Driven to Give
The experience of giving back during her undergraduate days inspired Ms Gwendolyn Thong (Arts and Social Sciences ’10) to make volunteerism an integral part of her life.
Some individuals have an indelible effect on the people whom they encounter — whether it is by making them laugh, inspiring them or putting them at ease. Ms Gwendolyn Thong, 32, has a habit of elevating the lives of others wherever she goes. In 2017, she organised a fundraising concert and dinner for the annual NUS Day of Service as a Champion for Babes Pregnancy Crisis Support Ltd (Babes), an organisation that helps newborns and pregnant teenagers — an endeavour she continued the year after, and one in which she is still involved in. At Changkat Changi Secondary School, where she teaches, Ms Thong created Changkat’s Got Talent, a programme to groom students in some areas of performing arts, since the school does not offer CCAs such as choir. The programme also offers mentorships with the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and LASALLE College to students gifted in music and dance. Outside of that, Ms Thong has also founded Roots of Catholicism in 2015, which conducts tours of Singapore’s Catholic churches and organises choral performances. A trained singer, Ms Thong regularly performs at charity concerts as well.
This passion to give back to various communities was sparked by Ms Thong’s first experience of doing community work at NUS. She speaks to The AlumNUS about what drives her to change the world around her for the better, and to inspire others to do likewise.
How did your journey as a volunteer begin?
I have been volunteering since I joined NUS. I remember going with some friends from NUS’ and NTU’s Taekwondo Clubs to clean up one-room flats in Toa Payoh. The cleaning session took place on my birthday, and it was the best present I could have received: the knowledge that I could be a blessing to someone else rather than a passive recipient of society’s resources.
How did your volunteering career develop from there?
In 2014, I was at the National Institute of Education (NIE) as a trainee teacher. For our GESL (Group Endeavours in Service Learning) project, we gave out daily necessities to, and met the elderly at Kreta Ayer Senior Activity Centre to inform them of their entitlements under the Pioneer Generation scheme. I helped to look after the welfare of the teacher volunteers. The organisation I started in 2015, Roots Of Catholicism, also began as an assignment I had at NIE to design a package for a learning journey. I later turned it into a tour for the public. We have the support of the Catholic Church in Singapore and will soon publish a children’s book about the tour. I have also helped raise funds for REACH and Grace Orchard School — REACH Youth Powerhouse is a school where disadvantaged youths get to learn music and the culinary arts for free. Grace Orchard School is a school for students with Mild Intellectual Disability and those with mild ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). We converted our annual student recitals into charity concerts and raised $30,000 each year in 2018 and 2019.
You were a Champion for NUS Day of Service in 2017 and 2018, and plan to be one again in 2020. What value do you see in giving back to your alma mater in this way?
I studied at Sciences Po (the Paris Institute of Political Studies) in France as part of my Honours year in European Studies, where there is a culture of holding ourselves to the highest standards. Our professors spoke to us as the future leaders of our nations. They often challenged us: “If not you, then who?” This has stuck. I realised that if we all shrugged off our social responsibilities, no one is going to step up. At the end of the day, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us”, to quote Frodo Baggins from The Lord Of The Rings.
NUS Day of Service is a structured platform that offers NUS alumni opportunities to meet up on an annual basis to give back to society. As alumni of NUS, we are viewed by society as its intelligentsia. Therefore, when we gather around a common purpose, backed by the banner of our University, we are able to rally others in society to move as well. When an NUS alumnus chooses to identify as one, and do good as one, it bridges a gap between academia and society. I had many friends from NUS who wanted to help me. Naturally, the connection to NUS helped us all unite to serve a common cause. The value that emerges from NUS Day of Service is that we as a university re-centre ourselves around our core purpose, which is to make Singapore a better place, through the pursuit and the use of knowledge.
Strong in Spirit, kind of HEART
Ms Thong was a Champion for NUS Day of Service, 2017 and 2018.
She raised funds for Babes, a helpline for pregnant teens, through charity concerts held in both years.
As an NUS Class Ambassador for the European Studies Programme since 2010
, she galvanises former students to stay involved in NUS alumni events and uphold the alumni spirit.
She is the lead organiser and founder of Roots Of Catholicism in 2015.
This is an organisation that offers a yearly chorale performance and a tour of Singapore’s Catholic landmarks.
Tell us about Babes and the support you give it through NUS Day of Service.
Babes was set up in 2005 as a programme under Beyond Social Services to support teenagers undergoing unplanned pregnancies. Babes’ vision is for an inclusive society where every pregnant teenager needing support will not feel estranged or marginalised. I am inspired to help pregnant women — especially those who became pregnant under unfavourable circumstances — give their children a future.
In 2017, I met fellow alumni, Josephine Ng (Arts and Social Sciences ’92), the owner of the former New Rasa Singapura. She too holds dear the cause of single mothers, which inspired her to set up Haute Alteration, a social enterprise that employs vulnerable women. I asked her if she would like to hold a charity concert in support of Babes at her restaurant. She agreed. The concert was a success, thanks to the performers who contributed their time and money. That year, we raised $5,000 for Babes. In 2018, we held the Day of Service concert at NUS Shaw Foundation Alumni House Auditorium. That year, I was also invited to Babes Day, an annual event to celebrate the achievements and encourage the beneficiaries of Babes. I helped to babysit some of the babies so that their parents could eat, and I was inspired to continue serving Babes so that more babies can be born to enjoy the wonderful things that this world has to offer.
What drives you to be a changemaker in so many different areas?
My faith has guided me; I am happy to offer up my small talents to serve because, as in the Biblical parable of the five loaves and two fish, “no gift is ever too small”. I have a very close relationship with my son who joins me in my volunteering.
You look like a Champion!
Do you feel passionately about the welfare of the underprivileged, our environment, the arts and heritage, and other important causes? Organise an activity to support a cause that is close to your heart with the NUS community!
Visit nus.edu.sg/alumnet/DOS for more information.
Text by Theresa Tan. Main Photo by Aik Chen