According to the Individual Giving Survey 2016 conducted by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, senior citizens (those above 55) had the lowest donation and volunteerism rates in Singapore, compared with other age groups. Jimmy Lim, 72, is an exception: semi-retired and a longtime volunteer, he has given his time, effort and love to those who need it most for close to 25 years.
Jimmy Lim’s first brush with volunteering was a leap into the deep end. Then about 20 years old, he decided on a whim to volunteer at the Dragon Lotus Home, an old folks’ home in Woodlands, with some colleagues. He had no idea what he had signed up for.
“I’ll never forget it. At that age you’re fun-loving, you just want to try everything…but when we got there, the physical conditions were deplorable,” he said, his face wrinkling in distaste.
In reality, the Dragon Lotus Home was something closer to the infamous “death houses” of Sago Lane in Chinatown, where the terminally ill and dying were left to live out their last days, often in poverty and squalor.
“I have no comparison for what we saw there. We went to the men’s section to help out. We didn’t know if they [the residents] had wives or family – they were all very sick, unable to talk, practically about to go. They didn’t have proper beds or even mattresses! They slept on wooden planks laid out on the cement floor, maybe with a pillow,” he recalled. “We went to help kill bedbugs and mosquitos – you could see them running everywhere. The stench of urine was unbearable.”
When residents died, their bodies would be covered with a white cloth and left in the home until an undertaker came to collect them. As such, the volunteers had to get used to working around corpses, something not many of them were able to stomach.
“To kill the bedbugs, we would spray insecticide around the planks. [Once], I told my colleague not to spray the next bed, and she asked why. I said, ‘Because he’s gone.’ When she heard that, she dropped the canister and ran out – she was scared to be around corpses.”
On another occasion, the volunteers bought eggs and biscuits for the residents and left them in the care of the home’s supervisor. They later found out that the residents never received the goodies: the supervisor had misappropriated the items and sold them, keeping the money for himself.
The nightmarish conditions Jimmy witnessed spurred him into action. “I wanted to help people who were at their very worst – those who had been forgotten and had no one to look after them,” he said.
The conditions at the Dragon Lotus Home were so appalling that it was eventually shut down by the then-Singapore Council for Social Services in the 1970s. In the 1980s, Jimmy subsequently started volunteering at a home run by The Little Sisters of the Poor (now known as St Theresa’s Home), a Catholic organisation which serves the elderly poor around the world.. The home, which was located in the Upper Thomson area, took in the destitute and aged sick with nowhere else to go.
A younger Jimmy, circa the 1980s, with Sister Pauline, one of the nuns from The Little Sisters of the Poor who used to run the home. Photo courtesy of Jimmy Lim
“I went alone,” Jimmy said. “I just walked in and asked, ‘Can I help?’ The nuns asked what I could do, and I said, ‘Anything.’” He went on with a chuckle, “I regretted it at first, because that first day they gave me a changkol [a garden hoe] and asked me to dig a hole in the hot sun so they could plant a sapling.”
“I thought I wouldn’t go back, but I somehow decided to, I don’t know why. I ended up helping to attend to the residents, feeding them and so on. As volunteers, we were given a free hand, so I just copied what the sisters did and learnt all sorts of things. The nuns led by example. What they gave us, we gave the residents – care, love and respect.”
Jimmy picked up an assortment of caregiving tips from the nuns, from the proper way to push a wheelchair to how to move a bedridden person – with one or two memorable incidents along the way.
“Once, the nuns and volunteers were attending the funeral of a resident at the home who had passed away. I’d never been to a Catholic funeral, so I didn’t know what to do. I just stood behind the nuns and copied them.”
When standing in line to pay their respects, however, Jimmy watched in horror as the nun in front of him reached out and touched the dead woman’s hand.
“I thought I had to do the same, so I touched the corpse’s hand too – it was cold. Afterwards I sniffed my hand like a monkey and scrubbed it with Dettol. Coming from a Peranakan family, we used to eat with our hands, but when my mother served dinner that night I couldn’t bring myself to do it! I ate with a fork and spoon that day.”
Jimmy volunteered with the Little Sisters of the Poor for almost 15 years, during which time his elderly mother, who had suffered a stroke, moved into the home to be cared for by the nuns. He had been struggling to juggle work and caring for her until the nuns offered their help.
“I didn’t go to the Little Sisters’ for a few months when my mother became ill, and it was difficult to look after her when I was working at the same time. When I went back, they asked me what was wrong, since they hadn’t seen me in some time. I felt there must have been someone watching over me because when I told them what happened, they said, ‘Jimmy, bring your mother here to stay with us. We will care for her.’ Those were their exact words.”
A certificate Jimmy received from the nuns during Volunteers’ Week 1987, thanking him for his dedicated service to St Theresa’s Home. Photo by Catherine Nicholas
After his marriage in the 1990s, Jimmy stopped volunteering to raise his young family, taking it up again when his children were older. The nuns from The Little Sisters of the Poor were eventually posted to serve in other Southeast Asian countries, and management of the home was taken over by the Catholic Welfare Services in 2003.
When he returned to volunteering, Jimmy found that volunteer programmes had become much more structured than they used to be – and that this new approach had both benefits and drawbacks. For example, even though many organisations now have dedicated staff to oversee volunteers’ welfare, they are often overstretched, and may not always be able to address volunteers’ concerns.
Another development was the introduction of volunteer screening by various organisations. Having acquired most of his previous volunteer roles by simply showing up and asking how he could help, this extra step was new to Jimmy. While he acknowledged that screening prospective volunteers is often necessary, it can also be frustrating, with more red tape, form-filling, and general bureaucracy to contend with.
Jimmy now volunteers with several organisations, and is at present most involved with the Cerebral Palsy Alliance of Singapore (CPAS), where he assists with running weekly hydrotherapy sessions for children with cerebral palsy.
“I wasn’t sure [if I wanted to commit] at first. The sessions are in Pasir Ris and it takes me about an hour to get there, since I have to take two buses from my house. But when I saw the children, my heart melted. I wanted to cry.”
“Some of the children can’t talk, they can’t even eat unassisted. Very few of them can swim, so we have floats for them,” he explained.
A thak-you gift bag that Jimmy received from CPAS for his service – one of many keepsakes from his volunteering endeavours that he has carefully preserved. Photo by Catherine Nicholas
However, Jimmy’s commitment to his young charges extends beyond the hydrotherapy sessions. If he sees them in need of help, he will extend it – including standing up for them where necessary.
“I’m a champion letter writer to the Straits Times Forum,” he joked. “Last time, not all buses were wheelchair accessible, though most of them are today. [Some years ago], some of the children at an organisation I was volunteering at told me a bus driver didn’t stop for them, because they saw they [the children] were in wheelchairs.”
“I was furious. I told them, the next time the bus doesn’t stop, take down the bus number, date, and time, and I would write to the bus company and The Straits Times on their behalf!”
Sustaining this kind of fire, however, takes balance. While Jimmy is no stranger to witnessing pain and suffering, given his years of volunteer experience, he has had to develop ways of coping with the emotional strain.
“I don’t bring their problems home with me. I’m not being mean; it’s necessary. When I was volunteering at homes and hospices, residents would sometimes die in the night, and when you come back the next day, they’re no longer there,” he said.
“With sick and dying residents, I would kiss their foreheads before I left for the day, and say a prayer in my heart that I’d get to see them the next time I came back. But when I got home, I wouldn’t think about it.” In this vein, Jimmy has a strict rule about not volunteering at night; he will happily give up his days, but nights are reserved for family.
Ultimately, Jimmy is firm that to be a committed volunteer, you need to truly care about the cause you choose. “If you want to volunteer, you must choose something you are passionate about and interested in. You must love it or you’ll get bored and won’t go back. Do your homework!” he admonished.
For those who do go back, however, giving brings its own rewards.
“I get happiness, satisfaction and contentment from what I do. I feel lucky for what I have – that my family is healthy, that my children can talk and laugh and argue. You learn to treasure life.”
Written by: Chew Hui Lin
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign