While many would think of December as the season of giving, most voluntary welfare organisations say their volunteers turn up all-year round.
This comes as the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre (NVPC) says Singapore sees a record number of volunteers in 2012, compared to 2010.
Its survey, conducted once every two years, shows one in three people volunteered last year, compared to one in five, in 2010.
Mr Hosea Lai, Head of Volunteerism Division at National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, said: “People are more aware of the needs in the community, and also there’s greater awareness of the various issues, opportunities as well as avenues where people can go in to volunteer. I think one good example is how people are now taking control in the community. I think we hear a lot about the ‘kampung’ spirit, and how people should be helping neighbours.”
But NVPC’s survey also showed a lack of regular volunteers. Seven in 10 do so occasionally, rather than weekly or monthly.
It’s not uncommon for volunteerism to take a back seat when youths eventually join the workforce.
And the more they focus on their careers, chances are, the less time they have for volunteer work.
But that’s starting to change. According to NVPC, in the last three to five years, more working adults are making time to give back to society.
And that’s why NVPC has set up the Corporate Community Investment team in 2011 – just to cater to this group.
NVPC used to get about 100 calls a year, from companies asking about volunteer opportunities. Today, the figure is nearly five times more.
Also on the rise is the number of retiree volunteers. In 2012, 19 per cent of retirees interviewed said they volunteered, up from 16 per cent in 2010.
A former nurse, 72-year-old Elsie Koh retired in December last year. Apart from travelling every month with her husband, she still makes time for charity – something she has been doing for 55 years since she was 17.
“I am tired, but it’s good. You make people happy, you bring more people to volunteer work. You see, there are so many young ones doing it. You should see our whatsapp chat. All the ladies are fantastic,” she said.
Ms Koh’s current project is making handicraft items to raise funds for the Singapore Cancer Society.
Mr David Fong, COO of Singapore Cancer Society, said: “Volunteers add a special dimension, far and above what paid staff can do. We as paid staff – people would say, but you’re paid, that’s your job! They bring their own special warmth, their own skills and passion which augment what we do.”
For organisations like the Cancer Society, volunteers are vital resources.
It sees about 1,300 volunteers a year, most of whom help out at least four hours a week.
Some 35 per cent of them are active volunteers, who spend more than 10 hours a week. Of these, some 20 people spend about 50 hours a week volunteering.
Mr Fong added: “Sometimes they come with skills we don’t have – we can’t do these, only volunteers can do. And they come up with ideas.”
Studies have shown that people are happier when they give. But volunteering isn’t always smooth sailing. Some suffer from burnout. Others may be emotionally affected.
Ms Lim Jan Mei, Senior Clinical Psychologist at the Institute of Mental Health, said: “I think for people who volunteer, they do things that are not immediately involved in their lives. So they may volunteer with a hospice, experiencing different experiences that are negative or can stir up emotions.”
Experts said some of the warning signs of being burnt out include becoming more negative, after the volunteering stint.
Ms Lim added: “When a person is overwhelmed by emotions, there are many thoughts in his mind. Talk it out with somebody else. As you are sharing, you’re actually getting perspective, then you can stir up some positive emotions through that experience that you have.”
At the Singapore Cancer Society, volunteers gather at the end of every activity to give feedback. It’s part of the process to ensure they aren’t burnt out.
Mr Fong added: “We kind of keep track – “are you all right or not”. At the start of the activity, there’s always a briefing. And then at the end, there’s always a debrief. So we gather everybody – “so how, how’s everybody? How do you feel, this kind of thing. Any feedback, any issues, any problems, you can let us know, and we can address it.””
For some, the experience they derived from volunteering helped turn their own lives around.
Mr Sebastian Hoe, a full-time National Serviceman and a Youth Volunteer, said: “When I came to poly, I almost got expelled from school, because I got involved in fights. The disciplinary committee and my parents were involved. They were quite disappointed in me. My grades were also quite bad at that time.
“I actually did some self reflection. I thought to myself, do I really want to be a bad boy for the rest of my life? If I keep getting into fights, will I get expelled? And what about my future? What type of job do I want to do in the future? And if I continue this bad boy path, will I get the job I want?”
The turning point in Mr Hoe’s life was when a friend introduced him to volunteer work at this neighbourhood activity centre.
Mr Hoe would help out once every two weeks at its herb garden. His work involved tending to herbs and vegetables, which would be consumed by elderly residents at the centre.
“I’ve never thought of volunteering. I also didn’t expect myself to be a volunteer. I’m quite glad I did volunteering. I think this is a very good platform for us, especially youth, to discover ourselves – not only to help others but also learn new skills. I realise that there are things in life which is not about just being a bad boy or rebellious. You can do something meaningful for the society. I realise that I’m more aware of my surroundings, more aware of others’ emotions,” he said.
The 19-year-old won a National Youth Achievement Award for starting an environmental education project at a children’s home.
And soon, Mr Hoe plans to pursue a related degree that will help him kickstart a career in social work.
One of the aims of the NVPC is to make Singapore a more compassionate society.
It says that while there’s always room for improvement, Singapore’s definitely making progress. For example, in recent years, it’s seeing more volunteers coming up with their own initiatives to help one another.
And those who volunteer say whether volunteerism is formalised or expressed in informal ways, all it takes is an effort to remind oneself that one can make a difference.