“I personally don’t like to get dirty. I think I’m just not comfortable with dirty things,” shared Tricia Goh – a third-year accountancy student from Singapore Management University (SMU) – in the midst of a home-cleaning and repainting session at Toa Payoh.
“But I think doing volunteer work with Habitat for Humanity Singapore all these years really forced me to step out of my comfort zone. I always tell myself if I’m able-bodied compared to our beneficiaries who might have health issues, I should be able to get dirty for a few hours and then go home and shower. It’s really okay,” said the friendly 22-year-old in an earnest tone.
Tricia is an Executive Committee (ExCO) member and part of the student volunteer team that runs the SMU-Habitat for Humanity Campus Chapter. Launched in August 2012, it is the most established campus chapter under Habitat Singapore and is an official co-curricular activity (CCA) under SMU’s Special Interest and Community Service Soladity.
With its ExCo team trained by Habitat Singapore staff, the campus chapter basically functions like a mini Habitat. The team recruits volunteers within their school to take part in Project HomeWorks sessions they organise, serving low-income families and vulnerable elderly based in Toa Payoh.
“I think SMU’s Chapter is a bit different from other schools’ Chapter because we do most of the work. We have a session that serves seven to eight houses once every month, so the lead time to plan everything is only three to four weeks," said Tricia.
"My team and I would have to source for residential units to serve, and this entails emailing or calling the social workers and various social service centres. We also have to physically go down with Habitat staff to do home assessments,” she shared matter-of-factly.
With so much work involved, one can’t help but wonder why a busy undergraduate would want to shoulder such responsibilities as an ExCo member.
“Back in Raffles Junior College, some of my closest friends were already part of the Habitat Chapter and I used to help out a bit. So when I went to SMU, I already knew there was a Chapter and I wanted to be part of it because I thought it was meaningful work."
"When the chance arose in my second year to apply for ExCo, I went for it because there was a lot of behind-the-scenes planning that regular members don’t partake in. Even though the role might be a little taxing and unforgiving, I felt like there was a lot to give and I wanted to contribute in that way,” she reflected.
Balancing school with community work, however, can be tough. “There was a particular period that was quite difficult because finals was in December and we had a clean-up right after. I had to go for home assessments when I was supposed to be studying."
"I asked the Habitat staff if they could help go down for home assessments and they did. I was only able to manage because they were really supportive and understanding,” reflected a grateful Tricia.
Challenges presented themselves in other ways as well. “I remember a homeowner who wanted us to paint her room but she kept complaining that we weren’t painting it professionally. We were just students, so there was a mismatch of expectations."
"She took it out on the volunteers and said not very nice things like ‘Why are girls painting? It should be guys instead.’ That demoralised the volunteers because they didn’t feel appreciated for being there. After everyone left at the end of the session, I stayed behind to calm her down while waiting for Habitat staff to deflate the situation,” she recalled.
With her year-long commitment to the SMU-Habitat Chapter ExCo coming to an end, Tricia is stepping down and passing the baton to the next batch of student leaders. As the saying goes, smooth seas do not make skillful sailors. And within the past year, she felt like she has already grown a lot as a person.
“My experience in the ExCo has been very fulfilling. I think I saw a different side to things. When you’re just cleaning as a regular member, you’re very focused on a specific task but you don’t see the whole picture," she said. "But when I went down for home assessments, I was able to better understand the background of a homeowner and why an uncle or aunty behave in certain ways and held on to certain things at home."
But before anyone thinks that she is going to stop volunteering with Habitat Singapore just because she is no longer with the ExCo, think again.
“It’s funny because this morning I told my parents I was going to leave the house to clean and they asked why because they thought I had already stepped down. The thing is, this is something I hold close to my heart and want to do for the rest of my life," she said.
"It’s nice because it’s a CCA with SMU so it fulfills my need to serve. It might become a challenge the next time when I graduate and start working, but the sessions are during the weekends anyways, so I will definitely make time to come back and serve with Habitat,” said a hopeful Tricia with a smile on her face.