Avelyn (seated, centre) hands out a meal coupon

By Ramesh

“You’ll get more than you give,” says Avelyn Wei, a 24-year-old St Joseph’s Convent physical education teacher, on being a volunteer at TWC2’s Cuff Road Food Programme. “I’m not trying to romanticise what I do, but my eight months as a volunteer on this project has been immensely rewarding.”

A self-confessed sports nut who juggles teaching, running an online business and a slew of other interests, Avelyn overcame initial apprehensions about volunteering at TWC2 to becoming an ardent advocate for doing good for those in need.

Every Wednesday evening, she heads down to Isthana Restaurant on Rowell Road to help out-of-work foreign workers get a meal as part of TWC2’s Cuff Road Food Programme. Apart from helping with the workers’ pressing issues, her duties include handing out buttons which are used to exchange for a meal at the small, tidy eatery which serves tasty Bangladeshi fare. Isthana is one of two meal kitchens in Little India under the Cuff Road Food Programme; the other is Sutha’s on Cuff Road.

Avelyn’s interest in helping the less fortunate begun when she was a Sociology major at the National University of Singapore. “I took a human rights class which opened my eyes,” said Avelyn. “A foreign worker came in to talk to us and he detailed a list of issues faced by a large numbers of his counterparts in Singapore. I had no idea such flagrant abuses were happening in Singapore.” Among the problems were non-payment of salaries, woeful living conditions, inadequate medical coverage and much more – enough to make Avelyn aware that the status quo could not remain.

“I had a friend who volunteered for the Cuff Road Food Programme and she asked if I would be interested in coming on board,” said Avelyn. “I said yes and joined TWC2 in February this year.

“The hard part was getting used to processes; learning how to help the workers with their cases; dealing with their injuries, etc. Over time and with experience, I eased into my duties but I still have a lot to learn vis-à-vis Ministry of Manpower bureaucracy and various legal issues. But there are experienced volunteers and caseworkers like Debbie (Fordyce; veteran Executive Committee member) on hand to help newcomers.”

In her short time as a volunteer, she has been humbled by the warm and jovial nature of the workers. “It may seem like I’m helping them without anything in return,” said Avelyn. “Not true; in fact, they’ve given me so much back. These may be intangible, but they are just as valuable.” Avelyn is amazed that despite the hardships endured by these out-of-work migrant workers, they remain without rancour.

“Some of them have been cheated by their employers, badly injured yet refused medical care or might have been abused by co-workers,” she said. “Yet they’ll always smile and try to make the best out of a very bad situation.”

Such positivity and the fact the workers see Avelyn as a friend spur her to work harder to improve their lot. “Over time, you get to know them and friendships are forged,” said Avelyn. “They teach me Bengali and I’ve picked up a few phrases. Now whenever I pass a worker in the street I know what they’re going through and what they have sacrificed to get here; I see them all as friends and not merely as itinerant labourers here to construct buildings and roads.”

Avelyn feels prospective volunteers should not only feel passionate about a cause, but they must also realise that a small contribution can go a long way, too. “People sometimes ask, ‘How much can person do?’ The answer is: a fair bit. I spend two hours a week and I help, on average, 200 workers. And every Wednesday night I go back with a good feeling at having been able to make a difference in someone’s life.”