Volunteer Mary Vasanthi feeding one of the home’s residents. Mary is one of six volunteers who were given long service appreciation awards for 25 years of volunteer service to home at the home’s silver jubilee celebration May 15. Photo by Darren Boon
SINGAPORE – The elderly residents wait patiently for lunch as soothing strains of hymns of praise fill the dining area of the Gift of Love Home. Volunteer Mary Vasanthi is already at work – a plate of soggy ‘bee hoon’ in her hands, and with a spoon, breaks the contents down into smaller edible strands, and feeds one of the elderly residents under the former’s care.
Seated in a wheelchair, the resident pauses and turns her wrinkled face from Mary after each bite. Mary cajoles the resident to take another bite until the latter is full.
The lunch bell rings. Other volunteers dish out plates of rice with vegetables and meat for the residents. Accompanying the meal is a bowl of clear soup and a side plate of fruit. Those residents who are unable to take solid food are given cereal or ‘bee hoon’ instead.
Meanwhile, Mary moves on to patiently feed another resident while some other volunteers busy themselves with feeding other dependent residents.
The music by now is turned off; lunch is mostly a quiet and quick affair – the silence is punctuated by the clanging of the metal spoon on the melamine plate as one elderly man toys around with his meal, breaking the vegetables into smaller bits and mixing them with the rice – he does not eat much.
One by one the residents make their own way back to their wards to rest; some wheel themselves back while some are assisted by their more able-bodied counterparts or volunteers.
Volunteers for 25 years
As Mary, 73, saw down to rest before continuing with her tasks, she shared with CatholicNews that it was a documentary about Mother Teresa of Calcutta looking after the poor and destitute which touched her heart. A chance encounter with the MC Sisters who were already in Singapore (Mother Teresa’s congregation) at Blessed Sacrament Church one day led Mary to start volunteering once a week for half a day. Mary recalled that she first started out volunteering at Irving Road in Paya Lebar, then Punggol, before the home shifted to its current location in Marymount Centre.
Mary now volunteers twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays for almost a whole day, helping out in whatever chores she can. She starts off at eight in the morning such as changing the bed sheets, folding the residents’ clothes, cleaning the wards and feeding the residents. She leaves for home about three or four in the afternoon.
“I feel happy to come here,” said Mary. “I like to help people. It’s in me that I like to help, to give my love to others. I feel very happy.”
A non-Catholic previously, Mary said her life had been intertwined with missionary Sisters – having been educated in a Canossian-run convent school in Melaka and now volunteering in MC Sisters managed home. While she said she once had a desire to the religious life, marriage was the path she took.
Mary herself only ‘officially’ converted to Catholicism just this year though she had been attending Mass all along. She followed her late husband, a Hindu who did not like the idea of her conversion. It was only after his death and obtaining her son’s consent did she undergo baptism. She still volunteers her time at a Hindu temple helping to cut vegetables and prepare food.
Volunteering in a home is not an easy task and requires patience looking after the elderly residents. There are times when there are disagreements with other volunteers, but she will choose a “one ear in, one ear out” approach to deal with matters and to offer it up to Jesus.
But what really keeps Mary going would be the ability to “see in Jesus in others … in the elderly folk”. She muses that if one is able to recognise Christ in others, people would be able to recognise Christ in you.
“It’s about seeing Jesus in each other,” said Mary, explaining why she endears to the elderly residents who would sometimes miss Mary’s company when she is not around.
The home has helped Mary face up to fear of seeing death which she had once dreaded seeing her mother in hospital. But with the grace of the Holy Spirit, Mary can now touch, caress, hold the hands of the residents, and pray for them in their hour of their death.
Like Mary, 70-year-old Maureen Lim had been volunteering at the Gift of Love Home for 25 years. Whilst praying one of the days after her retirement, Maureen heard a voice telling her to make her way to the “Mother Teresa’s congregation managed home” in Punggol.
Without much thought, Maureen boarded a bus and spotted the Gift of Love Home along the way. She was moved by the care of the Sisters’ dedication and the plight of the residents to stay there for the whole day. Since then she has been volunteering her services thrice a week, cutting down to Mondays and Fridays in recent years.
“If I can serve, I better serve. Who knows when my time will come? I better do something useful instead of spending my retirement roaming,” Maureen said.
She added: “It’s a blessing to be able to do volunteer work. God has given me the strength to carry on this work, looking after me. It’s wonderful to serve all these people. I hope I can serve Him in this way to the end.”
And like Maureen, Mary also wishes to carry on with her work, barring no illnesses and bad health.
Residents regain dignity in twilight years
The home currently houses 30 over residents both male and female. This is a place where Madam Foo, without next of kin, calls her home. The 80-year-old Catholic arrived at the home four years ago at the recommendation of a priest.
Speaking in Mandarin, she told CatholicNews that she is happy here. The residents are well taken care of by the nuns and volunteers, from their medical to their daily needs – having about four meals a day – breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner.
Everything is free, said Madam Foo, and added that she gets to attend Mass in the home “on big occasions and feast days”.
“The people accord us the dignity of a human,” she added in Mandarin, “and the nuns treat the elderly here as their precious”.
Stephen Teh has been a resident of the home since the beginning of 2008. A social worker had referred him to the Gift of Love Home as he had neither family nor any home to stay. He met with a car accident and had an operation on his foot, pointing to this reporter the scars on his right foot.
Yet, the 85-year-old Mr Teh remains sprightly, helping out with the chores like clearing the plates after lunch.
“Doing work is a form of exercise. Physically I can help myself,” he said.
He added that he has no problems adapting to the environment when he first arrived.
“I have to come to like the home very much. The environment is good. Sisters treat everyone equally. Volunteers help us with the food. There are different volunteers every day,” he said.
Even though he is Buddhist, he is allowed to practise his religion and would sometimes go to the temple to pray during weekends on his own. When asked if he was happy, Mr Teh turned the question around: “You look at me, do you think I am happy?” before adding: “I’m very happy here. I have a place to stay. And I can help out.”
According to the Sisters, the Gift of Love home will relocate to Jurong next year near to Church of St. Francis of Assisi.
The Singapore government has offered the Sisters the use of an old school building which will be renovated and refurbished.
All the residents will vacate their current premises and move to Jurong when the works are completed.
Sister Mary Pritiananda laments that with the move the Sisters would not be able to continue to visit and reach out to the poor in the Ang Mo Kio/Toa Payoh areas as it is too far from Jurong, but hopes to reach out to the needy in Jurong where they will be located.
She also expressed her worry that some volunteers will stop their services when the home shifts to Jurong, but trusts that “God will provide”.
Meanwhile, Sister Mary has also received notice that she would be transferred to Tainan in Taiwan to help out in the MC home there.
Sister Mary who has been in Singapore for about four years will celebrate her silver jubilee on Jun 20 in advance of the actual day. She will then head to Taiwan at the end of June.
“I was so sad. I love Singapore so much. It’s so hard I cried for a while,” she said.
But remembering her vow to obedience and in the spirit of a missionary Sister, she looks to her move with hope and trust in God.
By Darren Boon