5 precious lessons I've learned from being a volunteer befriender.
Updated: May 26, 2021
And ones that you will learn too by sharing your life and time with others in Singapore.
I'll be totally honest with you. I have been very selfish with my time.
For the last five years or so, I've been concerned with my own needs, wants and pleasures. I was narrowly focused on my own career progression, getting married, settling into a new home with my wife, and in improving my own life.
I entirely forgot that there were people in the world who I could help. Beyond my own little circle of comfort, I did little to reach out to those who could really use my time.
Time-wise, I have been very selfish in devoting even the tiniest portion of it to volunteering. All my free time, weekends and annual leave were used for my own pleasure, my own happiness.
I made a change this year and committed to volunteering more.
I started volunteering weekly at a home for people with disabilities. Some of these people were residents there, meaning they lived and stayed in the home, many for decades and decades; while others came for daycare services, sent by their family members while fulfilling other commitments.
The people there included those who suffered severe strokes. They've lost function in their bodies and limbs. All are wheelchair-bound. Parts of their brain were damaged by the stroke as well, making simple tasks like calculating, remembering or stringing together logical thought difficult to do.
Other residents at the home included people who were born with a developmental disability. Many of them were young teenagers and adolescents. The types of disabilities they experience were varied, including severe muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, and spina bifida etc.
Many of these types of residents were unable to speak since they were born. They lack the intellectual capacity to communicate with other humans. They can't go to the toilet on their own either, or feed themselves, read a book or watch tv or any number of day-to-day activities that we take for granted.
My role as a volunteer was simple. Just go there and spend a few hours befriending them. I spent that time talking to people who were able to converse, played carom and board games with them. I was to be an additional friend for them.
For those who can't speak, I tried to get them involved in some sort of playing, like throwing a ball or even making funny noises together. I read to them and fed them meals. I tried to communicate with them the best I could.
It has been an incredibly rewarding experience, and these are five precious lessons I've learnt while volunteering.
1) You really can make a difference in people's lives.
Befriending people might not seem like the most important task in the world, but this seemingly small action has a bigger impact than you think.
The people in this home spend the majority of their day watching tv and doing things in solitude. Each day, they do get an hour or two in exercise and therapy. Although there are staff there, there are much more residents and daycare attendees than there are attendants themselves.
That's where befrienders come in.
There's always that little smile on their faces, or even a warm greeting "Hello! You're finally here ah!" when you arrive. One uncle even once demanded to stop his exercise therapy so he could come, say hi and sit next to me for a chat. Many of them are just so happy to have a friend they can chat with, and share their life stories. You really learn too that everyone has their own unique stories.
That one or two hours that you give them might be the best time of their day. Without volunteers who are befrienders, no one else is going to be able to take them out for a walk around a park, listen to their stories, or play a game of cards or carom with them.
Even the ones who can't speak start to interact more as they get more comfortable with you. They start to point and laugh (at you or with you I'm not sure). They make noises to get your attention. You start to see personalities in them, even though their bodies are a limited communication device. One of the cheeky ones has even started 'bullying' me. Every time we play mini-basketball, he would throw the ball to furthest point of the room as possible.
You start to see joy in their faces, excitement at having their new friend come. There's really a big difference in someone else's life you make just by giving a little of yourself.
2) It's easier to make new friends than you think.
The people there think of me as their friend. They remember me by name and call out when they see me. "Hey Hernping! You coming again on Friday hor?", they would check as I leave the home. They even remember the names of volunteers who have stopped coming years ago.
Without a doubt, I think of them as my new friends too and to be very honest with you, I look forward each time I get to volunteer at the home. Not once has it ever felt like a drag.
Beyond the people living at the home, I've made friends with the social workers, program coordinators and nursing staff too. I've played basketball with one of them in our own time as well. Another one of the social workers there has also been a great source of guidance. I told him about my current hopes to transition into a healthcare career, and he shared what influenced his mid-career decision to study and become a social worker too.
I've suddenly found my life filled with many new friends.
Reflecting on the last six months before I started volunteering, I don't think I've made that many new friends as I've had in these few months. In normal life, we tend to stick in our own little circles, be it at work, playing sports, and the friends that we meet on the weekend. With volunteering, it becomes so much easier.
3) It teaches you to be less self-conscious.
I'm not sure about you, but it takes a bit of time for me to really get comfortable around people. I'm careful about what I say, whether I say the right thing, what their impression is of me and so on.
When I first started volunteering at the home it was the exact same thing. I remember as I sat down with an uncle on my first day, I was filled with doubt about whether I would be interesting enough. Would he get bored? What am I supposed to do and say? Should I be doing more?
These self-conscious thoughts were quickly stripped away as the uncle seemed to be much more chatty than I was. I quickly realised this and thought, hey, I'm really over-thinking this aren't I? After that, it became so much easier.
As I continued on, it dawned on me that many of the people there simply want a friend. Nothing more. They are just so happy to have someone new to talk to. They see you as someone who has given up time to come visit them. Many of them have given me a pat on the shoulder and said "Thanks so much for coming to see me".
Befriending taught me to let all my self-imposed restrictions go. Especially when it came to those who couldn't communicate well. At first, it felt like I was talking to myself, since they couldn't reply or respond non-verbally.
From being normally afraid of being embarrassed, now I'm making all sorts of noises with these people who can't talk. "Gah Gawk Goo Gahh", I would shout alongside them without a care of who's watching. I would dance for them to elicit some response or laughter, throw a ball at my own head in an attempt for slapstick comedy, and even sing silly conjured-up songs with their names as the lyrics.
It helps you get out of your own little shell. It's especially easy here, since these are people who would never judge or criticise you, and see you as a blessing in their lives.
4) It pays to take time to be grateful.
Many of the people there who suffered a stroke had their life changed dramatically. Some even had a stroke at an early stage of life, at around thirty plus years old, which is about how old I am right now.
After the stroke, some lost their ability to work. Many had to relearn how to perform simply daily tasks with their reduced physical capabilities, like taking a shower. One of the men there also shared an unfortunate story about how his wife left him a few months after he had his stroke.
Though they happily chirp on about some of the joys they have in their lives right now, many still reflect on how good their lives were before they had their stroke. They reminisce about their jobs, and how lucky they were to have been able to work in whatever line of work they were in, be it assembling parts of a car or even owning a sugar importing business.
These are things I myself have taken for granted each day. Now if you are going through some sort of suffering right now, I'm not saying that you should feel guilty about whatever problem you are going through. I'm a big believer that experience is relative, and that whatever you are feeling right now is entirely valid. You should be able to feel what you feel.
What volunteering has taught me is that even though we have difficulties in our day-to-day lives, be it in our jobs or relationships, it pays to take some time to also count your blessings. Don't let your suffering control your experience. Open up yourself to the good things you have in your life as well. Have a deep appreciation of what really matters.
That career promotion you missed out on, that little project you stumbled on, do they really matter all that much? Notice the small things and moments that bring you joy each day, and refocus your life to what really matters.
5) That the meaning of life is to find your gift. And give it away.
I've written on the topic of meaning multiple times on this blog, but seeing the meaning of life come out and flourish never came so easily before. If you've read my other articles, you will know that I've stuck by the definition of Meaning according to Positive Psychology, which is to serve something you believe is bigger than the self.
It's very easy to get lost in maze of life, where each decision pivots you down a different corridor. In our confusion, we search for meaning with a myopic lens. We try to focus on finding purpose with just me, myself and I in mind.
Before starting this blog, I made this same exact blunder. I felt that I needed to do something more with my life, and that something felt amiss without it. The then-obvious area of my life I thought I had to revamp was my job, since it took up the largest portion of my time. I looked high and low in and within myself, but found no answers there.
When we begin to look outward in the view of serving something bigger than ourselves, it becomes much clearer. Volunteering is a readily available avenue for you to explore that. Why not start as a befriender at any number of charity homes in Singapore? See if helping people and bringing joy and laughter to others provides you with a deeper sense of fulfilment.
Personally, through this experience, as well as speaking to my new friends, be it the staff, the people living at the home, the social workers, I've been spurred to continue my journey in helping people with their mental health. Whether ultimately it's through this blog or being a professional therapist or even volunteering as a counselor, I've discovered that I don't need to think about the end result that much.
What matters is the journey itself, which is an additional lesson this experience has taught me. So go start on your journey too, and let life's tides bring you to many beautiful, wonderful places and people. I hope you find your meaning there.
Thanks for reading,