Gerard Ee has worked with at-risk youths for more than three decades.
In the 1980s, when he was recruited into Beyond Social Services, a voluntary welfare organisation then known as the Bukit Ho Swee Community Service Project, his brief was to “keep the youth meaningfully occupied on the streets”. That meant getting them interested in various sports or taking them on camping trips — in effect, removing opportunity for delinquency and run-ins with the law.
Now its long-serving executive director, Ee and his team continue to regard themselves as a “village” that helps raise disadvantaged children and youths.
While juvenile arrests in Singapore have declined over the years (a nearly 40 percent decrease from 2009 to 2017), one observation remains the same, says Ee: “The family and community remain the fundamental protective factors for children and youth”.
Programmes and outreach efforts initially centred on the Bukit Ho Swee neighbourhood, but have since grown to engage over 10,000 rental units in government rental blocks across the island, including in areas such as Bukit Merah, Whampoa, Ang Mo Kio, Lavender and Ghim Moh.
The key approach: nurturing positive environments where children and youths feel a sense of belonging so they don’t feel the need to turn to negative influences.
The social work veteran shares his observations.
The approach Beyond Social Services takes is that of village building. Do share a little more.
When problem solving, it is about getting family, friends and volunteers to come around in support of a family or someone who has a challenge. However, on a daily basis, it is constantly inviting and inspiring people to believe in the value of community and how belonging and contributing to the well-being of a community enhances our lives tremendously.
Does the age or background of the volunteer matter, in terms of connecting with some youth?
First impressions and perception do matter, but rapport and relationship building as a skill that transcends age and background. Of course, we cannot force a relationship, but a sense of humour and a huge dose of humility from a place of self-awareness and authenticity would usually do wonders for relationship building.
How does one know if being something more formal like a social worker or being a dedicated volunteer is the right calling for them?
I guess it is being comfortable in one’s skin when doing the work. One feels competent, fulfilled and strives to learn. Most importantly, one sincerely enjoys being in the company of the people the work exists for.
What is the most pressing challenge that the social service sector faces?
Unlike other sectors, we are supposed to work ourselves out of a job but what does that mean for a career in social services? What does it mean for the design and goals of our programmes? Importantly, what does it mean for service users?
Gaining clarity on the sector’s role and purpose may not seem like a pressing challenge, but the answer or the lack of it defines the type of society we want to be part of in the longer run. Are we one that simply farms out all our social challenges or one that strives to be fairer, kinder and inclusive?
Beyond Social Services envisions that by 2025 every child and youth from disadvantaged backgrounds has the opportunity to refuse a lifestyle of delinquency and welfare dependency. With five years left to this target date, what are your thoughts?
The statistics show that youth crime is coming down but that cannot be attributed to our efforts. Larger society factors such as policies that keep youth in school and technology-enabled leisure activities probably played a part. Nonetheless, the vision has given us a purpose-driven energy to stay the course and remain relevant for our members. I have come to see that the more things change, the more they remain the same as family and community remain the fundamental protective factors for children and youth.
One message or piece of advice you want every youth to know.
Suicide among youth has reached record high numbers and all of us can look out for friends and treat any threat seriously. Warning signs include a change in mood, behaviour or language and a little kindness, concern and support may make a difference. Alert supportive adults who can help.
When you think back on your decades as a social worker, what lifts your spirit?
It is the privilege of always having a purpose and a challenge that inspire support from the larger community and importantly, the trust and friendship of those who let me into their lives.
Do people ask why you give so much of yourself?
When asked, I tell them that just like anyone else, it is probably the satisfaction of being able to do something I am reasonably good at, to thrive and to be acknowledged.
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