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Monday April 9, 2012

Volunteers are lighting up lives

The young are learning an invaluable lesson: service has its own rewards.

IT was dark, so dark we could not even see the person in front of us. Yet we could see in the distance, the lit end of a cigarette glowing like a strange firefly. We knew someone was there.

It was about 9.30pm in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, and Alvin and nine other volunteers were looking for the sometimes-elusive homeless. We had walked from Central Market, our meeting point, to the concrete embankment of the Klang River where the din of the traffic was replaced by the soothing sound of rushing waters.

When we were near the spot under a bridge, one of the volunteers said out loud: “Nak makan? (Want something to eat?)”

A shirtless man in his 30s was sitting on a mat, smoking a cigarette as one of the volunteers handed him a packet of nasi lemak, a carton drink and a banana. One of the “denizens” then lit an oil lamp and we could see better. There were three other homeless persons there, and all of them greeted us with smiles.

On the wall of the embankment, just above our heads, was a dark line marking where the river waters reached when it rained. I asked the shirtless man: “So what do you do when it floods?”

“We just pack up and move,” he replied. “It rarely floods. When it does, the water rises slowly, so we have time to move away.”

Earlier, we were at the other end of the river under another bridge where the Friday night traffic was heavy and we could hear the roar of the vehicles above. I wondered how anyone could possibly get any sleep with all that noise around.

Young volunteers of Pertiwi Soup Kitchen pitching to do their bit for the needy.

There were more homeless people there ... and lots of cats. They belonged to a lady the volunteers affectionately called Catwoman. They told me she even has a pet python. I looked around and had my doubts; the cats and litter had free reign there.

Alvin and his friends do their rounds at least once a month. They declined to give their full names because they did not want any publicity for their humble efforts to reach out to a fellow man in need.

Some of the group members brought their children along. There were some college students among them, too.

“Isn’t it a bit dangerous for the kids?” I asked.

“No, when we have children with us, we don’t go to the more dangerous spots such as where the pimps, prostitutes and people with HIV are,” said Alvin.

They usually start at about 9pm on a Friday and sometimes finish way past midnight. The group is kept at 10 to 12 people at any one time, and all are requested to be dressed in white, for easy identification. Alvin also brought along a bag of clean clothes, to be offered to the homeless who needed an item or two.

From his personal encounters with the homeless, Alvin gathered that about 20% of them were foreigners. One of those we met at the river embankment was a young Indonesian woman who was five months pregnant. She wanted to return home to give birth to her child, but did not have enough money. A local organisation is providing her with free medical check-ups.

Some of the homeless have menial jobs which do not pay enough for them to even rent a room. Some are jobless, and the volunteers sometimes help them to secure work. One of the people we met near Central Market was a bespectacled man in his late 30s or 40s, who spoke good English. However, he could not secure a decent-paying job and had to sleep on the streets. What went wrong, we wondered.

I asked one of the volunteers, Catherine, why she brought along her two sons, Ignatius, 12, and Immanuel, 10. She explained that she wanted some exposure for her children.

There is no shortage of university students who volunteer at the various soup kitchens in KL.

“They may not fully understand the situation, but I believe they do take away something from the experience, which will help them to grow up as good people. My children do ask me questions about the homeless and what we do.”

Catherine imparts to her sons the importance of helping others unconditionally. Her boys, along with Alvin’s son Joshua, 15; fifth former Ashton; Michael, in his 20s; and Devon, a 20-year-old college student; all help to carry food and other items and distribute them. Ashton even chatted with a woman who had a three-year-old boy in her arms.

The homeless can be found sleeping on the sidewalks of the Kota Raya area, along Jalan Tun H.S. Lee, and outside office buildings and shops. At one point, Joshua was heard telling Ashton: “I saw this boy who’s about 15 sleeping on the sidewalk. Poor thing!”

The 15-year-old was probably moved by the sight of someone his age sleeping on the street. Perhaps Catherine was right, I thought.

Somewhere along the way, we ran into another group which was on a similar mission. A van was parked by the roadside and a group of young people were handing out food packets to the poor. I ran up to them and saw that they were from Pertiwi Soup Kitchen.

Two ladies in black vests with “Pertiwi” printed on the back asked if I would like to join them at their next stop in Jalan Syed Putra. I declined, and they hurried off.

Later I phoned the soup kitchen’s coordinator, Munirah Abdul Hamid, and she told me that Pertiwi Soup Kitchen has a steady supply of young volunteers. There is no shortage of university students who volunteer as part of their assignments.

The soup kitchen also gets volunteers from international schools. The students sometimes help to cook. One of the youngest volunteers, said Munirah, was a five-year-old.

“I always tell the parents to monitor their children,” she said. “I’m busy directing operations and can’t be looking after everyone. So parents have to be responsible for their own children.”

Volunteerism comes from the heart. Young people involved in community work learn to give and not take things for granted.

Occasionally, Pertiwi receives e-mails from young tourists who want to volunteer their services when they arrive in Malaysia.

As the night wore on, everyone was tired but soldiered on to give away the last packets of food and drinks.

We trudged from Central Market to Jalan Syed Putra, then on to Kota Raya and down to Jalan Tun H.S. Lee and Central Market. The young volunteers gamely carried heavy bags of food and drinks. I was on the verge of collapse.

It was Devon’s first time out with the group, and I asked him if he would do it again.

“Yeah!” he beamed.

We rounded up our little mission with a meal together and shared our experiences of the night. The young volunteers all said it was an eye-opening experience to come face-to-face with the homeless. It made them more appreciative of what they have, and taught them not to take things for granted.

In contrast, a middle-aged man we had encountered earlier, shouted at us to stop feeding the homeless because we were only making them lazy. Is he echoing the cynicism that sometimes comes with age? The young often look at the world around them with a simple compassion. Perhaps we could learn a lesson from there.

In the car on the way home, I asked Joshua what he wanted to be when he grows up.

“A pilot or a fireman,” he replied.

“Fireman?” I asked in surprise. “But why?”

His simple reply: “Because I want to help people.”

Kitchens in need

Pertiwi Soup Kitchen

Pertiwi distributes pre-packed food and drinks four nights a week to folks in the inner city neighbourhoods of Kuala Lumpur. Interested volunteers can contact Munirah Abdul Hamid (012-236 3639) or visit the group’s Facebook page at

Kechara Soup Kitchen

The group needs volunteers to help pack and distribute food around KL. Volunteers usually gather on Saturdays at the soup kitchen building at 17 Jalan Barat, off Jalan Imbi, KL, at 9.30pm, or on Sundays at 5pm. On weekdays, volunteers pack and distribute food at the building from 11am to 1pm, and with the mobile soup kitchen from 1.30pm to 2.30pm. The Kechara Soup Kitchen can be contacted at 03-2141 6046.

The Jinjang Soup Kitchen

This Kitchen is located at 2181 Jalan Limbang, Jinjang Utara, KL. There is another Fungates soup kitchen in Kedah located at 23 Jalan Putra, Alor Setar. Those who wish to contribute or volunteer can contact (for KL) Penny at 012-425 5777, or (for Alor Setar) Jane at 013-413 1568.

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