“I was never the volunteering sort in secondary school. I thought it was uncool. Back then, I was the most notorious kid in class and my friends and I who would make fun of anyone who did volunteer work.
I came from a rough environment and difficult family background, so growing up was not easy for me. We struggled a lot and did whatever it took to survive, and I carried that ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality with me in school.
In order to survive, you had to be the big bully so that no one dared cross you or question you. If you said you liked doing volunteer work, you’d be made fun of and you might even get beaten up. You had to be the cool one. That was always the agenda of the day.
All that changed when I failed my ‘O’ Level exams. That came as quite a shock to me because all my friends graduated. No matter how rough they were or how much trouble they caused, they somehow made it to a Polytechnic or moved on to somewhere better.
I got left behind. That impacted me a lot. I started re-evaluating what was wrong in my life and I was determined to change for the better and I became a completely different person during my repeat year. Even my teachers were surprised. I studied really hard and did really well when I retook my ‘O’ Levels.
After secondary school, I took up a three-year pre-university course at Millennia Institute (MI). MI provided many opportunities for students to go overseas and do volunteer work, and that was where my volunteering journey began.
I was 17 then and my interest in volunteer work wasn’t that strong. I gave volunteering a try simply because I wanted to make new friends in a new schooling environment. It was a major transitional phase for me.
In University, I didn’t have to pretend to be cool or act tough anymore. Everyone was focused on academics and worked hard in self-development. When they asked me to volunteer with them, I joined them.
For one of the volunteer trips, we went to an orphanage in Chiang Mai, Thailand to work with children with special needs. We also helped transform a barren piece of land into a proper agricultural site so that the locals can do organic farming.
It was hard labour and there was a lot of manual work involved. It was so tiring but it was also a lot of fun. My friends and I formed strong bonds in Chiang Mai. That whole experience opened up my world to the wonders of doing good for the community.
When I was about to graduate, a teacher whom I looked up to as a mentor told me that there were other avenues I could explore beyond school if I still wanted to do volunteer work. She told me to reach out to grassroots organisations.
I felt insecure at first because I always wondered whether people from such organisations would accept someone like me. I am very new to this world; this environment. I was that notorious kid back in school so I’ve always felt unworthy inside.
But my friends were very encouraging. They never looked down on me. My volunteering journey became more fun when I made more friends, and it was through my growing volunteering network that I discovered Youth Corps Singapore (Youth Corps).
I didn’t know much about Youth Corps when someone suggested I joined its Leaders Programme. I went to the website and read that I would meet a lot of like-minded individuals who are also passionate about volunteering.
Fast-forward to today, I’m a Youth Corps Leader. I was officially conferred not too long ago. It was a very heart-warming experience to know that people care and recognise the work that we do. The President graced our commencement ceremony and personally congratulated us.
As part of my leaders programme journey, I worked with a charity called Lakeside Family Services on a community service project to educate children in the neighbourhood about protecting the environment. It was a six-month programme and I strongly believed that it was a success.
Yes, I like interacting with children. In these past few years, I’ve volunteered for a lot of causes – the environment, the elderly, minorities and many more. But I can safely say that I’m at my best when I work with children and youths.
I feel a very strong connection with them and I feel a sense of responsibility towards them. When I was a teenager, I had no one to give me advice about life. I had to figure it out step by step on my own and it was a very long process.
There are many kids out there who encounter the same kinds of problems I did when I was young. Coming from a low-income family, constantly trying to fit in, not knowing how to progress in life, always feeling misunderstood.
I feel like I can be that bridge between them and the better life that they want to build for themselves. I can give them advice on the proper channels to move forward. I can tell them, ‘Hey look, I was where you were before but I came out of there. I climbed out of that world, you can too’.
You don’t have to be a bully. You don’t have to act tough and show attitude just so that people will think you are strong. You can be strong while still being empathetic. These are things I learnt as a leader with Youth Corps.” – Habib, 25, Youth Corps Leader
Interview by: Arman Shah