Putting Her BLESSed Foot Forward
What began as course projects that Ms Francesca Phoebe Wah (Arts and Social Sciences ’14 ’18) undertook as an undergraduate has blossomed into an organisation that caters to the underserved in Singapore.
WHO IS SHE?
The winner of the FASS Student Leadership Award in Academic Year 2014/15, and the 2016 Singapore Silent Hero Award, Ms Francesca Wah founded Bringing Love to Every Single Soul (BLESS), a non-profit organisation that engages the community in order to better the lives of the less-privileged.
Be good stewards of our lives regardless of whatever circumstances we are in and inspire the next generation to do likewise.” This is both the adage that Ms Francesca Phoebe Wah lives by and the change she wants to see in Singapore. And if you are not sure what that looks like, Ms Wah, 27, sets a good example. By day she is a primary school teacher, a job she views as a form of social work. “I have always wanted to be on the front line,” she elaborates. “As a teacher, I get to interact with the children daily and can identify the children and families who need more support, and refer them to the relevant organisations.”
Ms Wah, who majored in Psychology, and later received a Masters in Social Work, is the Subject Head of Pastoral Care at her school. “Social work is really about human relationships and dynamics. And in fact, I’ve always believed that every profession needs to have a social worker!” she says with a laugh. “My social work knowledge enables me to manage discipline cases differently,” she says. “It allows me to design intervention methods — such as anger management techniques and increasing children’s motivation — with school counsellors to better provide help to the children.”
Outside of work, Ms Wah is the founder of BLESS, a registered non-profit organisation whose main beneficiaries are low-income families and children residing in rental blocks. Unlike many social service organisations, it does not conduct individual casework, focusing on community interventions instead. From 35 volunteers who were undergraduates at its start in 2014, the organisation now comprises professionals as well as university students, all running the show on a pro bono basis. ‘To create sustainable changes in our community’ is the mission of BLESS, while its vision is for ‘a community that gives;
a Singapore that lives.’
BRINGING DREAMS TO LIFE
In its last cycle, BLESS’ Small Soul Blessings programme collected $34,107 which went to 5,030 beneficiaries.
BLESS’ programmes centre on both the beneficiary and the community. Small Soul Blessings is a novel giving programme that lets Internet users pick the “blessing” they wish to bestow upon someone in need. “It is similar to the concept of online shopping, except that in this case, it is online shopping to bless someone.” Ms Wah adds. Shining Star Reads is a weekly reading programme that caters to children living in rental blocks in Singapore. The other two programmes — Values In Practice and Be A Giver Social Movement — seek to transform the society into a caring one. The former is a structured programme that teaches values to children through stories, activity books and computer games, encouraging them to put values into practice. The latter is a social movement that promotes the spirit of giving among Singaporeans.
Ms Wah shares that BLESS was born out of her NUS days. “These ideas started off as my undergraduate projects,” she says. “During one of my Social Work undergraduate modules, we conducted interviews with parents so as to understand their reasons for not sending their children for the free reading sessions at family service centres. “As most reading programmes are held at libraries or social service agencies, parents have to bring their children to the venue. That translates to $1.40 for an adult bus ticket and $0.65 for a child bus ticket. A round-trip would cost about $4,” explains Ms Wah. “Having come from a lower-income family myself, I can identify with the struggles they face — having to choose between using the $4 to put food on the table or to use it to better their child’s education. I was compelled to bring reading programmes closer to their homes — like at the void decks of rental blocks.” Shining Star Reads began at a void deck of a block in Clementi Avenue 2, with just four volunteers, a mat and some borrowed books. “Today, with the support from South West Community Development Council, we have grown to eight reading community groups, serving 16 blocks,” she says.
Small Soul Blessings, likewise, started when she was at NUS. “In 2013, Pasir Panjang Hill Community Services was calling for donations for Children’s Day presents for 120 children. I remembered how comforted I was as a child when I had my soft toy with me, no matter what happened. So, I wanted to bless 120 children with a Minion soft toy each that Children’s Day. Being an undergraduate, I did not have the means to bless all 120 children. So, I asked my friends if they would like to contribute. And they asked their friends and so on.” Within two days, she had enough to provide for a total of 364 children from four social service agencies. “This was definitely the power of community — I cannot do what I do without the support of the community.”
Many lessons she learned during her undergraduate days continue to serve her well. “My professors emphasised that there are resources in the community,” she says. “All we need is someone to mobilise and coordinate them. I wanted to continue both the programmes so I started BLESS.”
FROM THE GROUND UP
BLESS was organically formed by a group of students. They kept the start-up cost low, paying just for the entity registration and then cobbling together everything else. “Back then, we didn’t have many resources — no money, no office space. Yet, we were rich in skills, energy and passion! All we wanted to do is to find a need and meet it.”
The road was paved with obstacles, but Ms Wah and the team soldiered on. “Back then, no one really believed in us so it was hard for us to get funding,” she remembers. Her void deck reading programmes proposal for instance was initially met with a string of rejections from funders, primarily because it had never been done before. In addition, the team discovered that the existing reading programmes did not serve their needs. “Most programmes catered to children reading to gain new knowledge. However, most of the children in these rental communities are learning to read. So, we decide to curate our own curriculum for this programme and train volunteers to conduct it.” The team then decided to make the effects of their work measurable, by tracking the learning outcomes of the children. “We then showed the potential funders that there were real positive results. Eventually, we gained stronger support.” In 2016, a $10,000 matching grant was launched in partnership with a number of corporations to further encourage giving efforts. For every child that the public supported through Small Soul portal, another child would receive support through the matching grant.
Fast forward to the present, and BLESS shows no signs of slowing down. It celebrated its fourth anniversary on 1 December 2018 with the launch of its new Unity Centre at Bukit Batok. Shining Star Reads continues its good work weekly, through the eight reading community groups which hold sessions on different days. “I am definitely satisfied to see the impact we have created,” says Ms Wah, who adds that BLESS plans to spread their work beyond western Singapore in the next five years. “At our third anniversary celebration, children from Shining Star Reads put up a theatre performance. The parents were very touched to see how much their children had improved in their language abilities. Some came to thank us afterwards — that keeps us going.”
Text By Theresa Tan. Photo By Mark Lee