The HomeWorks Project: Yale-NUS students help underprivileged Singaporeans through home improvement

3 December 2019

By Wisha Jamal

Contributing to the community and creating positive impact is a key priority within the Yale-NUS community. To do so, a group of Yale-NUS students, passionate about making a difference in the lives of others, has been working with local homeowners to better their living conditions.

For the past few years, students from Yale-NUS’ Habitat for Humanity Campus Chapter have been participating in Project HomeWorks to help vulnerable families clean and repair their homes. An initiative by housing charity, Habitat for Humanity Singapore, Project HomeWorks aims to help elderly and financially under-privileged Singaporeans to rehabilitate their homes into a safe and sanitary state.

In October and November, the student group organised three HomeWorks sessions, where student volunteers visited the homes of the elderly and helped them clean, de-clutter and repair their homes. The project helps meet the needs of Singaporeans who often cannot help themselves; because of old age, physical impairments or a lack of resources. The volunteers help them deal with problems like infestations, repairing or replacing old furniture, or even repainting their homes.

One of the group leaders, Ian French (Class of 2022) said, “Habitat for Humanity is an international organisation and the Singapore branch pairs us up with these families. In other countries, Habitat usually works to build houses for people, but in Singapore the problem isn’t really building houses. The houses are already built but the people living there need help to better their living conditions.”

The volunteers include both Singaporean and international students. For international students, Project HomeWorks provided an opportunity for them to explore another side of Singapore.

Ian, who is originally from the United States, said, “When you think of Singapore, especially international students like me; the first thing that pops into your head is the skyline and the skyscrapers – it’s clean and green, and a beautiful place to live in. Everything runs so well. I think because of that, it’s very easy to lose sight of the diverse realities that still exist within Singapore. There are still vulnerable groups – like elderly living alone.”

Ian French with homeowner during a Project HomeWorks session. Photo by Ashbel Chioh for Yale-NUS College.  

Snezhina Kancheva (Class of 2021), who hails from Bulgaria, described the experience as an eye opener. “I think Project HomeWorks provided me with a whole new perspective of Singapore. Before volunteering with Habitat, I didn’t know how the elderly coped with the fast changing environment in Singapore. Being able to visit the homes of elderly people and hear their personal stories has opened my eyes about the daily battles that this demographic group faces – from family disputes to health impediments”, she said.

Snezhina Kancheva helping out with cleaning work during a Project HomeWorks session. Photo by Ashbel Chioh for Yale-NUS College. 

However, international students are not the only ones who see Singapore through a new lens after volunteering for this project. Ashbel Chioh (Class of 2022), is a Singaporean student who has previously participated in community projects such as beach cleaning. Initially, he thought Project HomeWorks would not be very different from his previous community projects, but he was surprised at how much he has learned about Singapore through this experience. “I’ve come to realise that amidst us there are many vulnerable families living in cluttered and unsafe conditions, and unable to care for themselves, let alone their homes.”

While most of the HomeWorks volunteers are not new to volunteering work, they all agreed that participating in Project HomeWorks has been a formative experience for them.

Ashbel said, “I feel very moved from the volunteering experience. I think it’s important that we continue this work and that Habitat Singapore keeps doing the work that they’re doing.” Besides Project HomeWorks, Habitat Singapore also runs a community clean-up programme in Singapore and overseas house-building projects.

The students said that participating in Project HomeWorks has inspired them to think more about community service. For Snezhina, the experience has prompted her to reflect on the state of community service in her home country. She said, “Although similar issues exist in Bulgaria, they hardly ever come to our attention. We are always preoccupied with other worries. It deeply saddens me that while the elderly are such a crucial part of each society, elderly-related issues are not given as much attention in Bulgaria as in Singapore.”

Meanwhile, Ian learned that there is always someone you can help around you. He said, “I think the main takeaway for me has been learning about the other side of Singapore; no matter where you live, there are people in need in your own community. Service doesn’t necessarily mean going abroad or on an overseas mission trip, there are ways to help and people who may need your help wherever you are.”