Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

NUS Giving FrancescaAs a little girl, family time for Ms Francesca Phoebe Wah (‘14) was sitting together to thread red strings into plastic bags used for takeaway. Because her sickly dad could not work, her family took on such odd jobs to make ends meet.

Adversity, however, did not dim her drive to succeed. Besides becoming a teacher, Ms Wah earned a master’s degree in Social Work, sponsored by the Ee Peng Liang Scholarship. And just last year, she won the nation’s highest accolade for youths, the Singapore Youth Award.

Ms Wah said, “We don’t get to choose the circumstances that we are placed in, but we can choose our attitude towards them and what to focus on in each trying situation.”

It can be said that those who have experienced poverty and its daily struggles have an intimate understanding of suffering, and as such, tend to be the ones who extend a helping hand to others.

Determined to help others shape their lives and break out of the poverty cycle, Ms Wah started Bringing Love to Every Single Soul (BLESS), a non-profit that supports families living in rental flats.

BLESS runs a series of initiatives, such as Shining Star Reads and Small Souls Blessing.

Shining Star Reads is a reading programme for children living in rental blocks. Small Souls Blessing, on the other hand, is an online gifting portal where people can buy essentials, such as stationery and wheelchairs, for the less fortunate.

Ms Wah’s philanthropic work earned her the Singapore Youth Award, which honours young people who make a difference in the community.

Recalling the surreal moment, she said, “This award is an affirmation of the work my volunteers and I are doing in the rental communities. It’s also an affirmation that our beneficiaries matter to society. They are not forgotten.”

FrancescaThe seeds of BLESS were planted during Ms Wah's NUS days.

In 2014, the Psychology undergraduate ran pilot programmes as part of her social work modules. She felt it would be unfair to the beneficiaries she was helping if she stopped.

After graduation, Ms Wah continued running the programmes, but the novice teacher had her concerns — juggling her hectic schedule and getting funding for a charity that was run by youths on a pro-bono basis.

She said, “My fears were real; the challenges were great, but the needs of the community were greater. I decided to take a leap of faith and pressed on.”

Five years on, the school project has morphed into a nationwide volunteer movement. 

Shining Star Reads started off at the void deck of a Clementi rental block, with four volunteers armed with a mat, library books and a cheery attitude. In 2020, the reading sessions will be held in 13 communities.

According to BLESS’s 2018/2019 annual report, Small Soul Blessings collected S$44,298.51 in donations and gifted 6,415 beneficiaries.

Having relied on government handouts while growing up, Ms Wah understands how a little help goes a long way.

“I was awarded the MOE Teaching Scholarship when I was an undergraduate. For my Masters, I was awarded the Ee Peng Liang Memorial Fund Scholarship. I am extremely grateful for them.”

The late Dr Ee was known as the “Father of Charity” in Singapore. The businessman was also the founding member and President of the Singapore Council of Social Service, as well as the Community Chest.

A beneficiary of Dr Ee’s scholarship, Ms Wah is carrying on his legacy in charity and in helping communities.

With the knowledge gained from her Social Work studies, she was able to better lead and manage BLESS. She could also look at education matters through a ’social work lens’.

Just like Dr Ee, Ms Wah hopes to rally average Singaporeans to do their part for the community.

Ms Wah said, “Everyone has something to offer. We look at the interests of the volunteers and allow for skills-based volunteering. When we all play our part for the community, Singapore will eventually transform into a more caring society.”