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The Returning Gift
27 December 2017

HCA President rounds up The Year of  the Volunteer with a delightful anecdote

Most investment options contain a certain degree of risk, save one. And this option goes beyond mere monetary investment. It is a gift to both recipient and giver. It is not a secret, because if it ever was, it is definitely not a well-kept one.

I am describing to you the wonder of volunteerism.

It remains to this day a wonderful mystery how volunteering my time, talent and treasure to help others has, in turn, blessed me manyfold.

My friends and I hated the work assigned to us by the nurses

A reluctant beginning

My first foray into the world of volunteerism as a 13 year-old was filled with reluctance. Which boy of that age relishes spending 20 hours in a calendar year doing laborious chores at an old folks’ home?

Being an obedient boy scout, I complied with my seniors’ orders and dragged my feet through each two-hour session at Ling Kwang Home for the elderly at Changi Point (before they relocated to Serangoon Garden). My sole consolation then was the really delicious hawker food at Changi Village food centre.

My friends and I hated the work assigned to us by the nurses of Ling Kwang Home: clearing weeds from the garden, cleaning out choked drains, washing toilets, wiping louvred windows and transporting the residents. But my greatest fear was to be assigned the task of giving wheelchair-bound residents a bath.

One day, my worst fear came true.

“Let’s just do it.”

LB* and I were asked to shower and shave Mr Lee, a 60 year-old resident of the home. (I was certain that we were assigned this task because the Nursing Matron had caught both of us goofing off during the last visit when we were tasked to rake dead leaves in the yard.)

We had a problem: neither of us had showered a grown man before. Being prepubescent kids, we obviously did not know how to use the razor blade. Before we could ask Matron what we were supposed to do, she hurried off, leaving a man with cerebral palsy in our hands.

Mr Lee was curled up, stiff, drooling and grunting. As I tried explaining hesitantly to him what we were going to do, LB cut me off, “Forget it! He doesn’t know anything. Let’s just do it.”

“Do it” – meant more than an hour of serious struggling with a completely physically immobile person. Undressing, shampooing, soaping, rinsing, drying, shaving, powdering and dressing Mr Lee was so exhausting for even the two of us. We wondered how the home staff could manage this task alone every day.

Changed by the unusual experience

Just when LB was combing Mr Lee’s hair, Matron suddenly showed up. She lost her earlier growl and broke into a grin.

“Good job, boys! Not bad, not bad at all,” she flattered us. For a commendable service to the totally oblivious Mr Lee, LB and I were rewarded handsomely: we had to shower him for the next two visits.

It was the seed of compassion sown.

Were we upset? You bet we were.

Did the unusual experience change me? It most certainly did.

Without really understanding how or why then, I began to develop a measure of softness inside me. It was the seed of compassion sown. Slowly but surely I ceased resenting going to Ling Kwang Home. I grew accustomed to the chores, stopped being afraid of the residents and started interacting with them instead of merely carrying out the tasks at hand.

I learnt an invaluable insight from my time at Ling Kwang Home: a volunteer starts off wanting to give but ends up receiving. Through perseverance, the life of the beneficiary is improved and at the same time, I get to be changed for the better.

A fuller life

My life’s trajectory was shaped by my early volunteering experience. I have continued my volunteering journey with various other charities to this day and even built my family life around the act of serving others.

The immortal words of Winston Churchill ring true, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Your life can be fuller than what it is now only if you dare to step out and give of your time, talent and treasure.

By faith, bestow the gift to those who are unable to return the favour back to you. And you will soon discover the wonder of the returning gift.

*an abbreviation of the actual name