JALAN Hang Jebat in Kuala Lumpur is home to a host of venerable educational institutions. Within a one-kilometre radius of Stadium Merdeka, one can find Victoria Institution, Methodist Boys’ Secondary School, SM Stella Maris, SMJK Confucian, and SJKC Jalan Davidson (Jalan Hang Jebat’s former name).
However, not many know that also nestled in this area is another gem known as the Vocational Training Opportunity Centre (VTOC), an institution that has impacted more than 1,500 young lives from some of Malaysia’s most destitute households over the last two decades.
A rather low-key building until it received a makeover recently, VTOC is a shining example of how a vocational training institute should be run.
VTOC, which just marked its 21st anniversary, is an institution of the Young Women’s Christian Association of Kuala Lumpur (YWCA KL). It is located within the sprawling grounds of YWCA KL on Jalan Hang Jebat, just next to the Merdeka MRT station, about 200m from Stadium Merdeka.
VTOC was the outcome of YWCA KL’s fundraising project to set up a youth centre in the 1980s. This came to fruition in 1998, when VTOC offered three courses of study in the purpose-built seven-storey building that is intended to provide much needed skills training for young women and girls from socio-economically disadvantaged families.
Offering 100 slots each year, VTOC accepts Malaysians aged from 17 to 25 into its fully residential courses, with preference given to those with Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR) or Pentaksiran Tingkatan Tiga (PT3) certificate, though those who have sat for the Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR) could also be considered for admission into the institution, which is registered with the Education Ministry.
During their stay at the VTOC hostel located within YWCA KL, students are also given English enrichment and computer literacy courses, ethics and good behaviour classes, practical training and internship, as well as a stint in a work readiness programme, as they work their way towards earning their certificates or diplomas.
Trainees are given many opportunities for personal enrichment, such as attending talks from established professionals, counselling, and engaging in a range of activities that help them with general personal development so they can take responsibility for their own lives. For recreation, a wide range of carefully curated activities are also offered, such as movie nights, self-defence classes, as well as visits to parks and nature reserves.
VTOC’s holistic approach towards empowering these young women and girls includes leadership training, and exposure to a wide range of social issues, laws and legislation affecting women and children. By showing them the bigger picture, it is hoped that the participants will be able to to fully contribute to their communities upon graduation.
Offering so much at zero cost to the trainees, VTOC struggles yearly to finance the shortfall in its operating expenses.
Costing some RM1.5mil each year to run, VTOC is administered by a board which is separate from the YWCA KL board, though some members sit on both boards.
Since its inception in 1998, VTOC has provided vocational skills training to 1,524 girls, enabling them to have the self-confidence to venture into the world armed with certificates and diplomas in these areas:
● Commerce Trainees attend 17 modules of classes in commerce, supported by Raffles Education Group’s Olympia College. They learn academic and information technology skills, as well as business knowledge, enabling trainees to start working when they finish, or to go on to do diploma and degree courses. Subjects taught include English, Computing Skills, Business Communications, Economics, Office Management, Finance and Business Accounting.
● Kindergarten teachers’ training VTOC has been partnering with Dika College since 2006. Other than offering partial scholarships, it provides placement at kindergartens and childcare centres for the graduates. About 330 young women have undergone this programme.
● Sewing and tailoring Trainees learn how to sew a variety of garments ranging from children’s dresses to skirts and blouses for adults, baju kurung, baju Kedah, baju kebaya, evening dresses, ready-made sarees, saree blouses and salwar kameez. Basic beading and embroidery work are also taught.
● Hairdressing and beauty careVTOC is part of L’Oréal’s Beauty for a Better Life programme with the objective of training professional hairstylists throughout the world. Trainees learn the techniques of shampooing, blow-drying, perming, rebonding and colouring, in addition to general salon cleanliness and hygiene, as well as how to run a salon and manage clients. The beauty care course comprises basic facials, including cleansing, exfoliation, treatment (masks), and a comprehensive course on make-up, manicure and pedicure, and henna art.
● Culinary and bakery Trainees learn a wide range of topics, including occupational safety, hygiene and sanitation, food planning and preparation, various methods of cooking and baking, managing customers, business etiquette, stewarding, and the receiving and storing of goods. The culinary and bakery course is designed to empower the students to be self-employed when they graduate.
Sustaining the endeavour
As a registered charity, YWCA KL works with many sponsors, partners and collaborators, ranging from corporations and non-governmental organisations, to foundations and individuals, other than its usual band of loyal donors and supporters.
“In our conversations with potential sponsors and collaborators, there came questions of how we are going to reinvent ourselves, to stay relevant, and to achieve financial sustainability, among many other things,” said Joanne Yeoh, 61, YWCA KL’s president for the past three years.
The pioneer members of YWCA KL recognise that the modern era may call for different approaches to creating an impact in society.
“Times are changing rapidly. Approaches must be rethought to give our students a fighting chance in the future,” said Datuk G. Ramani and June Yeoh, the co-chairs of VTOC, when the centre marked its 20th anniversary last year.
To stay current with the latest developments, YWCA KL has embarked on a drive to refresh its offerings to the public, as well as to widen training opportunities for VTOC trainees by embarking on the path of social entrepreneurship.
Part of this movement saw the birth of its youth wing in 2018, helmed by Lindsey Ong, a 32-year-old with a background in architecture. Through various engagements, the youth wing, the board, volunteers and supporters collectively arrived at a three-year-roadmap to transform YWCA KL from 2017 to 2019.
Giving VTOC trainees wings to fly
In the midst of the ongoing transformation, YWCA KL had to juggle many factors, including staying true to its aim of creating “a vibrant community hub while still adhering to YWCA’s global values”.
In March, YWCA set up Y Café, a training café to offer VTOC students an opportunity to gain experience on what it is like to operate a café (open to the public) five days a week. Currently, two VTOC alumni who graduated from the culinary programme in 2018 are staffing the café, under the guidance of an experienced food and beverage manager.
The café is exploring entrepreneurship opportunities for VTOC culinary students, by teaching them how to bake items and receive a portion of the proceeds.
To date, Y Café provides breakfast for regular gatherings at Wesley Methodist Church Kuala Lumpur, while several successful events have been held at the café, including Starbucks Global Month of Good.
In 2018, YWCA KL and VTOC collaborated with Eats, Shoots and Roots (a social enterprise) to introduce urban farming to allow its culinary students to gain knowledge of, and hands-on experience in, growing their own fresh produce. The on-site farm allows the introduction of some farm-to-plate dishes (it is starting with pesto pasta, using basil grown on-site). Surplus vegetables from the farm are also sold to the public as fresh produce at Y Café on weekdays (9am to 3pm).
While it is primarily a training café, this inviting place plays a critical role as an interface between YWCA KL, VTOC, and the public.
“The existence of the cafe has also provided opportunities for collaboration with other members of the public and community who help and support our farm and students, such as Mingle Café, which is located just down the road from VTOC,” said Ong.
Helping others discover their philanthropic side
Other than financial support, YWCA KL welcomes professionals with the relevant industry expertise to give VTOC students even more exposure so that they are work-ready when they leave. YWCA Kl and VTOC receive support from Think City, Kuok Foundation, Malaysian Community and Education Foundation, ECM Libra Foundation, Dika College, L’Oréal, Starbucks, Vijayaratnam Foundation, and Soroptimist International Club of Damansara, just to name a few.
“Volunteers could provide their services through teaching, coaching, counselling, as well as planning and organising events.
We are open to greater ideas that touch on the core issues of social development, including teaching, coaching and counselling; and planning and working in partnership with other social organisations,” said Yeoh, who added that assistance is also needed even for things like conducting specialised training, English language classes, as well as extracurricular and fundraising activities.
The administrators of VTOC are determined to provide the most relevant and current marketplace exposure to its students. This is done by partnering with the right businesses and corporations, and by embracing the social enterprise model.
The development of social enterprise and educational opportunities for the VTOC trainees are ongoing. Plans for this year include a pop-up manicure or pedicure salons at Y Café, which provides students training and income, together with the sale of personal care products developed by the beauty care students.The largest event to date for the café team and culinary students involved preparing 200 packs of food for Starbucks Malaysia’s Global Month of Service in April, using garnishing from YWCA KL’s vegetable farm. They are now looking forward to preparing snacks and tea for an international event in the city in November, while taking on smaller-scale catering events in between.
Y Café has allowed baker-cum-content creator, R. Hemasankarry, to share her skills at VTOC, even if it was just for a day.
“I have been looking around for quite a while to find an organisation that would let me help young girls and single mothers. I went there thinking I would share my knowledge so that they could step out one day and make a living of their own, but I also ended up learning so much from these girls. I strongly encourage those out there who have something to share with these girls to contact YWCA KL,” said the 21-year-old.
Architect-urbanist Joanne Mun, 39, is one of those who were attracted to volunteer since coming into contact with YWCA KL in 2018.
“VTOC provides assistance like no other, which reflects the selfless giving character of YWCA. VTOC not only provides skills, but after the trainees graduate, YWCA KL continues to ensure they have the right opportunities to succeed. How many vocational training institutes have this level of commitment to serve, regardless of creed, race or religion?” said Mun, who was co-opted into the YWCA KL board last month.
Those wishing to see the impact of VTOC should speak to Yuvarani, 19, who is now working at Y Café after completing her culinary course at VTOC last year.
“I felt the need to give back after being given the opportunity of studying at VTOC, and I am so excited because I get to help YWCA,” she said.
It is clear that the time spent at VTOC has emboldened Yuvarani to not only face life’s difficulties head-on, but to also care for others.
“It has taught me to be independent and strong at a relatively tender age. I will continue to live here at YWCA KL and help other young girls, especially the newly enrolled students. I am hopeful that I may one day be able to run my own café from the training I received at Y Café.”
For more about VTOC, call 03-2022 1200, or visit vtoc.org or ywcakl.org.my.
Set up in 1913, YWCA KL just marked its 106th anniversary in March (2019), placing it among the oldest NGOs in the country.
Largely remaining low-key, YWCA KL has stayed faithful to its founders’ vision of providing a level playing ground in society for women through advocacy, capacity building, and education (both formal and semi-formal).
Last year, following rounds of applications for grants (such as those from Think City, a social purpose organisation specialising in urban regeneration), the worn-out main building, which was then 65 years old, was given an extensive renovation so that the services it provides to the community can be kept contemporary.
The transformation included the addition of a boutique hostel, café, co-working space, and an event space that is open for public rental.