May 26, 2009
Opening doors to a family's real needs
When social worker Shawn Koh gets a request for school pocket fund money, he probes deeper
By Wong Kim Hoh
MR SHAWN Koh has primed his team of social workers to do a little gentle probing each time they get an application for The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund.
'We use the fund as an engagement tool,' says the head of the Pasir Ris Family Service Centre, who has nine social workers working under him.
'We try to find out if these parents have other problems besides just difficulties providing for their children's education. Is the marriage strained, is the relationship between the parents and their children strained? Do the parents suffer mental strain?'
Mr Koh, 33, describes the fund as a great door opener which has helped social workers to better identify problems faced by families in need.
He gives the example of a woman who applied for her three children to be put on the scheme last year and was found to be a single parent suffering from drug addiction and mental problems. He has since assigned three social workers to attend to the multi-dysfunctional family.
The fund was started by The Straits Times in 2000 so that students from low-income families could start the day with a proper breakfast and have enough pocket money to sustain them through their school day.
Eligible primary students get $45 a month, while their secondary school counterparts get $80 under the scheme, which is administered by the National Council of Social Service through various agencies.
Mr Koh says the fund has been a great crutch for many more since the recession hit.
Last year, his centre disbursed about $60,000 to 241 children from 111 families, of which 13 had to be granted special approval. Families granted special approval are those living in five- room flats or better, usually better-off, middle-class Singaporeans who have fallen on hard times.
But within the first five months of this year alone, it has given out about $53,000 to 277 children from 128 families, of which 25 were granted special approval.
To meet these growing needs, the School Pocket Money Fund hopes to raise $5.7 million this year - up from $4.4 million last year - as the recession drags on and erodes the livelihood of more.
The new poor seeking help today tell it all, he says. 'Some used to earn more than $6,000 before they lost their jobs or their business. Some are doing part-time work now, making far less than what they used to.
'It is probably a lot harder emotionally for these people to accept the loss of the lifestyle they used to lead, and have to worry about bills, and not knowing where their children's next meal is going to come from.
'When you can't take care of your physical needs, how can you take care of your emotional needs?'
It explains why he and his team take a very proactive approach when helping those hoping to get on the scheme.
'Although an applicant is eligible to be on the scheme for two years, we review each case every three or four months.
'This way, not only do we ensure accountability, but we also use the opportunity to find out if we can provide them with help in other areas such as looking for a job.'
Mr Koh, who won a merit Outstanding Social Worker award in 2004, says it would save a lot of administrative and paper work if his team simply disbursed the fund based on eligibility without conducting face-to-face reviews, which typically take at least half an hour or longer.
'But that would just make us administrators. For instance, some applicants may be retrenched, but they may have received several months of severance pay. We counsel them to apply for the fund when they are really in need, because there may be more needy and deserving cases.
'We are not closing the door, and we certainly don't want to break their spirit. We look to encourage their heart in different ways.'
The eldest of three children of a construction businessman and a housewife, Mr Koh remembers seeing a social worker comforting his mother in his five-room HDB home when he was a child.
'I have never asked my mother what happened, but I remember her crying. The social worker was very comforting and reassuring.'
He thinks the episode probably made him decide to study social work at the National University of Singapore.
'I came from a science background where everything is right or wrong, black or white. But I realised that life is grey, and that it can be difficult. Social work is about life, and how people deal with it.'
Upon graduation in 2001, he became a medical social worker at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, where he worked with the elderly. The work was rewarding, but emotionally draining.
'Many of the old people I worked with depended on me to be their voice. Sometimes, they became pawns when their children fought,' he says.
One of his most memorable cases involved rounding up within three days the 10 children of an elderly patient who had been abandoned at the hospital, all of whom had not spoken to each other in years.
'I brought them together at a family conference, and encouraged them to thrash out and resolve their issues and differences. Mind you, I was just 23 then. Some of them were a lot older,' he recalls.
The siblings agreed to work out a care-taking arrangement, and the patient went home with one of them.
Mr Koh left after two years to formulate policy at the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, before joining the Pasir Ris Family Service Centre in 2004. He became its head six months later at 28, the youngest person to assume such a position.
When asked if social work is especially challenging during a recession, he says: 'Social work is challenging at all times regardless of the economy.
'But difficult times are when social workers shine because people are in obvious need. It is probably tougher in good times because all the needs are hidden and it is harder to uncover them.'
Shawn Koh and his team of nine
MR Shawn Koh, 33, is the head of the Pasir Ris Family Service Centre, where he heads a team of nine social workers.
He says The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund has been a great crutch not just for low-income families, but also more well-heeled Singaporeans who have been affected by the recession. He and his team use the fund as an 'engagement tool' to find out if parents who apply for the scheme need other forms of aid besides financial help with their children's education.
Mr Koh is a graduate from the National University of Singapore's social work department and is currently pursuing his MBA at the NUS Business School.
He is married to an officer in a statutory board. The couple have three daughters, aged between one and six years old.