Animal assisted therapist and counsellor Maureen Huang runs a private practice called Pawsibility, with her help from Telly, her 3-year-old Labrador Retriever.
Maureen had a light-bulb moment while helping disabled kids ride horses as therapy six years ago.
Then a bank officer, she noticed that the human-animal connection was something special: The children became more motivated and grew in confidence whenever they worked with the horses.
“There was something almost magical when the kids and the horses interacted,” she says.
While Maureen was eager to learn more about this form of therapy, Singapore does not offer this form of training. So, she enrolled in the University of Denver in the US, where she experienced first-hand how animals were able to improve the health and well-being of humans.
“It just blew my mid. I knew that I had to bring that knowledge home to help children experience the healing power of the human-animal bond.
Her US stint must have been kismet because it was there that she met her best friend and co-therapist, Telly, whose name is short for Telluride, a ski resort in Colorado.
“I love seeing kids with anger issues display kindness and gentleness towards her. When they’re with Telly, they’re kind, polite, respectful — all the things you don’t expect normally,” Maureen notes.
Telly, whose playful and sweet temperament makes her a perfect fit for the job, returned to Singapore with Maureen two and half years ago. Together, the pair, who work with youths aged 4 to 20, tackle issues like depression, anger management, peer and family relationships, divorce and self-esteem. Even when a child with autism pulls Telly’s tail accidentally, her beloved pooch won’t react aggressively.
“Those four simple words brought tears to my eyes, because I knew what the girl had been through and how hard it is for her to feel loved in a way that was safe and nurturing.”
Maureen recalls a session she conducted for a group of teenage girls with a history of trauma and abuse. She saw a girl hugging Telly when they parted. The girl whispered to her friend, “I feel so loved”.
“Those four simple words brought tears to my eyes, because I knew what the girl had been through and how hard it is for her to feel loved in a way that was safe and nurturing,” says Maureen.
As you can imagine, while Maureen has the counselling know-how, Telly is often the star of the show. “She’s very sensitive to the needs of people,” Maureen explains.
“When I work with groups of kids, I may not know who’s feeling particularly sad or vulnerable, but Telly somehow knows and she’ll go to the kid who feels the saddest. The kid would later come and tell me how Telly made her feel better.
“Without any words, she can tell people she cares about them and that’s a powerful message for the kid who feels that no one cares.”
Rumya Ananthan, 28, a senior staff nurse at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, volunteers at Smile Asia, which provides free surgery to children with cleft lips. Married to air force officer Pravin Loganathan, 30, she gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Diya, in early November 2015.
Although Rumya was already working with kids as a nurse, she was determined to make good use of her experience to help others. Shortly after coming across some information on Smile Asia, she was on her way to her first mission.
Smile Asia assembles volunteers to correct children’s cleft lips and other facial deformities in less-developed countries.
“I assess the patient prior to the operation and nurse them after that,” elaborates Rumya, who has been to Myanmar and Uzbekistan on missions.
But while she’s familiar with the task at hand, the environment she works in during these missions is very different. “We don’t always have everything on hand like we do here in Singapore,” she notes. “Sometimes, we can’t find a stand for the drips, so we need to improvise by sticking tape to the wall.”
The resilience of the children she meets — how strong they are, even when they are ill — is something that always tugs at her heartstrings “They are just thankful for anything they get. They are happy to share a bed, as long as they can get the surgery.”
The kisses, hugs and random drawings she is rewarded with are what keep Rumya going, even when she’s tired. During each mission, the team will attend to more than 100 patients and often put in 12 hour-long shifts.
The first patient Rumya helped as a Smile Asia volunteer was less than a year old and had a cleft lip. “After the surgery, the transformation was simply beautiful. The mum was so happy, she was in tears,” she recalls.
Besides looking forward to the arrival of her first child, Rumya is also eagerly anticipating the Christmas season. “I simply love the festive air. Plus, it’s wonderful when our paediatric doctors go around to the wards to bring festive cheer to the children through Christmas carols,” she beams.
We chat with a mum who strongly believes that excess food should not go to waste…up ahead!
Food is an intrinsic part of Nichol Ng’s life. Besides running four food-distribution businesses, she is a co-founder and chief food officer of The Food Bank Singapore, which distributes excess food to the less fortunate that would otherwise be dumped. Married to Eddy Tapsir, 39, who manages a production company, Nichol, 37, is a mother of two girls, Shaia Rae, 1, and Sascha Rae, 3.
Did you know that food that hasn’t expired is binned more often than we can imagine? In fact, a third of food that we import in Singapore is thrown away, notes Nichol, who started the Food Bank with her brother, Nicholas, in 2012. “Which means we’re also throwing away the freight, the carbon footprint and the packaging,” she points out.
She cites container loads of whole salmon that were donated as “they weren’t filleted as requested by the customer”, as well as French fries rejected by a fast-food chain simply because they weren’t long enough to meet their exacting standards.
“It’s cheaper to donate it than to send it back to the US,” she notes. Many businesses also toss out perfectly good food because it’s nearing its expiry date and “wouldn’t do well on the shelf”.
Nichol was so appalled at the staggering amount of wastage that she decided to take action. “Food banking has been around in the US since 1967, but it’s still relatively unheard of in Asia.”
The Food Bank reaches out to some 100,000 people through soup kitchens, old folks’ and children’s homes across 150 charity organisations.
She points out that one out of 10 Singaporeans feel insecure about food. “What this means is that by mid-month, that person may have to weigh the pros and cons — can I buy lunch, or should I save the money for medicine, for instance.” This group — which comprises almost half a million people — may include foreign workers, or even the cleaner auntie at your office, she adds.
Currently, the Food Bank reaches out to some 100,000 people through soup kitchens, old folks’ and children’s homes across 150 charity organisations.
Besides collecting excess foods via “bank boxes” from companies, the not-for-profit also works with restaurants and hotels to redistribute food that hasn’t been touched. As to the possibility of organising a regional food warehouse of sorts here, she muses, “Perhaps one day, we won’t have to scramble to raise food items when there is a natural disaster in our neighbouring country.”
Introducing healthier options to the needy is also high on Nicol’s to-do list. “They feel that healthy food is expensive and they don’t have fridges to keep fresh foods. We want to introduce things like olive oil and oats to them."
She notes that we need to do something about redistributing food correctly as the cost of food is rising rapidly. “Personally, I feel that if I don’t do something about this, my daughters won’t get to eat $2.50 chicken rice in time to come.”
Alicia Lye, 26, is on a mission to make Singapore a more blissful place. The “Party Jack of all Trades” runs Happier Singapore, which provides face-painting, balloon-sculpting and other party services. She’s married to Wong Jing Song, 29, a financial planner.
Parties may mean fun and games for us, but to Alicia, it’s serious business. “It may seem like a light-hearted job, but birthdays and many other celebrations come only once a year,” she says. “So, I do feel a heavy responsibility that things go well for my customers.”
Her passion for party-planning was honed in kindergarten, when her mother let her plan her own shindig. She adds, “My family is very close knit. We share our joys together, even with our extended family, at every possible occasion there is to celebrate.”
However, she discovered her talent for decorating faces by accident, when she stepped in for her sister’s face-painting duties at a child’s birthday party. “The infectious and nostalgic atmosphere I experienced with the kids and parents was amazing. No other job can compare to it.”
And so, Happier Singapore was born — she now works with a team of artists. By the way, her balloon sculptures are far from run of the mill. You’ll see detailed ones of children's favourite characters like the Minions, Lighting McQueen and Bob the Builder. Her strangest request? “A large purple cockroach,” Alicia laughs.
That said, if you can think up something to challenge her, Alicia would probably create it. She gets inspiration from the children she meets, the Internet and “a little bit of her own imagination”.
“To be honest, I love a challenge and I tend to lose interest once the challenge is gone. I have to ensure my job is constantly evolving, so that my creative juices keep flowing!”
This article was first published in Mother & Baby Singapore December 2015.
Check out these stories, too…