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Volunteering in Singapore: These 7 inspirational expats are making a change in society through charities and volunteer work

By: Amy Brook-Partridge and Katie Roberts; Photography by Michael Bernabe and Ken Tan

Have any extra time on your hands? Look into volunteer opportunities in Singapore. We interview seven inspiring expats who spend their time helping to make society better. Read on to glean insight into the profile of a volunteer in Singapore.

First Hand, a Singapore society dedicated to the support of children in Cambodia who face the threat of child trafficking

Australian Miriam Heatherich is the president of the Singapore-based organisation First Hand, and says it is a role she was born for.

How did you get involved in volunteering for First Hand?

I attended a First Hand fundraising event in 2012 and was immediately captured by the enthusiasm of the team and the causes it supported. After I wound down my business commitments in 2014, I offered to join the First Hand team. I was moved, initially to despair, by the plight of Cambodian families, seemingly stuck in a cycle of poverty, lack of education and lack of support from government organisations. I was particularly disturbed to find a country, so geographically close to prosperous Singapore, considered as the epicentre for child trafficking in Southeast Asia, if not the world.

As a mother, I felt motivated and passionate, and had a fierce desire to use my marketing, organisational and business skills to raise funds to support these most vulnerable of children. In October 2014, I visited Cambodia and the centres of Damnok Toek, one of our Cambodian partners in Phnom Penh and Neak Leong, and I was in awe of the commitment and drive of the team on the ground over there.



How much time do you spend, and what do you do for the organisation?

As President, I spend 15 to 30 hours a week on First Hand during a non-event period; this work is varied and involves overseeing and arranging committee meetings, designing events and updating our website. Five to six weeks before an event I would spend around 50 to 60 hours per week on sponsor liaison, promotion, creating AV presentations and much more. I’m supported by an amazing team of women, who donate time out of their busy lives to make a difference collectively.

What impact do you think your volunteering has?

First Hand has raised $140,000 in the past eight months. That money has lessened the huge funding gap our Cambodian partners have experienced in recent times, ensuring the continuance of important projects previously threatened with closure. Together with our partners, we continue to assist with the rescue, rehabilitation and support of trafficked Cambodian children.

What do you personally get out of volunteering?

There’s nothing I’ve done in the corporate world that compares to the satisfaction of volunteering, and making a real and lasting difference. I feel that it’s a role I was born for. Working with a team of women who selflessly volunteer their time, even in moments of stress, is truly inspiring. If anyone feels that they would like to get involved with a charity, First Hand or any other, I would urge them to go ahead. My days are brighter as a result of knowing that the work of our team can brighten the day of a Cambodian child.

First Hand is a group of Singapore-based volunteers dedicated to improving the lives of children in Cambodia.


SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals)

American expat Christi Kimmel has lived in Singapore for nearly five years, and volunteers for the SPCA

How did you get involved in volunteering for the SPCA?

I’ve been a life-long animal lover, and I first visited the SPCA when I adopted a cat. At the time, I wanted to find a useful way to spend my time while I was job-hunting, and the SPCA had a number of flexible volunteer roles that I could sign up for as my schedule allowed. I’d previously worked in the insurance industry as a claims adjuster and an underwriter, and, although I did actually find work, I subsequently decided to leave the workforce and resume my volunteer work at the SPCA.

Charity work in Singapore and volunteering, the best activities to do in Singapore 

What do you gain from volunteering here?

I signed up because I wanted to work with animals and pay back the love and care  that other dedicated volunteers provided for my own rescued animals.

So, what exactly do you do for the SPCA?

I work in a number of volunteer roles, including shelter helper, which involves direct care for the animals including cleaning, feeding, grooming and exercising. I also walk dogs. I’m currently completing my training as an adoption counsellor, which involves screening adopters and providing pet care advice, and I’ve also helped with clerical work, off site retail sales and fostering.

Do any of your past skills help with your current role?

Having worked with the public has definitely been useful in my volunteer work. I’ve learnt to work with other volunteers and members of the public who come from so many different cultures. Many of our visitors and volunteers are long-time pet owners, but others have never had a pet before. I now have the opportunity to pass on what I know to those who have no prior experience.

What will you take with you from this experience?

I think my enduring memory will be of the smiles on people’s faces when they meet their “forever friend”.

SPCA provides 24-hour emergency aid for sick and injured or very young animals; it also investigates cruelty complaints, and offers educational programmes, an adoption programme and more.

Riding for the Disabled (RDA)

Jane Maxwell volunteers at Riding for the Disabled (RDA), one of the best-known charities in Singapore. She has been volunteering for years, both here and in Australia.

How did you get involved in volunteering for RDA?

RDA makes a real difference to people’s daily lives, not only for our riders but for their family and friends. I first heard about RDA at a coffee morning when I met a volunteer; her enthusiasm was infectious and I signed up the next day.

What exactly do you do for RDA?

I regularly volunteer three morning sessions a week, with the occasional extra sessions in the afternoon. At RDA we provide free therapeutic and rehabilitative horse-riding therapy for children and adults with disabilities. Each three-hour session requires six leaders who prepare and lead the horses, and 12 side-walkers who stay by the side of the horses and interact with the riders to encourage them to reach their full potential. I also coordinate the Friday morning sessions. No experience is needed to side-walk, as training is provided.

What impact do you think your volunteering has?

I have met the most remarkable people from all over the world, young and old. When we sit together after a session, I’m often overcome with a sense of privilege to be in their company. We’re all so happy to be a part of RDA and we really enjoy our time together as a team. The often remarkable progress our riders make is the greatest joy and a feeling like no other. To get to know the riders and witness their achievements is something I’m so grateful to experience.

Had you volunteered before?
I volunteered at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and was part of Sydney’s Meals on Wheels programme for many years. Here in Singapore, I help out at the New2U charity shop as well as the Salvation Army.

What do you personally get out of volunteering?

Every day is a new experience, with new challenges and rewards. I’ve learnt so much about the human spirit and the incredible bond between rider and horse. Also, that time is probably the greatest gift we have to give, and it will always be appreciated.

RDA provides free horse-riding therapy to children and adults with disabilities.

HOME (the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics)

Dutch expats Marlouke Schuengel and Marijke Rombeek tell us how they got involved in volunteering for HOME (the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics).

What led you to volunteer for HOME?

Marlouke: One of my friends was a volunteer, and she told me about all the things they do at the office, and how they run the shelter. Having seen on a daily basis how some employers mistreat their helpers, I felt it was time for me to turn my frustration into action. I always loved the cheerful and colourful bunting from HOME, so I contacted Marijke to talk about the sewing team. As her friend who was assisting her had just relocated, she was doing it all by herself and was looking for a new member to help her.

Marijke had set up the sewing team in July 2011, while she was working for HOME in the domestic workers’ office (doing casework, research and reports). Hearing so many heart-breaking stories of women who left their homes and families in order to make a better living for them by working as domestic workers in Singapore, she decided to do something more.

Marijke: It struck me how many women were just sitting and waiting in the shelter, worrying about their families and their cases. Some women stay for months or even years. I decided to see if they could make bunting and party flags. Party flags made of fabric are very popular in the Netherlands; almost everybody owns a few.

A friendly domestic worker, who can sew very well, was willing to teach a group of women in the shelter how to make bunting. I bought sewing machines, fabrics, band, thread and scissors, and we got started. It worked out very well. The ladies liked the work and they learnt quickly. At first, I sold the bunting to friends and family, but now we sell it at fairs and at a very popular children’s store.

What do you feel you get from volunteering?

Marlouke: I wanted to do something for the many women in Singapore who have bad experiences with their employers. I love seeing them trying to make the best of their situation by making friends and learning new skills while earning a little bit to support their family.

Marijke: After four years, the HOME sewing team is still going strong. The women come and go, and in these four years over 100 women have joined the project. On average, the team consists of around six to eight women. I am very proud that this project has been able to make a difference to so many women.

Talk us through what you do for them.

Marijke: Since January, we’ve been doing everything together, from supplying fabric for the bunting and pillow covers to making designs, taking care of quality control, communicating with customers, attending fairs, taking machines to repair shops and more. We visit the women in the shelter once a week to make sure all is going well. The women teach each other how to sew. Part of the money earned is used to buy more materials, and all the rest goes to HOME.

Do any of your previous career skills come in to play with this work?

Marlouke: I don’t think I’ve brought any previous career skills to this project, but that’s okay. I love it because it’s hands-on. Hearing the stories and experiences of these women holds great value for me. It’s something I’ll take with me wherever I go.

HOME is committed to preserving the rights of migrant workers in Singapore, including victims of human trafficking and forced labour.

AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research)

Australian Kellie Davison has lived in Singapore for two years and volunteers at AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research), helping women in times of need.

How did you get involved with AWARE?

I was completing a counselling degree when I arrived in Singapore, and wanted some hands-on experience before seeking full-time employment in the social services sector. AWARE appealed to me as it provides support services to women and extensive on-the-job training for volunteers on how to help women in distress or at times of uncertainty in their lives. This training emphasised the aim of offering empathy, emotional support and encouragement to women.

Tell us what you do.

As a volunteer, my main function is to provide a listening, non-judgemental ear to women in their times of need. I offer them empathy, support, encouragement and information. Often, they don’t know about the services and support that are available to them, and by listening to their concerns I can help direct them to services such as counselling or legal advice, both offered at AWARE.


I also volunteer with the befriender programme at AWARE, where I accompany women to the family court, the state court or a police station to file reports against domestic violence, harassment or sexual violence. Befriending appeals to me as I get to provide support and companionship on a face-to-face basis.

What impact do you think your volunteering has?

Helping other people by listening and being there can make a huge difference to their recovery journey. By being anonymous and maintaining confidentiality, we can provide support that really appeals to woman who may not have a strong support system. When they’re visiting a court or a police station, I know that kindness and respect really helps them get through a very difficult time.

Had you volunteered before?

Early this year I was introduced to the Singapore Children’s Society, and I now volunteer on the children’s helpline, for primary school children from local schools. Children aren’t always willing to talk to their parents, so by offering my skills and services to them I can help them with coping and relaxation strategies that should serve them through their adolescence.

What do you personally get out of volunteering?

Volunteering is very rewarding, and I’ve seen how AWARE has worked for so many women across Singapore. It has helped me learn new skills, and provided a sense of accomplishment in having made a difference in people’s lives. Giving back to a community that has so easily accepted me is one of the many reasons I continue to volunteer with AWARE.

AWARE is a not-for-profit organisation that offers research and advocacy, education and training, and support services that have a positive impact on the health and welfare of women.

Salvation Army Singapore

New Zealander Virginia Soh has lived in Singapore for 14 years and volunteers at the Salvation Army, where she enjoys seeing another side to the island, behind the glitz and glamour.

How did you get involved with the Salvation Army volunteer team?

I had some expat friends who were already volunteering with the Salvation Army and, after attending one of their events, I decided to join in. I saw it as a way to give back to the Singaporean community after living here for several years.

What do you do as a volunteer?

As part of the Family Support Service, I volunteer a couple of hours per month to help with food packing and the delivery of rice and dry goods. Together with staff from the centre, I deliver these to residents in Kim Tian, Bukit Merah View and Jalan Bukit Merah. We also help out at the Beo Crescent centre during special events, such as arts and craft sessions, Christmas activities, and outings with the elderly.


What impact do you think this volunteering has?

The Support Service does a wonderful job in reaching out to the local community, particularly those who require additional help. The food delivery volunteers play a part in supporting the Salvation Army with their time and enthusiasm. In return, volunteers are able to interact with an often-unseen side of Singapore.

Had you ever volunteered before?

I’ve been a volunteer for a long time, starting in my teens with a local Chinese church youth group and later with the hospice community in Wellington. This has continued throughout my overseas experience – I assisted at local schools in New Zealand and Hong Kong when my children were younger.

What do you personally get out of volunteering?

I get to see the other side of everyday Singapore life, plus some of the biggest smiles and thank-yous from the uncles and aunties when they collect their food parcels. I also get to learn about their lives and what it was like in the good old days of Singapore from chatting with them in English or in Cantonese.

Volunteers come and go, so there is always room for more people to help with food delivery and packing, or with events that support the elderly in need. Family Support Services is at Block 42 Beo Crescent, #01-95.