Meet the do-gooders


  • Focus
  • Wednesday, 08 Mar 2017

Naaraayini and Koggelavani help children build self-confidence and soft skills through performing arts. — KHAIRUL IMRAN/The Star

Three social enterprises serve the community by helping children and youths gain confidence by learning skills.

RUNNING a social enterprise is no easy feat. It takes good planning and execution of ideas, hard work as well as a whole lot of passion to give back to others while trying to keep afloat.

In celebration of International Women’s Day, StarMetro talks to three social entrepreneurs who devoted their lives to the causes they believed in and finds out what makes them tick.

Age is not a factor when running a social enterprise, and these women — a student, a single mother and a group of working women — come from various stages of life but all juggle their time to do good for the community.

Fourteen students from a local university are now running Stingarden Theatre which uses drama to teach English to children living in the slums.
Fourteen students from a local university are now running Stingarden Theatre which uses drama to teach English to children living in the slums.

Looking out for special needs

Fifty-seven-year-old Lee Seok Khin, a single mother of two, started Tender Hearts on Dec 27, 2016. Her aim is to reach out to special needs youths who completed their special or secondary education to equip them with skills to be self-sufficient.

Lee, who owns a toiletries brand and runs a small business, decided to set up the social enterprise to provide hands-on skills training for special youths.

She has a 21-year-old daughter, who is also a special youth, and this is a way for her to help other young people like her daughter to gain skills for future employment so that they can live independently like anybody else.

She also wants her daughter to be able to have friends of her own.

Based in SS19 Subang Jaya, Tender Hearts was initiated in October 2016, and the name Lee chose for it reflects how tender and pure special youths are.

“We train special youths in daily living skills, baking and simple cooking. We also encourage teamwork and bonding among the youths,” she said.

Koggelavani (standing) coaching the children with their stompbox percussion instruments.
Koggelavani (standing) coaching the children with their stompbox percussion instruments.

Tender Hearts is currently training seven youths and is aided by volunteers who are the youth’s mothers, family and her own staff.

The youths in Lee’s programme are aged from 16 to 27 years.

The programme is open to higher-functional special youths with different disabilities as it involves cooking and baking, and classes are organised twice a week. It requires the youths to be accompanied by a parent or guardian throughout the duration of their training.

As funds are limited, Lee said she planned to keep the training groups small, limiting it to only 10 youths a time.

The organisation now offers simple catering and also participates in charity events. It is aided by volunteers.

Profits from these ventures go into running Tender Hearts as a whole.

Lee (third from right) and the youths in her programme baking and cooking food to sell at bazaars and catering for events.
Lee (third from right) and the youths in her programme baking and cooking food to sell at bazaars and catering for events.

In the near future, Lee hopes to open up the organisation to special youths of other levels of disability, as well as have a permanent kitchen or cafe managed by the youths.

“I hope to give them a simple business plan and train the special youths to be hands-on in planning, purchasing, baking, cooking and managing money to enable them to run a simple cafe.

“I am confident this will be a reality and, ultimately, I want them to own Tender Hearts Enterprise,” she said.

Lee added that bonding among the youths would, hopefully, enable them to take care of each other when their parents are no longer around.

Using the arts

Final year TESL student Wardah M. Rashid currently juggles her time between studying and running the year-old Stingarden Theatre.

In February last year, Wardah and a group of friends from a local university took over the project from her sister, Mastura, who co-founded the social enterprise, The Nasi Lemak Project.

The theatre project aims to teach English to children living in the slums while building their confidence in speaking the language through the performing arts.

Special youths are taught to bake and cook at Tender Hearts so that in the future, they can run their own little cafe with skills they have learnt.
Special youths are taught to bake and cook at Tender Hearts so that in the future, they can run their own little cafe with skills they have learnt.

“We were volunteers when Stingarden Theatre began in January 2016. We decided to volunteer our time because we had the English and drama backgrounds and wanted to help children in need.

“Last year, we helped the students stage a 15-minute play titled Cans,” Wardah said.

Teaching the primary school-age children of Jalan Bachang, Sungai Tua, Batu Caves in a different language is not easy, and many questioned the need for it. However, with a teaching module ready, the team of 14 began using fun activities and introduced drama to get students interested in picking up the language.

Wardah said some of the 12 students could now answer in English. They could read and spell, and had also become more disciplined in class, she added.

Wardah said the team of 14 decided to volunteer their time teaching the children because it was a neglected area and the children needed help.

Classes are held during the weekends from 10am to 1pm, and they are currently preparing to stage a play called Lens on March 26.

The play tells the story of a child living in the slums who dreams of becoming a photographer but is discouraged by his single mother as she doesn’t think it would not sustain their livelihood.

A venue has not yet been selected for the play.

The social enterprise has received grants from generous donors, and this will help them sustain their classes.

Wardah said the dream was to open a theatre academy and use a cross-subsidisation method to keep it running.

Classes will be open to more students with a fee imposed on those who could afford it, with the funds collected going towards providing free classes for those living in the slums.

Lee provides hands-on skills training for future employment and independent living among special needs youths.
Lee provides hands-on skills training for future employment and independent living among special needs youths.

More than just counselling

Seeing that counselling alone did not promote behavioural change in youths, cousins Naaraayini Balasubramaniam, 25, and Koggelavani Muniandy, 35, decided to start a pilot project in 2014 that they now call GoodKids.

The aim was to help children build self-confidence and soft skills through performing arts.

They started their effort at a school in Kuala Lumpur, running a therapeutic programme that introduced acting while at the same time putting emphasis on counselling with the help of Naaraayini’s father, a mental health counsellor.

“In the beginning, there was a lot of hesitation.

“The students were shy and not ready to participate, but we went on developing the story and they started paying more attention and became enthusiastic,” said Naaraayini, who holds diplomas in music and counselling psychology.

The students they roped in were between 13 and 17 years old and were either average students or had disciplinary issues.

Essentially, Naaraayini said the students had confidence and anxiety issues.

Seeing the changes in their students, the duo decided to start a social enterprise and came up with different modules, adding drumming and stomping to the counselling.

Koggelavani, who has experience as an engineer and a photographer with a music background, said the modules were structured to tackle anxiety in the group and handle those who were disruptive without embarrassing them.

Students are selected by the counsellors and teachers of the schools and centres where the cousins run classes.

For the first one-and-a-half hours of a class, acting, stomping and drumming is carried out to inject some fun into the experience, while the last half-an-hour is dedicated to reflection on social issues such as bullying, manners and the need to follow rules.

“We have discussions with them and even talk to them about the consequences of their actions. It is about how you communicate with them. If you stand there as an authoritative person, it’s not going to work, so we try to build a peer relationship.

“This is how we build trust and it has worked so far,” she said.

Over the years, they have seen many different students.

“We have had a few children with learning difficulties and aggressive students, but they have mellowed and improved.

“We also had a former student who came back to help us train students in his former school,” she said.

At GoodKids’ classes, children are told to make mistakes.

“This is how they will learn. Students in our class are not allowed to make fun of others because we believe that this will affect the confidence of a person,” Naaraayini said.

From one school, GoodKids, which has the help of 12 volunteers, now runs classes in nine locations covering schools, shelter homes, orang asli centres and skill-learning centres.

This year, they are training 150 students for 20 weeks, and preparing them for the GoodKids league, where students from all centres will compete for the best performing centre or school.

To keep the social enterprise afloat, they sell merchandise such as T-shirts and also tickets to the GoodKids league.

They also receive help from sponsors.

Koggelavani said the long-term vision was to turn GoodKids into an academy.

“We are progressing towards that but we are open to people who want to take us in. If an established performing arts academy wants to use us as part of its content, we would be happy to collaborate.

“With an academy, we will open up classes to the public, not only to youths at risk but any youth because these are soft skills that aren’t the focus in schools. And we know teachers are too tied-up to do more than what they already can,” she said.

The fee for the academy will go towards sponsoring students from the underprivileged community.

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