Updated: Mar 21
By Ziv Oh
Guided by Lin Shiyun
Uncle Chris and Aunty Kat are a senior couple who volunteer regularly at Tak Takut Kids Club (TTKC). Their tight bond with some of the youth have emerged from weekly time spent befriending and playing with the community. In this interview facilitated by Ziv and Zam, we find out more about their personal volunteering journeys, the differences between volunteering at community and social service-based settings, and the joy of intergenerational work.
Aunty Kat and Uncle Chris at the nursery with the gardening club.
Ziv: How did you find out about TTKC and what brought you guys here?
Uncle Chris: Errr… ladies first! (laughs)
Aunty Kat: I found out about TTKC from… him! (gestures to Uncle Chris)
Uncle Chris: Wah, full stop like that! (laughs) Ok, I will answer first. For me, I found out about TTKC through my son, who asked me to give it a try because it is very different. Before that, I volunteered in a lot of other places.
Zam: Where do you go usually? I’m curious.
Uncle Chris: One example is CareNights. CareNights is something like TTKC, but they cater to families where parents are not around (at home) at night. Kids are expected to come every night... Of course, their parents sign them up.
Ziv: Care at night?
Uncle Chris: CareNights. They provide tuition, story-telling, playing, this and that. But it is very controlled (environment) lah. It is a 5-minute walk from my place in Bedok. I volunteered for almost a year and a half. Then I heard about TTKC and I came here… so wah, got a lot of things to do here… so I decided to spend more time here. Here, I’m able to have more direct contact with the kids. Over there it is quite restricted, like you’re not supposed to be too close, or you follow a regime, so there’s not much time for real or social interaction. It has its plus and minus lah. Over here, more plus and a little bit minus.
Zam: What is the minus?
Uncle Chris: Basically when the kids are young, you cannot assume that they know everything, so giving them too much option and freedom may not be too good also…. It’s important to train them to follow through their homework, or certain tasks. All these need training because it is inculcated from young. It is very free here (at TTKC), so maybe there should be some guidance towards certain structures. But I have also learnt that the first two years is what we call a ‘honeymoon period’, whereby you take time for the kids to really warm up and build trust. Like what TTKC has been doing. I think it is slowly coming together.
Ziv: What do both of you find the most rewarding about volunteering at TTKC?
Aunty Kat: The kids.
Ziv: (laughs) Do you have any favourites?
Aunty Kat: Of course, there are one or two that come right to my mind. But when I observe them, I think they’re all so adorable… and I like this place because it has the kampung spirit. Very rare, you know what I mean? Nowadays the places we see are all very structured. I also believe that children must be given the space to play. Actually, the best education is to let them play. I find that in Singapore, the children are all very stressed… So this place is very different. Children get a chance to play, to be themselves, and be a child.
Uncle Chris playing on the swing with the children.
Uncle Chris: There is a lot, a lot of space here for the children to be themselves, be at ease. The children feel happy coming to TTKC. I think that's the same for the adults here. If I come here, and it’s very structured and controlling, then probably I won’t come.
Ziv: From your volunteering experience, what are the problems with the very structured and controlling approaches in engaging children?
Uncle Chris: For standard social services, the children come because their parents signed them up and they have to meet a certain attendance. So every now and then, there will be a struggle with keeping track of where they are, and they will give a lot of reasons for not coming. So it felt like it became… a one-sided thing lor. The children are not interested.
Ziv: So in TTKC, there’s this sense of-
Uncle Chris: (laughs) Here is different! Here you lock the door, the children still knock on the door!
Aunty Kat: (laughs) Yeah, a small boy came in just now in the middle of our conversation.
Ziv: We don’t go to the community, the community comes to us.
Aunty Kat: It means that this place is welcoming to them, especially for children whose parents are out working and there’s nobody at home. They have a place to go to, and it’s a safe space. At least they do not wander around, and don’t know where to go. Over here they can come anytime, enjoy themselves, and look out for each other. There’s really a… kampong spirit in the community.
Uncle Chris: Maybe at home or in school, the children are always told to behave this way and that way. But there is no such a strong rule here. But the children learn, they learn through social interactions. “If I behave like this, and everyone else doesn't like it then… (what should I do)?” From a facilitated kind of peer pressure, they learn their social skills.
Ziv: I often see Uncle Chris mentoring the kids and talking to them. When I looked back on myself when I was younger, I thought I wouldn’t like being talked to like that. But of course, I was a very stubborn kid then. What is your take on mentoring?
Uncle Chris: We tried something with the gardening club with Shiyun (3Pumpkins’ Executive Director) and a few boys, and I think to a certain degree… we approached this thing wrongly. We formed an expectation of them to do something ‘right’.
Aunty Kat: No, no, no, I didn’t have any expectations. I think what I saw was that M (a youth) had green fingers. You can see a person light up when they do something they like. When I first saw him growing his plants, I felt that it was an avenue for him to open up. But as we proceeded with the gardening club more intensively with some expectations of planning, tasks, responsibilities and visions. I also realised that it was too much for him. It was too rushed. Who did we start this for? Are the others enjoying this task or not? And I can see that most of them just want to have…
Aunty Kat: They have very short interest, and I can also understand. Because they are just kids, you know?
Uncle Chris: Whether is it gardening or cooking, I think it is just a way for the kids to learn about social skills, life skills, to also find focus in whatever thing they want to do. So with the gardening club, I was hoping that they would learn to be a bit more patient with what they do with a bit of planning and a bit of research on how to make this thing better. But along the way, I felt that it wasn’t really their interest lah, it wasn’t at all lah, except M. But as a youth, he is also dealing with a lot of personal and family problems which are his current preoccupations as a 17-year-old becoming a young adult. So we can’t fault them for not doing what we think they should do. I think it’s important to be constantly mindful of our approaches.
Aunty Kat and Uncle Chris setting up models for a potential community garden (left)
and making compost (right)
Ziv: Actually you remind me of a mentor of mine. He worked in the navy and he too often does volunteering work.
Uncle Chris: If he’s from the navy, then perhaps we learn the same thing, and we have the same bad habits. And there’s a lot of unpacking and unlearning needed. I think there are a lot of things I do, my way of thinking that I actually could have done much much better. So coming here helps me to unpack that…
I learned one very very important lesson at TTKC. When you work with people, when you work with kids, number one: we have to spend time gaining their trust. If we don’t gain their trust, whatever you try, you won’t succeed lah. So with children, especially the very sensitive ones, they’re very sensitive to know whether they can approach you or not. Strangely, the more I talk, the more the children keep away from me. But when I talk very little, when I just smile and just be there, the children start to talk to me.
Zam: Actually I wonder, do you think the children are receptive to what you tell them?
Uncle Chris: I think all of them are respectful lah. But the only thing is that you cannot force them to do things they don’t like… they will just respectfully disappear! (laughs)
Ziv: Aunty Kat, do you have similar experience in unpacking and unlearning?
Aunty Kat: Uh… it’s more like doing the things I couldn’t do when I was young.
Ziv: Would you mind sharing some of it?
Aunty Kat: You know, being a child again? (laughs)
Uncle Chris: Lost childhood. (laughs)
Aunty Kat: I want to experience being a child. (laughs)
Uncle Chris: You know, people of our generation, we are actually baby boomers, so people of our generation… study hard, work hard, get a job, stay on, don’t quit! You know that kind of thing? It’s about work, work, work, earn money, earn money, earn money, and uh, no time for anything else. It’s lost childhood that she is talking about.
Aunty Kat: (laughs) I just want, I just want to enjoy my life.
Uncle Chris: For me, I’m a little bit different. When I was young, I had all these fun, because I used to stay in a kampong. So when I come back here, I was like “eh…."
Ziv: Childhood? Nostalgia?
Uncle Chris: Yes, it’s nice lah… so different but yet the same.
Ziv: Do you feel that there is a generation gap, whether is it between you and me, a 20-year-old, or the kids in TTKC?
Aunty Kat: I don’t think there’s ever a gap.
Uncle Chris: I agree.
Aunty Kat: There’s no gap at all. Interestingly, TTKC offers a place where there’s no gap, that’s how I feel lah. This is where I can learn… where I can learn to feel young again (laughs). When I’m at TTKC, there’s a zone that I can go in… where I don’t need to participate, or may not be playing that game… I can just sit there, and I’m just absorbing the environment. I’m still in the zone. I am not made to feel that there is a need to justify what is age-appropriate for me to do. It’s a very nice feeling for me, you know, just relax and let go.
Aunty Kat hanging out at the playground with the children.
Uncle Chris playing with wigs adorned by the kids in TTKC.
Uncle Chris: I think the generation gap is all self-imposed. We create gaps among ourselves. I used to think “eh I’m an old guy, so I must behave in a certain way” then the young chap will look at you, say “eh this old guy is here then… probably we should behave in a certain way”. These are all… common social behaviour. But if you show yourself to be open, receptive and non-judgemental about what they should or should not be, the children will see it… and actually, there’s no gap lah. I think the more important thing is sincerity. Do you really mean well for them? Do you really care for them when you say certain things? When you want to do a certain thing, do you really do it for them? The children will know whether you are truthful to them or not. So once they feel you are okay… you really think about them…. They will open up lah.
Ziv: Last question, why do you volunteer your time to the community?
Uncle Chris: I mean, at this point in our lives right, uh… whatever we need to do, for our career, for our family, for whatever, it’s already…
Aunty Kat: Done. (laughs)
Uncle Chris: Done, you know? But it doesn't mean our usefulness ends there.
Aunty Kat: We may be retiring from our work, but it’s the beginning of our new life… It’s a new chapter of our lives, and we just wanna do things we like and enjoy, yet extend some kind of service.
Uncle Chris: Yeah, yeah, it’s a new chapter of our lives. Life has been tough, but overall when I look at it, it has been good. So I guess uh...it can only be better, if you make use of all your experiences and time, to give this time that you have with people who need it. And I do hope personally that more seniors would join us (laughs) instead of just sitting around in the coffee shop or hawker centre, buying 4D, complaining about government policies, you know, I think it’s all mundane. I hope you can gather some like-minded seniors to do this. That’s my wish, for TTKC.