A heart to serve

5 Nov 2018

By Edwin Chan

Arjenica Sumague, 20, spends her Monday mornings playing soothing tunes for patients and passers-by at the National University Hospital Medical Centre.

It is 10am on a Monday. Arjenica Sumague, 20, walks through the open glass doors at the National University Hospital Medical Centre (NUHMC) in Kent Ridge. She is not here for a medical check-up, nor is she visiting any patient.

Instead, the third-year student from the School of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering saunters to the baby grand piano on the third floor and begins to play hit songs by Ed Sheeran and oldies by the Bee Gees. Patients and passers-by start to crowd around the piano. Some sing along, and others sway to the beat.

This has been Sumague’s weekly routine for the past two months, since she began showcasing her musical talents at NUHMC.

Sumague is part of a growing number of volunteers in Singapore. According to a survey conducted by the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre in 2017, volunteerism in Singapore almost doubled from 2014 to 2016, from 18 per cent to 35 per cent.

Chasing away the Monday blues

Sumague said this is her way of combining her love for performing with her desire to make a difference in the community.

“Music is a form of communication. You might not know who you're playing for, but you know people are listening,” the 20-year-old added.

She plays a wide range of songs, which alternate between pop tunes and oldies.

“I try to play all sorts of genres. I even play some songs from the 70s and 80s that are familiar to the elderly,” Sumague said.

“In a medical centre, you never know who might need that song the most. The target audience can simply be anyone who is in need of an uplifting song to make their day,” she added.

While some of her friends think that playing the piano is an unconventional way of volunteering, Sumague finds it meaningful.

“I thought that I could contribute by creating a soothing atmosphere for the people at the hospital, especially since many people have the Monday blues,” she said.

“I recommend that everyone should at least try to volunteer. You never know whose life you might make a difference to. I have had several people come up to thank me for the music and compliment my playing,” she added.

It is fulfilling to make others smile, and knowing that people enjoy her music motivates her to continue volunteering, she said.

“Just because your way of volunteering is uncommon doesn't mean that you are less of a volunteer. I think we all have different ways of making a difference.”

Learning through serving

Raaj, who is fluent in Mandarin, enjoys interacting with the elderly.

Raaj Kumar, 22, found his first opportunity to volunteer through a Facebook post in October 2017.

While surfing the social networking site, the second-year School of Social Sciences student saw a post from non-profit organisation Happy People Helping People, which called for volunteers to donate and help to give out food items to the elderly.

“I’d always wanted to reach out and serve the elderly but I didn’t know where to start,” said Raaj.

“I've been drawn specifically towards the elderly because of my grandparents’ deep desire for me to give back to society as much as I can,” he added.

Raaj immediately contacted Happy People Helping People after viewing the post, and he has been volunteering with them every month since.

He now spends two hours on the first Sunday of each month giving out meals and snacks such as biscuits and coffee to low-income elderly people at a collection point in Jalan Besar.

These food items are usually donated by volunteers like himself. About 70 to 80 old folks visit the collection point every month, said Raaj.

Besides distributing food to the elderly, Raaj also talks to them about their struggles and asks if he can help, he said.

“I find joy in being able to interact with them. I also think that my ability to converse in Mandarin has played a big part in helping me build rapport with them. Through our conversations, I get to understand some of the deeper issues that they face,” he said.

These issues include the struggle to find full-time employment due to a lack of qualifications in a competitive job market, and health problems. However, Raaj hopes that by providing a listening ear, he can ease their burdens because many of the elderly people he meets live alone and do not have anyone to talk to.

Meeting the same group of elderly people and having sincere conversations with them for over a year has also allowed Raaj to know them much better.

“It gives me a lot of joy when they open up to me and engage in conversation. Sometimes they share insightful knowledge that you cannot acquire from books, such as values like humility, patience, determination and the need to prioritise your family,” he said.

“They are repositories of wisdom. Sometimes they yearn for someone to share their stories with,” he added.

Giving in all ways possible

Ellie Lew, 19, made pouches out of coffee packets as part of an overseas project organised by her junior college’s Community Involvement Project Council.

Nineteen-year-old Ellie Lew is no stranger to volunteering. The first-year student from the Nanyang Business School has been volunteering at non-profit organisations and taking part in community involvement projects since her junior college days.

After joining the Community Involvement Project Council in her junior college, Lew developed an interest in reaching out to the less fortunate.

“I started volunteering through the council. On the side, I also did more volunteering and spearheaded service learning projects on my own accord. One of which was Project Metanoia, an initiative that aimed to raise awareness for mental health illnesses,” she said.

In 2017, Lew started volunteering with the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) and has been involved in their outreach programmes.

“My grandmother suffers from kidney failure. I’ve witnessed firsthand how difficult kidney dialysis is and I wanted to do my part for them,” she said.

“I started off by managing outreach booths and helping to distribute publicity materials to get people to sign up as volunteers,” she added.

As some of her volunteering involves outreach efforts, naysayers have doubted the impact of her work, said Lew.

“Some people say that raising awareness is superficial. But I think that it is a big part of volunteerism. Through raising awareness, you can inspire others to do good,” she added.

In August, she started paying monthly visits with a friend to an assigned dialysis patient, delivering food prepared by the NKF.

Lew and her friend also accompany patients to dialysis sessions and teach them arts and crafts.

Lew has more plans ahead in her volunteering journey. The suicide of a former classmate caused her to rethink the way she perceives mental illness and made her want to do more for people suffering from them.

“I want to launch a large scale service learning project similar to Project Metanoia. Instead of just raising awareness about mental illness in a school setting, I want to bring it to the public,” she said.

Lew’s volunteering efforts have influenced her mother and some of her close friends to be regular volunteers too. “With more people volunteering, I believe we can do more good for the underprivileged.”