[Photo: Vivian Pan, right, talking to residents on Friday]
“I want to feed as many poor in rental flats as much as possible,” Vivian Pan tells publichouse.sg. “I want to help the single-parent community also… be it counselling, providing grocery, or any form of help.”
Not unlike citizen-journalists, Ms Pan could be called a citizen-social worker. One who takes it upon herself to seek out the less fortunate and offer assistance as best she can.
Driven by her own personal experience as a divorced mother and now a single-parent to her 12-year old son, it is evident that Ms Pan’s commitment to her cause is unwavering.
“I want single parents to stand strong,” says the 32-year old personal assistant. “I hope society does not discriminate against single parents. I also hope that rental flats residents will get help as soon as possible so that no one will go hungry.”
It is for these simple reasons that Ms Pan and her small group of friends and volunteers have been reaching out to single parents and the less fortunate the last 4 years. They do so at their own costs and time, at times with help from donors and sponsors.
Ricky, one of her volunteers, says they prefer to do this on their own rather than to donate to charitable organisations because they can ensure that every dollar donated or spent goes directly to those in need.
Last Friday, as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan drew to a close, Ms Pan and her volunteers of do-gooders organised a buffet dinner in Boon Lay for Muslims to break fast, and for those who live in nearby rental flats. There were also goody bags of groceries, such as rice, detergent, milk powder, for those who attended the event.
“We are not doing a very expensive or high class event,” Ms Pan says, “but I’m very thankful to the people who have come together and chipped in to make this event possible.”
As curious residents walked pass the void deck where the event was held, Ms Pan would approach them and invite them to the dinner.
“Do you live in this block?” she would ask them, in her easy-going manner. “Come and join us. The food is free.”
Her work has also been recognised by her boss, who grants her flexible working hours as she wants to encourage Ms Pan to carry on with her charitable works. In fact, her boss sponsored the buffet on Friday.
“She is a very nice boss,” says Ms Pan. “She supports what I do. So my greatest support is my boss!”
Ms Pan’s motivation comes from having gone through tough times herself, especially during the period when she divorced her ex-husband 8 years ago. He was an alcoholic who was involved in drugs and was in and out of jail.
“I divorced when my son was 3-years old,” Ms Pan says. “Now he is 12-years old. After divorce, I took 2 years to stand on my feet again. So that 2 years were a very big struggle for me. The person who pulled me up again was my grandmother, who passed away 3 years ago from cancer.”
After her divorce, Ms Pan would avoid family gatherings on occasions such as Chinese New Year because she was afraid others would look down on her for being a divorcee. She had also kept her divorce from her grandmother, until one day she decided that she had to overcome the depression.
So she went to confide in her grandmother.
“My grandmother just held my hand and said: ‘bu yao jin, chong xing zhan qi lai’.” [“Don’t worry, start anew, stand on your feet again.”]
“These few simple words from her helped me cast away all my doubts,” Ms Pan says. They were what she needed to hear at the time, and they gave her courage to restart her life, and find her purpose in helping others.
But it was the case of the 42-year old mother in Tampines who threw her son down a block of HDB flats in 2014 that spurred Ms Pan to set up the Single-Parent Support Group (SPSG) initiative.
The incident drew wide public empathy for the mother who was diagnosed as having a relapse of her depressive disorder then while caring for her 7-year old autistic son.
“I set up SPSG because I don’t want people to commit suicide,” Ms Pan says. “I didn’t want people to throw away their lives.”
She tries to counsel single-parents who are facing difficulties, and would also link them up with job opportunities, such as through her single-parents painting and cleaning projects. These are headed by single mothers or fathers.
“My painting team is headed by a single father,” Ms Pan says. “My chief painter is a single father of 3 teenagers.” Ms Pan says he has been receiving good feedback for the work done.
The cleaning group is helmed by a single-mother, assisted by a single-father.
“I am very thankful for the support from the public who give us all these painting and cleaning jobs,” says Ms Pan. “The price that we charge is so much lower than the market price, because I cannot charge the same price as others or else I will not be given the jobs.”
Ms Pan sees her group as a platform, a conduit which links up jobs with those in need of one.
“I am like a platform where they can find jobs and help,” she says. “It’s up to them whether they want to work hard or not. If they work hard, customers will ask them back again. It all depends on themselves. I can only do the minimum. But my role is also to encourage them, like if they fall or get tired, I would motivate them to get up and carry on again!”
For those with problems which she can’t help with, she would direct them to their MPs or the relevant government departments.
But all this work sometimes takes a toll on her, and may also revive past sad experiences.
“To be honest, when I counsel single-parents, I’m allowing my wounds to re-open again,” she says. “But as I counsel them, I try to close back my wounds together with them.”
There are also attacks and criticisms from others who are suspicious of her work.
For example, several weeks ago, Ms Pan made a call on her Facebook page for cash donations for a mother who had just been diagnosed with cancer. The mother had asked Ms Pan to help her sell 3 tins of milk powder as she needed money. Ms Pan’s online post sparked queries from some who criticised her for wanting monetary donations and for rejecting donations in kind.
In the end, she had to produce records of the donations and even engaged police assistance to prove she had passed the money to the mother.
It was a lesson she learned in being more careful when it comes to asking for monetary donations. Now, she only accepts shopping vouchers from Sheng Siong and Fairprice supermarkets.
“The reason is that if you give cash to people, you won’t know how they will use the money,” she explains. “If you give vouchers, you can confirm that the money can only be used for groceries. So you can be sure that the money goes into buying food for themselves to eat.”
So, how does she stay motivated, given that charitable work can be emotionally and physically draining?
“It is very simple: I go to Youtube, watch motivational videos,” she says.
It also helps that she has a lot of supportive friends around her. But it is when she sees those she helps regain their dignity and strength that motivates her.
“I am also happy when my Single Parents Cleaner and Painter social enterprise do their jobs properly. They never give me any problems,” she says. “They are very motivated. When I see them motivated and hardworking, this is my greatest encouragement.”
That, at the end of the day, is what her work is all about.
“I want to slowly build up single-parents’ confidence,” Ms Pan says. “I want to see what is their potential and I want to help them stand up and rise up again. Let them know that if I can do it, they can do it better than me.”
There are no lofty philosophies or high-falutin recipes to what she does and the reason she does them. In fact, during our interview, Ms Pan drops the phrase “it is simple” several times, when asked for her own reasons for what she does.
“Why I do this is simple: I just want to feed the poor.”
And so it is when we asked what she would say to those who may be inspired to step forward and volunteer.
“It is simple,” the champion of single-parents says. “If you want to help people, you cannot think too much. You have to focus how you are going to help them. And then do it.”