Russel Morina is not your average teenager. At 18 years old, the A-level student has already been volunteering with Habitat Singapore for a year and signed on earlier this year to be our youngest Project HomeWorks Champion on record.
Volunteering was something Russel felt driven to do, especially since moving to Singapore 5 years ago with his family. "When I was younger, I had visited Singapore as a tourist, and all I saw were the skyscrapers, malls and hotels. I wasn’t exposed to poverty in Singapore,” said the Indonesian native.
The first crack Russel saw on the surface of Singapore’s glitzy facade was during his years in a local secondary school where a third of his classmates were on financial aid.
This contrast between the pristine metropolitan city he first saw and the struggles of everyday Singaporeans he encountered piqued Russel’s interest to dive deeper. “I had never been to a HDB flat prior to Project HomeWorks. It really opened my eyes,” he said.
From the start, Russel wanted to find a local organisation he could volunteer with regularly. That’s how his research into charities led him to a HomeWorks Champion recruitment call.
But for someone with little housework experience, the jump to lead house clean-up sessions was daunting, and not to mention the language barrier between Project HomeWork’s non-Bahasa speaking elderly homeowners.
“If I became a champion, volunteers will look for me when they need help, and I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to help them,” he said.
Russel decided to take a first small step. He signed up for his first Project HomeWorks session in January 2019 and it was also his introduction to the role of Champions during a clean-up session.
With guidance from the Champion he worked with that day, Russel was able to press on with new and unfamiliar tasks like scraping peeling paint from the ceilings. “Since everyone around me was busy doing their part, I just tried to give my best,” he shared.
And for almost every month after that, Russel would spend his Saturday’s rehabilitating homes alongside other volunteers to gain more experience and learn more about the homeowner profiles Habitat Singapore serves.
“I remember one time we were de-cluttering this elderly guy’s house and it was filled with a lot of his own travel photos and guidebooks. He had really been to so many places in his hayday and now he was disabled, which makes it difficult for him to travel and that was pretty sad. I guess you never know what kind of life people could have had in the past just at a glance,” said Russel, recounting the story of a particularly memorable homeowner.
Deeply personal experiences with homeowners that stay with a volunteer only come from consistent involvement with an organisation’s work, Russel believes. “Doing it regularly allowed me to learn about the various profiles of the underprivileged: the elderly, the disabled, those who have to take care of their mentally disabled children, families who struggle to make ends meet. Had I not volunteered regularly, I wouldn’t have had this much exposure to the lives of the underprivileged in Singapore,” he added.
With most teenagers his age not interested in volunteer work, Russel is glad to have found a community he works well with as a team in the Habitat Singapore staff and Champions.
“The other Champions were always super helpful to new volunteers, like me when I just started, and it’s always a joy to work alongside them,” he said.
Even more surprising to him was meeting Champions in their 60s. “I guess that goes to show that you are never too young or old to make a difference,” Russel mused.
Russel is part of the core team of Habitat Singapore’s HomeWorks Champions who will be Habitat Singapore move forward this new operating environment. At this stage, we are working towards finding the right balance between scaling up volunteer involvement while prioritising the safety of everyone involved.
Our goal is to expand our pool of Champions, who will work alongside our staff to lead a higher volume of clean-up sessions that are served by smaller volunteer groups. We are thankful for this extra special community who have answered the call to step up and lead.