Free ice cream courtesy of a generous ice cream outlet in Malaysia. A ball pit full of hidden eggs and soft toys for jumping in last Easter. Serving food and drinks to, and holding an entertaining auction for, seniors last Halloween. Meaningful reading sessions with the help of volunteers. Engaging in novelty sports and water soccer to foster teamwork and to get fit.
It sounds like someone’s list of most memorable experiences. And it is. They come from Juliana Johan, a gerontologist, activist, transformational coach, and co-founder of The Facilitators’ Project in Singapore.
“The Facilitators’ Project is currently a non-profit, self-funded organisation of volunteers that started two years ago,” she explains.
“We strive to empower neglected and abused kids in shelters with self-mastery skills, and also to create joy in their lives. Our activities include reading sessions, pet therapy, sports and wellness, and financial advice, among others. These help the kids improve their self-esteem and confidence, and sense of self.”
So what she’s shared with us is not just a collection of fun incidents. They represent the group's vision and mission, how much they care for the kids and have dedicated their lives to them, and much more.
It just grew and grew
“We started the Project thinking that we’ll just simply hike with the kids every week with our dogs,” Juliana recalls.
“We thought that the dogs were the highlight for the kids, but then we began to realise that the dogs were the common ground that bridged us together. The kids do need the volunteers’ engagement as much as, if not more than, the dogs.”
So the race was on to think of other pursuits that the kids could learn from and enjoy. “Dean (Ng, the other co-founder) and I often joke that running this programme is our full-time job, because we’re always brainstorming new activities, planning the logistics, and then executing the activities on a weekly cycle,” Juliana says. (By the way, I also wrote about Dean and The Fourkids Family, a pet taxi service, here.)
“We set rather high standards for our activities because we don’t wish to force the kids to participate. So the only way to get them to cooperate with us is to make our activities sufficiently engaging and fun, so that they’d choose to be a part of it themselves.”
And the kids let them know it. “We’re heartened by the many moments where we know our work has helped them in more ways than one. For example, a few have voiced their intentions to grow up and impact other kids like what we’ve done for them.
“There have also been many instances where we were gifted with their art pieces and letters,” Juliana adds.
“It’s nice to know that it’s their way of showing gratitude, and that they have us in their thoughts as they were creating their artwork when we weren’t even around. Kids that self-harm themselves also find it safe to approach us and discuss the ways in which they can cope better.”
It’s the other way around
You’d think that the kids are the only ones who benefit from The Facilitators’ Project. But Juliana herself has changed a lot because of it, and for the better. For instance, she believes that:
#1 You’re much tougher than you know
“I’ve unlearnt what’s called victim mentality, where we think that we’re helpless over things that happen to us or the people we care about. Even in the direst circumstances, there’s always something we can do, and that includes changing our attitude,” she stresses.
“This is important because only then can we see the kids in a different light, one of hope and strong determination. We’ve had volunteers who stopped coming after one session because they feel sorry for these kids, and they can’t manage their emotions.
“The kids have taught me much about managing my own emotions, and how to consciously interact with others more impactfully.”
#2 There should be depth and substance
“I’ve also learnt that good intentions aren’t enough to effect change, or to help others meaningfully. We may give them things and make ourselves feel good, but it may not serve the recipients well.
“Hence we really make it a point to make sure that our sessions are impactful, so that we can best make use of the time together. I feel that the best (kind of) giving happens in two ways: in creating wonderful experiences, and in supporting the recipients to give too, so that it disrupts their victim mentality.
“Next year we’re open to collaborations with companies and corporations to plan events that enable such initiatives.”
We can pitch in
Juliana and The Facilitators’ Project can’t do this on their own. Why not share your talents and skills to make a difference in a child’s life?
“We still have a shortage of volunteers, and the programme had to be cancelled on certain weeks when Dean and I were overseas,” Juliana admits.
“There are some volunteers who recently committed their time in 2019, and we’re looking forward to them joining with their expertise, so that this programme can still continue even in the event that Dean and I aren’t around. We’re also looking for ways to ensure sufficient funding, so that the running of this programme can be sustained in the long run.”
Think you’re up for it? Start with an open heart and mind. “We don’t need work experience, but there’s a minimum age of at least 25 years old. We do require volunteers to have a keen interest in connecting and engaging with the kids.
“We have ad hoc events where expert volunteers or corporate organisations work with us to create an impact through the respective customised activities. Otherwise, there’s a commitment of once a month or once a quarter depending on the team or activity.
“The kids tend to bond well with the volunteers, and having volunteers come and go may be detrimental to them as it heightens their sense of abandonment,” she concludes.
“One of the major reasons why our programme is successful is because of our consistency and long-term presence in their lives. It builds trust and bonding, which facilitates the unfolding of the impact we want to create.”