Selene Ong started her journey with the Singapore Red Cross in 2015. Throughout her years of service, she has made significant contributions, which led her to become the head of the Community Resilience Department. One of the programmes that Selene oversees is Young Hearts, which provides educational opportunities for children from disadvantaged families. Selene is deeply committed to Young Hearts, and works tirelessly to ensure its success.
From a young age, Selene found a deep sense of fulfilment in helping others.
“I have always had the desire to find purpose in life and make a meaningful impact,” she said.
Recognising that a career dedicated to serving others would be the key to her personal contentment, Selene set out on a path to fulfil this calling.
Having volunteered at the zoo and at organisations involved in wildlife preservation, Selene sought out opportunities in the realm of animal welfare. However, despite her persistent efforts, suitable opportunities in animal welfare did not materialise.
“Someone asked me to consider helping people instead. It was a life-changing moment for me," she says.
Noting that it was an option that aligned with her purpose of serving others, Selene widened her search and came across the Singapore Red Cross (SRC). Intrigued by SRC’s mission to serve humanity and recognising the potential to make a significant impact, Selene applied to join SRC, and secured a role as an Executive with SRC’s fundraising department, which is now known as Resource Development.
Within the fundraising department, Selene’s role was to develop partnerships and garner the support of corporate partners and donors for SRC's local humanitarian programmes.
Commenting on her time in SRC’s fundraising department, Selene said, "I was motivated to use my skills and experience to inspire potential donors and partners to support SRC in providing help and hope to the vulnerable in the community.”
Uplifting the Vulnerable
Motivated by her commitment and passion to secure resources and build partnerships to help the less fortunate, Selene took on the challenge of leading SRC’s Community Resilience department in 2017.
The Community Resilience department (CR) offers a range of services to bridge the gaps in social services within the community. One of its key initiatives is the Community Befriending (formerly ElderAid) programme, which was launched in 2015, to address the ageing population in Singapore. Through the programme, volunteers befriend and visit seniors living alone regularly, to provide care and companionship. This helps to promote ageing-in-place and minimises the need for the elderly to live in nursing homes.
CR also manages the Family LifeAid programme, which distributes supermarket vouchers to underprivileged families.
During one of her visits to a family enrolled in the Family LifeAid programme, Selene discovered that three generations of the same family were relying on the vouchers distributed by humanitarian organisations and the government, to meet their basic needs.
As Selene observed the situation, she realised, “Merely providing vouchers was not enough to truly uplift the lives of disadvantaged families. The vouchers create a cycle of temporary relief without addressing the underlying issues.”
Highlighting the importance of holistic support, Selene said “What underprivileged families really need is a support system that goes beyond material assistance. In order to overcome their challenges and thrive, they require compassionate individuals who would walk alongside them and offer guidance and empathy.”
Selene with two youth from the Red Cross Young Hearts programme, representing Young Hearts at the SRC Awards in 2022.
Shaping Young Hearts Through Education and Mentorship
During her visits to underprivileged families, Selene would directly engage and interact with the children, and she witnessed the significant impact that positive role models and relationships had on their lives. Recognising the immense potential held within each child, Selene became acutely aware of the need to provide them with the necessary support, resources, and opportunities to fully develop their abilities.
However, she noted that children from disadvantaged families, some of whom live in rental flats, tend to lack long-term, dependable support and resources.
"Sometimes, the family environment is not conducive to learning. Their caregivers may not have the time or means to care for the children as they may work odd hours or engage in shift work. This may adversely impact the children’s physical and emotional well-being, as well as their cognitive abilities and academic achievement. Growing up in a non-English speaking environment also affects the children's ability to achieve grade-appropriate literacy and proficiency.
As the gaps in their support system emerge and widen, the children start to feel more anxious and stressed, and this may have an adverse impact on their motivation, morale, and self-esteem," Selene said.
To mitigate the challenges faced by children from underprivileged families, SRC rolled out the Red Cross Young Hearts programme in 2019 to provide them with a safe space in which they can access resources and opportunities to develop their potential.
“The Young Hearts centre provides a conducive environment for our children to share their thoughts and feelings, work on their studies, and open their horizons to new possibilities. Despite their challenging backgrounds, our Young Hearts beneficiaries demonstrate an eagerness to learn and enjoy spending time at the centre regularly,” Selene says.
The Young Hearts programme is run by volunteers, who provide weekly tuition and mentorship to the children at the centre. The volunteers also serve as mentors who share their life stories and perspectives, to inspire and guide the children to discover and develop their strengths and talents.
The time and commitment of the volunteers have enabled them to build a trusted bond with the children, who would confide in the volunteers whenever they needed a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, or when they were going through a rough patch in their lives.
"Some children confide in us after acting out in front of their parents. They may feel that their intentions and actions were misunderstood by the adults. They have open conversations with us because they trust us, and we help to bridge the gap between the children and their parents," Selene shared.
Learning and discovery outings that cultivate a sense of curiosity, and encourage experimental learning and social interaction are also a key part of the Young Hearts Programme.
“One of the outings that the children really enjoyed was the visit to the Google Singapore office. It was an eye-opening experience that gave them a glimpse into the careers that they can strive toward," she says.
The Young Hearts programme has touched Selene’s heart on many occasions.
“It warms my heart to witness the children express their heartfelt gratitude to their volunteer tutors when they pass their exams. My heart swelled with pride when Mdm Halimah Yacob, President of Singapore, and the patron of the Singapore Red Cross, praised the children for their polite manners during her visit to the Young Hearts Centre. It is truly heartening to see the children grow in self-assurance as they immerse themselves in our programme activities, and I am deeply grateful for the unwavering dedication of the volunteers who tirelessly serve at Young Hearts year after year,” she says joyfully.
More Helping Hands For A Stronger Community
Having been a part of SRC for eight years, Selene has gained a deep understanding of the social service landscape in Singapore. Her experience with SRC has exposed her to the various challenges faced by different groups of people and given her the opportunity to work with diverse communities.
Selene hopes that more people will come forward to join the social service sector, emphasising that SRC warmly embraces more helping hands, be it employees and volunteers, and prior experience or training is not required.
"Most of our team members do not have prior experience in social service. It is humanity that brings us together. For some programmes, such as our Community Befriending programme, the SRC will provide staff and volunteers with training in Standard First Aid, Psychological First Aid and Befriending,” she said.
Selene with colleagues from the Community Resilience Department in May 2023
Selene’s career with the SRC has been instrumental in her personal and professional growth, providing her with a strong foundation to make a difference in the social services sector, and contribute toward building a more inclusive and compassionate society in Singapore.
Additionally, as an organisation focused on filling social service gaps, SRC plays a crucial role in identifying and addressing unmet needs in the local community. By fulfilling this responsibility, SRC contributes to the well-being and development of individuals and groups who might otherwise be overlooked or underserved.
"I hope that SRC's local humanitarian work will gain greater visibility, and galvanise support and action from more corporate partners, volunteers, supporters and donors. Together, we can do more to brighten the lives of those in need and strengthen the social fabric of our community," Selene says.
At the SRC Awards in 2023, Selene presented the work of the Community Resilence Department to President Tharman Shanmugaratnam. [Photo by Wong Leong Jeam, volunteer photographer]
Highlighting the opportunities for people to contribute to do their part for the community, Selene said, "There are diverse ways for people to contribute. You can volunteer to be trained to provide first aid and psychological first aid at community events and to the public; you can become a Community Befriender to seniors, children, persons with disabilities and underprivileged families; you can lend your expertise and experience in professional skills such as fundraising, writing or photography to help charities like SRC on a project basis; or you can simply donate blood to save lives. Volunteering or working with the SRC gives you the opportunity to help the community, while pursuing your career and personal growth."
By Aashish Sharma, Volunteer
Copyedited by Shayan Amin, Volunteer
Cover photos by Lai Wei Song and Wong Leong Jeam, volunteer photographers
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