Eunice Olsen is no stranger on the local charity scene: She has been volunteering with Beyond Social Services for the past 15 years. How does she see her journey in charity and advocacy, and what does she feel is still lacking in Singapore when it comes to inclusivity and equity? We speak to the advocate, champion of social causes and former Nominated Member of Parliament to find out.
You’ve been an active advocate and supporter of social causes throughout your career. What was the eureka moment where you realised that you wanted to make charity and advocacy a big part of your life?
My first volunteering stint that had more face-to-face interaction was at the Toa Payoh Girls’ Home (currently the Singapore Girls’ Home.) The experience really touched me very deeply, and I learnt so much from the girls and from the entire experience. While there was no one eureka moment, the time there and later on at Andrew and Grace Home (now Gladiolus Place) really made me realise that volunteerism was something that resonated very deeply with me, and I felt that it had great value for our society.
As I started working in the media, I saw being in the media as a platform to speak about causes that were important and that I was passionate about, but also I felt that it was my duty and responsibility to use my platform in the media to advocate for causes that affect our society. While the organisations and social workers are busy doing the work, we can contribute to what they do in a small way by helping to advocate for the cause and galvanising support.
How has the pandemic affected or changed your charity work?
For the past two years, my volunteering work started to shift towards sitting on boards. Also, I produce a small online women’s interview programme called WomenTalk, which features videos and podcasts of extraordinary everyday women. When lockdown happened, I realised, from talking to some of the women in our community who run mental health organisations, that the mental health conversation needed to be brought to the forefront and that they were seeing a spike in calls on their hotline.
My team and I immediately decided that the way we could contribute was to use our platform to have these live chats as often as we could with mental health professionals, so that the public could get first-hand information and insight on how to deal with some of the issues they were experiencing during the lockdown. We are grateful to the Silver Ribbon project, as the social workers found time to have these calls with us on a regular basis, even after the lockdown was over, and have continued to till today.
You’ve been with Beyond Social Services since 2005, first with Babes and now with the organisation as a whole. What was it about Beyond’s mission or its cause that drew you to them in the first place?
Until today, I’m very grateful to Beyond for the privilege to be the goodwill ambassador for the Babes programme. It taught me so much and the experience really gave me a lot of perspective as a volunteer. Back in 2005, I was very impressed with Babes as it was empowering, supportive and non-judgemental. Getting to know some of the pregnant teenage mums and working alongside the staff at Beyond had a huge impact on me. I witnessed first hand the sincere and very important work that Beyond was doing.
Over the years, I’ve seen how the entire team has grounded themselves in the mission to empower the community, preserving the dignity of the community as they support them in their journey. The team at Beyond are genuine, competent and always put the community at the heart of everything they do.
What were some of your most recent charity initiatives with Beyond Social Services, and what are some of your upcoming ones?
The last time I had the privilege of working with them was hosting their 50th anniversary at Jln Klinik. What impressed me was that they didn’t celebrate at any fancy hotel, but instead they involved the entire community in the celebrations and I got to see so many familiar faces there. It was a beautiful and heartwarming celebration and everyone had a great time! There are no upcoming ones as yet, but I’m always here for them and they know they can call on me anytime!
Of the numerous causes you support, the empowerment and furthering of women’s causes seems to be a field that’s especially dear to you. Would you agree? Why is this a cause particularly dear to you?
There are two causes that are very close to my heart, and those are topics surrounding disabilities and women’s empowerment. My community work has always revolved around these two areas since the beginning. With regard to women’s issues, I started off working with a lot of at-risk youth, particularly girls. Following that, I was involved in issues surrounding the trafficking and exploitation of girls. Also, while I was doing research for my film on trafficking, I started to explore the issues of sanitation and that led to the design and implementation of a menstrual hygiene management programme Project Precious. Following that, I started my women’s programme and a children’s book on women.
As I started to learn about issues surrounding women, I started to uncover even more. Women are half the world and yet in so many areas, there is still much work to be done. I’ve always felt that I had to do whatever I could, even in a small way to help elevate the cause of women. I consider myself very fortunate that as a minority woman, I’ve had the privilege of education and different opportunities.
With regards to the topic of disability, equality is very crucial as a concept and important to me, whether gender or abilities. As we evolve as a country, this area is something we must pay more attention and resources to. Prioritising this is the only way we can be considered a first world nation. I’m privileged to have learnt from so many great individuals in this area and I continue to learn everyday.
You’ve been an advocate for many years now — how far would you say Singapore has come in various fields, such as women’s rights, supporting at-risk or low-income youths and persons with disabilities, and so on?
The conversation around women’s rights is evolving as Singapore looks towards policies for a more gender-equal society, and it’s encouraging to see big institutions put into place policies to protect against gender discrimination and sexual assault. There definitely is a way to go because there are so many issues involved, such as the language that we communicate with in school, at home or in the workplace. On a national level, our policies need to be put through a gender lens, and we need to identify our unconscious biases and work through these issues at different levels of our society. It requires individual, organisational and national support and effort.
When it comes to at-risk youth, I can’t emphasise it enough when I say that Beyond is a beacon of light in this area. I always try and encourage younger people to learn more about their work in this area and how they have personally impacted the lives of many individuals. Singapore is better because of them.
In the area of disability, we have come a long way. There has been a lot more conversation around this area, and movements like the Purple Parade has encouraged a strong push in this area. There are brilliant individuals and organisations who have worked very hard to bring disability issues into the national conversation.
On a personal note, I would love to see more integration in our society, from schools to the workplace. While many organisations have identified diversity and inclusion as a priority, employment practices and policy details need to be put in place, and the will of the leadership and how it translates to the rest of the organisation is imperative.
In your life, you’ve donned many hats — two-term NMP, advocate, businesswoman, amongst others. Which of these has been the most meaningful to you, and why?
I am truly blessed and grateful to have the privilege of doing different things in my life. I’ve learnt something from all of the different roles and responsibilities I’ve had, and all are meaningful to me. Throughout my journey, I’ve been led to amazing people like the team at Beyond and others who I’ve learnt from, faced challenges together, and worked alongside with. All these different experiences have culminated in the person I am today, and all my work has helped me to be a better person and now a businesswoman. My company’s motto is “Create purposeful”, and I always think about the people I’ve worked with and the purpose they’ve brought to my life.