a crowded Orchard Road cafe one weekday afternoon.
They glance at and speak affectionately to each other, warmly share complimentary observations about each other and effortlessly finish each other’s sentences.
“We met through common friends. We’d heard our friends mention each other before, but somehow, we never crossed paths until a ladies’ luncheon in 2010! The Indonesian community in Singapore is very active — there are always lots of parties and events,” says Monica.
While Anna was born in Jakarta and had studied interior design in Los Angeles, Monica hails from Solo, and holds a medical degree and a Masters in Hospital Administration. The latter moved to Singapore in 1994 after marriage (her husband, also Indonesian, handles investments for his family office), and for a decade ran cosmetics retailer Make Up Store while raising their daughter.
“The more we talked, the more we realised we share the same values. We’re both Christians. I really like Monica’s gentle spirit — to me, she’s the living embodiment of the quiet, patient, soft-spoken, ladylike ‘Solo princess’, whereas I’m a lot more ‘fierce’ and talkative. I think we really complement each other,” Anna adds.
Based in Singapore for the last 15 years, the mother of three (with a daughter aged 23, and two sons aged 21 and 12) and her businessman husband had long shuttled between Jakarta and Singapore, as their older son — born with a heart condition — received medical treatment in the city-state.
Nodding and smiling, Monica says: “Anna’s the kind of girlfriend who’s always full of energy, full of ideas. She’s a dreamer and she’s very idealistic. But she’s also the kind who makes things happen, who figures out how to make things work, who knows how to transform dreams into reality.”
The dream Anna had at that point was to set up a charitable organisation to help women and children in need.
“It all started when our group of girlfriends was discussing how we were interested in giving back to the community. One of them, whose husband is a doctor at an Indonesian hospital, and who was in touch with the hospital’s social worker, would tell us about certain sick children whose families were having trouble footing their medical bills. So we decided that what we really wanted to do was help children,” says Anna. “We’re Indonesian, we’re women, and we’re mothers. We live in Singapore, so it made sense to start by helping Indonesians near Singapore.”
United by a common passion to help children and women in need, with a focus on education and medical support for chronically- or critically-ill children, Anna and 12 other like-minded friends came together to found Loaf in September 2013. An acronym for “Love One Another with Faith”, it also means “a loaf of bread”, a basic necessity the organisation believes everyone should have access to.
“When Anna approached me to help, I was thinking, ‘She has three kids, and I have only one’. How could I possibly say ‘No, I have no time?’” I felt lucky to be involved in what we do. I feel blessed in my life; I have received so much, and I want to give to those who have less,” says Monica, whose daughter is now a freshman at a Boston college.
The cornerstones of the organisation are “To Give, To Serve, To Support”. Each Loaf member (eight of the 13 original core members are still active) commits a fixed sum every month to support Loaf’s initiatives.
In addition, Loaf conducts fundraising activities, with all proceeds going towards identified causes. For example, it organised a private viewing night for the Great Wall musical in 2017, held private cooking demonstrations by renowned Indonesian chefs in 2016 and 2017, and sold cookies and cakes during festive seasons from 2014 to 2018. It has also held several fundraising galas.
Aside from footing hospital bills for sick children from needy families and visiting them in hospital to lend their encouragement and support, Loaf sponsors lunches and food packs for the elderly at MWS Christalite Methodist Home in Singapore during festive seasons. Members go on annual self-paid mission trips to Cambodia, Myanmar and other third world countries to provide enrichment programmes and fulﬁ l requests for computer labs and bedding, among other things. Every month, Loaf also provides needy families with very young children in Singapore with milk and diapers, and makes visits to Batam to catch up with their sponsored children.
Since 2015, Loaf has collaborated with BP Peduli Foundation Jakarta, a foundation in Indonesia that operates Sekolah Misi Bagi Bangsa in Batam, a school that takes in children regardless of their religious backgrounds.
“It was small and run-down, but you could see that the kids took so much joy in learning,” says Anna, who was in Batam on a mission to identify a school that Loaf would support. As it turned out, the land for the school, located within a slum, was about to be reacquired by the government for redevelopment.
As Anna was leaving the school, she spotted a BP Peduli banner. “A girlfriend I had worked with at Forerunner Foundation Singapore, another charity I’m active with — her husband ran that very foundation! I called her and we met the next morning. She said they were planning to move the school to a piece of land they had bought, but required more funds to construct the school building. I said: ‘If you provide the land, Loaf will raise the funds to build the school’,” recalls Anna.
Within a year, the new school was up and running. From an original enrolment of 40 kids, it now has 670 children. Loaf’s Path (Providing Adolescent and Children The Hope) programme sponsors the school fees of 150 students, many of whom live in slums, dumpsites, fishing villages, orphanages or are homeless. Path has since expanded its reach to Malang in Jakarta, as well as Cambodia and Myanmar.
“We did face some issues in the beginning; it was hard finding local partners who share our vision. For example, we had raised money for certain orphanages or schools to purchase items they said they needed and later found out that the funds had been misappropriated,” says Anna grimly.
“Even when we donated goods such as new mattresses or milk powder, we’d find that the staﬀ sold oﬀ the items and the kids didn’t get what they needed. Or they might have resold the original goods and replaced them with poorer-quality ones, pocketing the difference. It was heartbreaking,” she says, as her eyes fillll with tears. Monica reaches out and squeezes Anna’s arm in silent consolation.
“I was so sad, angry, frustrated and disappointed all at once!” Anna exclaims. “But I told myself: ‘If I walk away, the kids don’t get the help they need. So, we persevered. It’s unfortunate that corruption and misappropriation is common in poor countries, but over the years, we’ve managed to ensure that we’ve connected with the right people, that we work with trusted partners.”
Loaf now employs a person in Batam to personally check up on the organisations it supports, and to regularly drop in on “their kids”, because even though their school fees are covered, some parents still take the kids out of school to put them to work.
“Kids represent the future, the potential of a nation. That’s why it’s important for them to get a proper education, to build their character, to inculcate integrity, to fill them with hope and love. In time, they can contribute back to society too,” says Anna.
“It’s amazing how we started oﬀ so small, just with the desire to help one sick child. We never really have plans or targets, but whenever we see a need, we’ll just do what we can and the right kind of support always comes in at the right time. Till today, Loaf doesn’t have an office, or hold regular structured meetings, or have a specific calendar of events. Slowly, project by project, we’ve grown in terms of the number of people we’re helping. And we’ve also managed to expand our reach through different fundraising initiatives,” Monica marvels.
Asked about their fondest memories of Loaf, and Anna mentions its first gala fundraiser.
“We decided to invite six of our Batam kids to sing alongside our own children as part of the evening’s entertainment. I wasn’t at the first rehearsal, but a Loaf member who was there called me to say we had to find alternative entertainment as the kids’ singing was terrible. But I felt our Batam kids had as much, if not, more right than our own children to perform that night and be in the spotlight,” says Anna.
She quickly invited two Singapore-based Indonesian girlfriends who were professional singers to train the kids within two weeks, then perform alongside them on the evening of the gala dinner. They were to sing three songs, one in Chinese, one in Indonesian and another in English (We Are the World).
“You know, during the performance, our own children were still referring to the lyric sheets for the Chinese song, while our Batam kids, who didn’t even study Chinese in school, were singing the song by heart. It moved me so much that they are so motivated, so eager to learn and to do their very best. During We Are the World, our guests stood up and sang along, then gave the kids a standing ovation. One guest even invited our Batam kids to audition for a Child Aid concert; they auditioned successfully and got to perform at Marina Bay Sands! The performers were so thrilled, and their friends were so inspired. It’s so important to teach kids to dream big, so whenever they do well, we recognise their efforts by having them visit Singapore, and take them out for meals, soccer games or to Universal Studios with our own kids,” Anna says.
Monica mentions Loaf’s second gala fundraiser, where they roped in 30 of their child beneficiaries for a dance performance and to walk the runway for a fashion show by an Indonesian designer. The kids also sang alongside Jesselton Philharmonic Orchestra (JPO), a Sabah-based youth orchestra that exposes underprivileged children to music.
“The founder of JPO was so impressed by our Batam kids’ energy and enthusiasm that she volunteered to give them free music lessons, but we felt we couldn’t use Loaf’s funds to buy expensive musical instruments as we had more pressing needs, such as buying books for school libraries. As luck would have it, JPO founder’s son, who was a student at UWC, informed us that the school was upgrading its entire orchestra’s equipment. So we approached them, and they donated all the instruments we needed for those music lessons to happen! It’s amazing how we always get the right help at the right time, from our friends,” Monica says.
Loaf’s next big project is to build a vocational institute. It’s currently looking for a suitable site, and is drawing up a curriculum focusing on trades such as IT, nursing and hospitality. “For that, we’ll need government support, as well as from corporations who’re willing to provide training, internships and job opportunities for our future graduates,” says Anna.
“I love cooking, so we also have a fundraising cookbook in the making,” says Monica. The idea was mooted by Anna, who while not a cook, was inspired by her ex-neighbours — the late pioneer gynaecologist Dr Tow Siang Hwa and his wife — who invited her over for a home-cooked meal when she ﬁ rst moved to Singapore.
“I still remember how I felt that evening, tasting their popiah, poached chicken and other homecooked dishes. It reminded me of family meals at my grandma’s when I was growing up. It wasn’t just about food, but about food cooked with love, for your loved ones. Home is not just a place but a feeling, and they made me feel at home,” Anna recalls.
Titled From Our Home to Yours, Loaf’s fundraising cookbook, which offers more than 120 treasured family recipes contributed by more than 50 of Anna and Monica’s friends and shot by volunteer photographer Irene Jonata, features mainly Asian recipes — Indonesian, Chinese, Singaporean, Malaysian, Thai, with a few Western ones thrown in. It’s slated to go on sale in early 2020.
This story first appeared in the December issue of A.