Story by Juan Sufyan and Photo by Eryka Rojas, Republic Polytechnic’s Diploma in Mass Communication

My first task was to carry boxes of sorted goods to their allocated rooms. It felt pretty routine at first until I was told that all the items were handpicked through a set of guidelines. Personally, I balked at going through used items containing un-sanitised clothing or mould crusted items.

No, I wasn’t working as a flea shop assistant. I was at the Red Cross House to get a first-hand experience of what the volunteers of SHOP+ go through every week. In my six hours there, I wanted to learn as much as possible about the inner workings of SHOP+.

I went there with an expected portrait in my head. I anticipated piles of carelessly stacked second-hand goods that effortlessly made the use of the phrase, “one man’s trash is another one treasure”. Besides the mountains of waste, I imagined hordes of people swarming the piles like those in Black Friday videos you see on the Internet. It turns out that my expectations were nothing but a concoction of pop culture and lucid fantasy.

Volunteering at a thrift shop is really all about method and patience. Volunteers at SHOP+ typically spend Mondays sifting through the items. I admire how they wholeheartedly sacrifice their time and possibly their comfort zone just to ensure that the items are safe for retail purposes.

On Wednesday morning at about 9.30am, fashion wear, bags, and electronics were placed in a meeting room when I was there. High-end goods, including luxury bags, shades and amusingly, a couple of Barbie figurines were placed in a smaller and more compact room. Everything else was placed in the main holding room. Ranging from toys to books and cutleries. Each placement had its own rhyme and reason. Outside, there were apparel going for a dollar per four pieces. Deeper, you can find food products including airport-quality chocolate. However, the canned beans and sardines stole the show that day. I observed whispers of how affordable the canned goods were. The whispers seemed to beckon customers, and even office workers to drop by at the food section, taking one or two cans with them as they left.

Finally, there was the shoe section where shoes were categorised according to genders. The table was divided to allow space for both the male and female shoes while the shelves were used for kids’ footwear made apparent by the glowing lights that emitted from some of the shoes. I operated there with the guidance of Raquel, a Portuguese volunteer who has been volunteering for a good four months. She never failed to greet anyone with a smile and was open to enquiries. In fact, the warmth and service she exuded was better than at some retail outlets.

When the doors opened for customers at 11 am, the sense of community kicked in. It was akin to a routine friend visit, the kind where you would call them by their nickname and ask for a verbal check up on their lives since you last met. That was perhaps unsurprising, considering how the patrons were regular customers and staff of the Singapore Red Cross office. The questions I faced were mostly “What size is this?”, “Price?” and, my favourite, “Is there a discount on the shoes?”

At times, I would tread to the other sections, greeting and smiling at volunteers and customers; a trait I learnt from Raquel. I saw boxes of wires expertly foraged by keen-eyed customers, young adults scouring through the racks of clothes, probably looking for that pivotal vintage item that would make the trip worth it.

The sense of time only returned after I noticed the crowd thinning and the empty patches on the food section. It was past 3 pm. I was instructed to pack the items – clothes in boxes, shoes back in their bags, and the large showcase of clothes wheeled to the main room. It was reminiscent of ants transporting food back to the nest. With that, the once bustling thrift shop resigned to silence and it was finally time to call it a day.

SHOP+ is located at:

Red Cross House
15 Penang Lane
Singapore 238486 (nearest MRT Dhoby Ghaut)
Opening Hours: Wednesdays, 11am - 4pm

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Priceless dedication: The volunteers themselves have committed their Mondays to meticulously inspecting the goods, from articles of clothing to pre-owned gadgets, before they are retailed on the shelves. (PHOTO: Eryka Rojas)

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Gadgets and Gizmos a Plenty: Some of the customers have acquainted themselves to the culture of the shop, habitually scouring through familiar displays of trinkets while catching up with the volunteers. (PHOTO: Eryka Rojas)

By Sondra Foo, Corporate Communications and Marketing

There is an adage, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”.

This certainly holds true for Mdm Taksiah Razak’s family. For years, Mdm Taksiah, 55, has been scouring through discarded items at void decks in search of things she could bring home for her family.

With eight children in tow from her second marriage, life is a constant struggle to provide for and feed her family of ten people. The days when her children were growing up were particularly challenging for the family, recounted Mdm Taksiah, as tears trickled down. The pain lingers, despite the 20 years that have passed.

She had juggled multiple jobs to make ends meet. Besides cleaning homes, she also worked at a spa and cooked food to sell. Her children sold these foods (nasi lemak, curry puff and noodles) around the estate in MacPherson. There were times they did not have enough rice or ran out of diapers, and they had to seek help from their neighbours. Her family was known as the rag-and-bone household of their estate. They scrimped and saved whatever they could, securing free textbooks and bringing home items that were discarded - a freezer, washing machine, TV and even bedsheets.

When her children fell ill, they would sleep it out rather than visit the doctor, in order to save money. With their monthly housing instalments in arrears, they had to give up their flat in MacPherson. Her family relocated to Malaysia from 2009 to 2015, and returned to Singapore thereafter.

One of her sons, M. Arshad, 23, became physically disabled after a high fever at seven months. M. Arhsad stayed at the Red Cross Home for the Disabled from 2010 to 2018. The rest of her children, four boys and three girls stay with Mdm Taksiah and her husband. With three studying in tertiary institutions and four in secondary school, the family’s expenses go towards food, school-related items and and healthcare.

Mdm Taksiah’s husband, 53, is plagued by health issues that impedes his mobility. He suffers from pain and swelling in his leg. Since his condition worsened last year, he could no longer help out at a food stall he had been working in. Unfortunately, Mdm Taksiah has had to endure a similar fate. Recently, she tore her tissue on both legs and now walks with much difficulty. After being warded in the hospital, she had to give up her jobs as a cleaner and part-time masseur.

Today, the family’s expenses include utilities, room rental and conservancy charges. Mounting bills and the lack of income have created much stress and frustration in her family. Fortunately, Mdm Taksiah’s family benefits from several assistance schemes, including the Singapore Red Cross’ Family LifeAid.

Since she was introduced to the Singapore Red Cross last year, our volunteers visit the family every month, bringing food vouchers to them. This arrangement enables Mdm Taksiah to buy fresh foods for her family, taking a big load off her shoulders.

“I use the Red Cross vouchers to buy rice, cereal, chicken, eggs, bread, potato and healthy beverage for my family. Thank you so much for relieving my burden. Now we have enough food to eat. With your help, we can ride through the difficult times,” says Mdm Taksiah with gratitude.