Humans of Habitat: Not Defined by Handicap, She Gives Back to Society - Sim Chunhui
Humans of Habitat Singapore is an interview series in collaboration with The Everyday People of Singapore. The series delves deep into the lives of the people that champions Habitat's mission of creating a world where everyone has a decent place to live. This story was originally published on The Everyday People of Singapore website and reproduced with permission.
"What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I think I’ve always had that mindset because of my handicap. I wear an artificial arm because my right arm ends below my elbow. I was born that way. Some people notice it on their own; some people barely notice it.
I spent many years trying to camouflage it. It’s one of those things that made me wrestle with my faith for a very long time. Why God? Of all the people out there, why me? All my friends are fine, so why me?
When I was younger, I remember strangers always coming up to me on the streets and asking why my arm is like this. It was a bit too much attention for a kid I guess, so my parents would make me wear long-sleeve dresses. That was their way of shielding me.
I think the turning point for me was when I started leaning more into my faith. I was looking for a church to belong to. When I found my current one, I started attending religious classes and slowly learned about God.
I learn that God is caring and that God loves me. And if God loves me, God wouldn’t have just created me recklessly. I was created with a clear purpose in mind. That revelation really switched my life view around.
When I started exploring my faith, I was also kind of at the crossroads. I had been working in the conventions line for 10 years and was finishing my part-time uni degree at PSB Academy. Where should I go next? Did I really want to stay in the corporate world?
I enjoyed my job but I saw how everything was really about dollars and cents. I spent my whole life working and the work ends up putting more money in the pockets of people on top who already have money, not the people who have been working so hard for the organisation.
In 2011, I took time off from work to become a full-time student, and went to Perth to finish off the final semester of my university studies. When I was there, I prayed and prayed. One day, I had an epiphany. It wasn’t like God was talking to me in a booming voice or anything like that, but it was a moment of absolute clarity.
I looked back upon my life and realised that it had been so good. I had a good education; good family; good parents; supportive boyfriend-now-husband. The direction moving forward was clear – just give back. Give back to society, give back to the community.
As soon as I came back to Singapore, I made a hit list of NGOs that I could maybe try volunteering with first. That’s how I found out about Habitat for Humanity and their programme Project HomeWorks.
Project HomeWorks is a local home cleanup that Habitat Singapore does for vulnerable Singaporeans. Some of them don’t have the financial resources to do a proper clean-up when their houses are in a really bad shape. That’s where Project HomeWorks comes in.
My first few volunteering experiences with Habitat Singapore were quite confronting. It was my first time stepping into one-room rental flat areas; first time having so much direct contact with vulnerable persons living on the margins of society; first time cleaning houses that weren’t mine.
I remember being shocked at a house that hadn’t been cleaned for 20 years. Just the window grill alone took me three hours to clean and get the dust off.
I volunteered for a year, and when there were still no openings to work there full-time, I wrote in to Teck Meng, Habitat Singapore’s National Director. I asked if there were any opportunities to serve. Fast-forward to today, I’m now the Programme Manager for Project HomeWorks.
I’ve been with the organisation for seven years, so of course there have been challenges. I think one case that really affected me in my earlier years involved a conflict with a homeowner. I got into a tussle with an uncle over his housemate’s mattress.
I wasn’t aware that the housemate had given this mattress to him so I didn’t understand why he was so possessive over it. It was infested with bedbugs and I wanted to throw it away and replace it with the new one that we had bought him, but the uncle accused me of being a liar and cheat.
When I went back home that day, I was very upset. I felt like I was trying to help this uncle but he behaved in such a harsh and discouraging manner. I started thinking about how I gave up my stable job to work here and ended up facing all kinds of things.
But in the same way I was able to find peace with my arm, it was God’s love for me that made me follow through with this job. I’ve learnt even bad experiences are worthwhile because it allows me to experience God’s comfort and strength when He walks me through the valleys of life. It helps me to think and reflect deeper on my faith.
Trials and challenges force you to grow. Look at all the kindest people in the world. It’s not as though their lives ran smoothly. They probably went through bad experiences that moulded them into who they are; things that were just very difficult.
My ability to cope is also a result of my upbringing. My parents brought me up to be pretty independent. Anything an average person can do, I can do even better. You’d think it’s over-proving or over-compensating, but I believe it’s self-deception that stems from insecurity.
In the past, I didn’t want to be seen as needing help. I held onto my pride really tightly. Whenever someone offered to help, it would leave a bitter aftertaste in my mouth. But now, the physical work has finally started to take a toll on my left hand.
I use my left hand for everything. There’s a wear and tear issue that’s making it harder to work with heavier equipment. But now, I’ve allowed myself to be more vulnerable.
Instead of putting up a strong front and insisting to continue doing all the heavier works to appear normal, I’ve come to embrace the fact that it’s ok to admit that I need help. So I have wonderful colleagues and volunteers who check on me and assist me when they feel I need help at work.
It’s kind of ironic, isn’t it? The world always teaches us to be strong, but when you embrace your weaknesses and shortcomings, you get to witness the beauty of human kindness.
I guess I’m still a work in progress. Maybe one day I would be more at peace and wander around without the artificial arm and not care about anyone staring. Perhaps one day I can fully embrace the person whom God made me instead of hiding it from the world.” – Chunhui
Interview by Arman Shah