To mark International Women’s Day, we brought together three different women from different backgrounds to share their journeys and life lessons. Read on for our third and final interview with the founder of Blessings in a Bag and other charitable organisations, Emily Teng, on finding herself through helping others.
Tell us about your career journey so far – radio host, fitness instructor and charity founder!
Where do I begin? After graduating, I just knew I wanted a career where I could help others. I took the initial steps to become a certified Occupational Therapist, but left after a semester. I then signed up for a one-week crash course and “behind the scenes” look in the media industry, and by the end of that week I was scouted to join one of Singapore’s top radio stations at the time (987FM, which later became Power98FM). I hosted a request and dedication song show (way before social came about, so I was receiving handwritten letters, presents in themail and old-school text messages!) and basically radio was my gig for eight years.
I launched myself into the fitness scene when I worked with Nike Singapore to host a few of their community events and races, and then eventually moved to become one of their Nike Training Club trainers for the Singapore market. I enjoyed seeing everyone on their individual fitness journeys come together, and so a friend of mine was opening a boutique fitness studio (Selective Fitness) and I led sessions part-time.
To a lot of people, the work I do may seem a little haphazard, but looking back and trying to connect the dots, everything I have done has in some way brought community together and had a social purpose.
What led you to founding Blessings in a Bag in 2007?
I wanted to create a project that would inspire others to feel that anyone could take part in giving back. I saw challenges with the CIP/VIA (Community Involvement Programme / Value In Action) initiative in local education systems, which created this belief in young people that in order to serve, you have to benefit too. I’ve also heard many individuals say that they would only think about contributing to charitable causes once they’d reached a significant career milestone, when they’d “made it” in life, or when they retired.
Blessings in a Bag was originally just meant to be a Christmas project to collect basic need items that everyone had access to, and we would re-distribute them according to needs across Singapore. Instead of the items being used as handouts on a consistent basis (which can also do more harm than good), we partnered with local organisations to use the items as social incentives for the communities they were trying to reach. To attract regular attendance of students in rural communities, we provided school “blessing backpacks”, which were full to the brim with items that they would need to get started. To attract parents and guardians to attend health or parenting workshops, we provided health packs full of items like toothbrushes, toothpaste and towels. In this way, we were able to help other organisations with their outreach efforts, and meet needs of individuals they came across through their fieldwork. They could focus on doing meaningful work while we looked after basic, material needs.
Tell us about some of your key projects.
Most of our projects under Blessings in a Bag have been inspired, ideated or co-led by youth in Singapore who want to make meaningful change. They include One Week of Awesome, where for an entire week we take to the streets and pop up in and around Singapore to rally the community to participate in making kindness a lifestyle. We partnered with the Singapore Kindness Movement and other brands to stand up for a kinder Singapore. For instance, we received stamps from SingPost so people could write a thank you note to friends.
Another initiative is Blessings on the Street. We brought together a group of young people to think about how to be brave, be kind and take action in an “amazing race”-style challenge. Each group was given broad-based challenges such as “spread kindness on public transport”, so we had a variety of amazing groups going around singing on the MRT, handing out drinks, saying thank you to bus drivers, and so on. We also had challenges such as “do something to help another person” and we had a group who helped an auntie distribute flyers and heard her share her personal story of struggle and hope. Another group helped aunties and uncles to clear trays and clean up at hawker centres.
Our latest project, Beyond Awesome, is an after school and alternative learning programme for high-need communities in Singapore, catering to kids between four and 12 years of age. We bring out-of-the-box and meaningful experiences to kids in our care that are either referred by social services or who we meet when we speak to families and community members. Among the exciting programmes under Beyond Awesome is a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths) workshop, led by a series of industry experts who wanted to get involved with our cause. In March, we’ll be hosting the first session with a scientist from NUS who will teach our students about molecular gastronomy.
What motivates you to do what you do?
I’ve come to realise that many of us working in the social impact space are either inspired by someone else’s pain point or by our own, turning negative experiences into a platform for good. For me, I didn’t go through high school unscathed from bullies. I’m motivated by the fact that if I can prevent one youth from taking their own life because of nasty comments on a social media post, or if I can help someone discover their inner potential, we’re on track towards a braver, kinder world where everyone is celebrated for who they are.
How would you advise others to channel inner positivity and “awesomeness” in their lives?
Take it back to basics. Grab a journal to jot down a few things you are thankful for each day. Make time for yourself by doing things that bring joy into your life, or make you smile. Schedule something for yourself in your planner at least once a week. Lastly, serve. Get out there and focus on someone else. Use the skills and strengths you have to support someone in your community – it doesn’t have to be with or through an organisation. It could be the bus driver, your neighbour or a complete stranger! Look to light up someone else’s life, and you will be amazed how much it brightens your own.
This article first appeared in the March 2017 edition of Expat Living. Shop now so you never miss an issue!