At an inconspicuous function room in Woodsvale Condominium, sounds of joy and laughter could be heard echoing all around. It was the final day of Kidz Hideout, an after-school befriending and homework support programme for primary school students. While usually held at Tzu Chi Humanistic Youth Centre (HYC), a celebratory activity had been specially organised outside the centre to conclude the programme for the year. There were beautiful decorations and photos put up, games such as scavenger hunt planned, and delicious snacks and gift packs consisting of personalised cards meticulously prepared by the organising committee comprising of HYC staff and volunteers. All these efforts contributed to a party-like atmosphere, with everyone hoping to end the programme on a high.
To kick-start the activity, the children were sat around in a circle reflecting on their best moments from Kidz Hideout in the past year. Judging by how they were excitedly rattling off the names of the various activities that they had taken part in, it was evident that they had thoroughly enjoyed themselves being part of the programme. As a show of appreciation, one child even presented his self-made art piece littered with the signatures of his fellow participants to the organising committee as a parting gift. While that might have been a simple gesture, it perfectly encapsulated the impact of the programme.
But more than just providing entertainment and leisure activities for the children, Kidz Hideout has served as a platform where they have been able to grow and learn. As part of a collaboration with North View Primary School since the start of the year, a group of 20 Primary Four and Five students have been diligently making their way to HYC twice a week after school to participate in various enrichment activities. Unlike the typical student, participants of the programme come from challenging family situations, with many showing signs of deep-rooted psychological and behavioural issues. However, through the programme which spanned 46 weeks and consisted of 21 specially curated activities organised by the HYC team and its partners, there have been gradual improvements among many of the children.
Explained HYC Youth Outreach Officer, Ms Sharifah Faizah: “When we started, we tried our best to manage our expectations. We just wanted to help the children and be able to engage them meaningfully by being the best role models that we could.
“While we did not set specific improvement targets that we had to meet as we were not sure what to expect but as we progressed along the year, we noticed that the kids really responded to the programme. They felt a sense of belonging, connected with the volunteers and staff, and we could see positive changes.”
The changes that Ms Sharifah are referring to include simple things such as being mindful of their personal hygiene, taking the initiative to keep their areas tidy and learning to listen when others are speaking. While all these might come across as seemingly insignificant, they have become symbolic milestones in the children’s journey towards positive change. But it was certainly not all smooth-sailing for everyone involved at the very beginning.
According to HYC Centre Manager, Ms Lim Choon Choon, the process of learning to manage the children was a steep one for the organising committee. While some of them might have had prior experience, handling this group of high needs children was a different challenge altogether.
She remarked: “The problems that each child faces are very different as they are all unique. There has been a lot of learning, unlearning and relearning at almost every Kidz Hideout session at least in the first 6 months, where we were still in the process of understanding them.”
She also shared how the attempts to understand the children and their family issues would at times result in them feeling overwhelmed and emotionally drained. As much as the HYC team wanted to help resolve their problems, some of them were simply too complex and ultimately beyond their limits. As such, all they could do was to focus on trying to support the children in any other little ways that were within their means.
For 59-year-old Tzu Chi volunteer Ms Sia Lai Teng, she too faced some struggles initially managing the children during the Kidz Hideout sessions. With the children’s behaviour appearing rowdy and rude during the first few sessions, it was unlike anything she had experienced before, causing her to form a rather poor impression of them at the start. However, this soon changed over time when she started interacting with the children and learned about their struggles.
“After I knew about all the children’s little stories, I started to change the way I viewed them. For my own children and grandchildren, they grew up in an environment with lots of love but these children don’t get to enjoy this,” she explained ruefully.
“Master (Cheng Yen) mentioned before that we need to love the children with a mother’s love. Even though they are not my own, I want to love them wholeheartedly, to let them know that even though they might be labelled in school, they can feel comfortable coming here.”
“Learning about the children’s situation also makes me feel very grateful and to cherish what I have. It is a reminder to myself to treat my family well and show care to them.”
Volunteers at the Forefront
With a fixed pool of 24 volunteers involved in the programme, Ms Sia and her team have been integral in ensuring its smooth running. They have served as friendly befrienders, patiently guiding and showering the children with love. And their work as unsung heroes has not gone unnoticed.
“They have been very committed. They are our hands, legs and eyes during the sessions. Some of the children bond with the volunteers better than others so they might confide in them and seek certain advice,” commented Ms Sharifah.
“The important role of the volunteers is to be there as a listening ear, and to give the children the encouragement and assurance that everything will be alright. They do this really well and put in 100% every week to be role models for them. We wouldn’t be able to do Kidz Hideout without them for sure.”
Volunteer Mr Loo Choon Wea has certainly been one of the many unsung heroes of Kidz Hideout. With his bubbly and jovial character, the 57-year-old has been able to hit it off with the children, acting like a real fatherly figure to them. Even though he already has two adult children of his own, he feels that interacting with the children at Kidz Hideout is something new that he is still picking up along the way.
“I’m still learning how to communicate with them, learning about the new toys and technology that they might be interested in and also things like their views on money in the current society. I remember that there was one child who wanted to quickly start working and earn money. This mentality might not be correct but it is understandable as their family might not have enough, so we need to see how we can counsel them,” recounted Mr Loo.
Besides him, another volunteer who has been giving her all for the Kidz Hideout cause would be Ms Liw Tiam. Being the only volunteer who supports both sessions weekly, her commitment is admirable. The sense of satisfaction that she feels upon seeing the children grow has helped drive her on. While many would have been taken aback by the rowdy nature of the children, the 76-year-old retiree did not have too much trouble coping given her past experience as a tuition teacher, where she was accustomed to dealing with all kinds of children. And having seen the improvements that the children have made over the year, she is positive that they can apply what they have learnt from Tzu Chi in other aspects of their lives.
“I hope that we do not lose touch with these children. As long as the Tzu Chi teachings and Jing Si Aphorisms enter their hearts, whenever they are doing something, they might be able to recall and apply them,” she said.
Volunteer Ms Liw Tiam helping a child with her homework during a Kidz Hideout session. (Photo by Sharifah Faizah)
The impact of Kidz Hideout has been wide-ranging and certainly not limited to the children only. The organising committee have also benefited immensely, picking up many valuable learning pointers along the way.
“This group of children has helped open up our sights to many things from different perspectives. The complicated family situations that they are living in are beyond our imagination and we have learnt that nothing can be taken for granted,” shared Ms Lim.
Going forward, there are plans in the pipeline to improve the existing programme structure, with an aim to enhance the overall impact. The next batch of Kidz Hideout participants will be on board for two years, up from the current period of one. The goal will be to reach out to these children on a deeper level and attempt to address the root of the issues that they are facing. Professional training for volunteers to be better equipped at managing the children is also one of the plans in the works.
“We want to do home visits and work closer with parents. We have also been discussing with a child psychologist to come on board to train our volunteers on things like how to manage and respond to the children’s emotions,” Ms Lim added.
“We want to better prepare the volunteers so that they are not caught by surprise because that was what happened this year. We had moments where we were unsure of why certain things happened and what we should do but we definitely got better as time went by.”
While it has not been an easy journey, Kidz Hideout has witnessed successes on various fronts this year. There have been visible growth and improvements in the children. The organising committee have also picked up useful skills and honed their abilities in managing the children. But the work does not stop here and there remains much to be done for future iterations of the programme.
Explained Ms Sharifah: “When you deal with children, there is no end game or finishing point where you can say it’s a success. We learnt a lot from this one year and I think it is necessary to have an engagement programme like this in the community for high needs children at this age.
“If a small team like us can influence change in this group of 20 children, imagine how many more we can help and impact if it is done on a larger scale. This year was just a baby step, like dipping our toes into the ocean, and there is so much more that we can do in the years ahead.”