“Giving the feeling of home to the homeless”: How this 25-year-old is giving during the pandemic

Written by Heng Xuan Teo
6 mins read
Published on Jun 17, 2022

If you were past the quarter-life mark of life, how would you measure yourself?

Would it be how much peers earn? Or how shiok their Instagram stories depict their lives to be?

Annabel probably ‘measures’ herself differently, or maybe not at all.

When you speak to Annabel, you won’t guess that this soft-spoken lady is running “The Heart Matters“, a Ground-Up Movement (GUM) to help the homeless and less privileged.

Setting it up in the middle of the pandemic & lockdown.

“Find a vocation, not a job”

“Find a vocation, not a job”, Annabel shared, when asked about her motivations.

Find a cause that resonates with you and do it well. Annabel mentioned that while having a job is great, finding a vocation beyond work can lift our hearts. Maybe that is a panacea to Singapore’s most unhappy workforce award.

At 25, Annabel has many ventures under her belt. She started a salad bar, partnered with social organisations (Rainbow Centre), became a Financial Planner, started a Yong Tau Foo coffee shop store, and kicked off different charity initiatives. 

Each of these ‘jobs’ taught her different lessons in her budding career. I learnt from her experiences that life is less linear and more fulfilling if we are open to changes that lie ahead of us. 

In addition, it is okay to call it a day when the journey is done, which she did for her different career endeavours. For example, she closed her salad bar social enterprise after 2 years.

Currently, Annabel is taking a gap period between her last career venture and the next career step.

How did she get started on this vocation journey especially when others are busy chionging (Singlish for rushing) for promotions and new jobs?

“You want the long or short story ah?” She casually asks.

I enthusiastically opted for the latter.

Bingo games 

Annabel started her social work journey at 10 years old. She was attending Dhamma classes at Buddhist Fellowship and started following a Buddhist Senior to The Singapore Cheshire Home (home for the seriously disabled).

From organising & playing Bingo games to helping the residents with their food, Annabel grew a strong connection to the home. Fifteen years have passed since and she still regularly volunteers there.

“Why?” I quizzed.

“施比受更有福 (To give is more joyous than to receive). As much as we think they are beneficiaries we are giving to…we are the beneficiaries of giving as well. We receive lessons & joy” she replied with a smile.

Annabel during one of the regular meal distributions at Singapore Cheshire Home

Circuit Break and Career Break

When Circuit Breaker (Singapore’s Lockdown) came, springing into action was second nature for Annabel. While at her previous job, she saw appeals for food from a nearby care centre. 

She was both actively fulfilling the requests and coping with her day job. It was a struggle to juggle both, she shared. 

With businesses shutdown and social organisations locking down, some elderly saw their livelihoods and social support evaporate – their situation was dire. The problem became compounded when she heard that other social organisations were struggling with logistics & manpower restrictions. 

People who couldn’t be reached and were unable to buy their food were in trouble – they were starving. Seeing the plight of her fellow residents spiralling downwards, she took a pivotal career decision.

She decided to quit her job.

Care packs given to underprivileged families during Circuit Breaker

This would enable her to provide greater support to charity organisations & rough sleepers. Her selfless nature gave her the strength to put her career on temporary hold. To place the needs of others at the forefront when times are hard was inspiring to me. 

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We often cheer friends on with promotions and career achievements, especially those at Annabel’s age. Instead, Annabel is a contrarian in this and many aspects.

Circuit Breaker was a period of great uncertainty and fear for organisations and volunteers. Organisations were uncertain if they could still operate under the rules and also if their funding would tie them over this economic hardship. Volunteers were uncertain on how the virus would impact the beneficiaries (who tend to be vulnerable) and themselves. 

However, Annabel placed her fears aside and navigated the unknown by arranging logistics delivery for the rough sleepers and other social organisations.

“Things popped up and we adapted to it. Good, bad, who knows? If things went according to plan, would I be where I am today?” Annabel replied when asked about navigating uncertainty.

She didn’t need to have all the answers to start moving, she just moved when there was a call for help.

This was how The Heart Matters (THM) was born.

A hidden growing problem

THM became a daily hotline for appeals from both organisations (e.g. Children’s home) and underprivileged families. As THM’s founder, Annabel is always ‘on call’. If needed, she is on the frontlines 7 days a week.

On a typical week, Annabel works day and night. Annabel organises the delivery of supplies and gifts to Non-Profit organisations & families during the day. At night, she conducts ‘night walks’ to spot and engage with rough sleepers. 

Rough sleepers seem like a rare occurrence in Singapore due to a lack of awareness. In fact, it is a growing issue.

A 2019 NUS report found that rough sleepers in Singapore numbered ~1,050. Meanwhile, the government reported that calls for home shelter during the pandemic increased – these are startling numbers and the statistics may not cover all rough sleepers.

Annabel is determined to support rough sleepers despite the growing demand for shelter. Whenever possible, she tries to give them a semblance of home. 

With 1 in 4 rough sleepers eating one meal or less daily, Annabel’s work is a great boon to these individuals going through a hard time.

“你来了 (You are here) ”

“你来了 (you are here)” is the start of one of the many stories that keep her going through the pandemic.

A rough sleeping uncle, who has severe memory loss, does not remember much of their interactions but greets Annabel with a wide smile and a ’你来了‘ whenever she brings him food. He repeatedly expresses his gratitude towards individuals with good hearts. Such smiles can warm the most chilly of nights.

Another rough-sleeping uncle’s concern for resources was also evident when Annabel packed him extra food & chilli on some nights.

Annabel interacting with a rough sleeper on her night walkabouts

“No need for 好料 (good food), one veg and one egg can already” Annabel recalled his comments.

It’s remarkable how individuals with so little give so much thought to others. No wonder Annabel said that while we may give materially, we receive spiritually. 

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“It is not how much you give”

As a former Buddhist youth leader, THM brings many Dhamma lessons to Annabel.

Intention matters

“When we give, we do not expect something in return. In the field of social work, some people put themselves out there for their name and fame. While some are doing it for others. Hard and heart work are needed to truly help others”, she shared.

“It is not how much you give, but your intention that matters.” Annabel recalls her colourful interactions with organisations and volunteers. 

She challenged her volunteers to think deeper if they are doing it for the clout or the beneficiary. It truly can make or break a ground-up movement. Once ego and optics come into play, a GUM can be pulled into many directions, away from the direction of the beneficiaries.

Changes are inevitable

Recognising impermanence in her day to day operations is another Dhamma lesson she has glimpsed as a founder. The Buddha’s universal truth of change that we all cannot run away from is a strong feature in Annabel’s work.

“There are days that we have plans to give food to 10 people, but wet weather can make the rough sleepers move away. It can be disheartening to not find them. But I recognise that conditions were not right and that not everything goes our way”, she reflected. 

A beneficiary receiving a care pack

Not finding them also means that the rough sleepers may go through another day without food – hard truths that Annabel has to accept in ever-shifting changes on the frontline.

However, being more accepting of change enables her to move past disappointment quickly and adjust to shifting conditions.

Saying No.

In addition, she emphasises that compassion has to be paired with wisdom in her line of work. At times, the beneficiary organisation would reach out with uncompromising requests from THM. 

When organisations are unwilling to negotiate for a smaller gift (due to THM’s limited resources), Annabel has to apply wisdom and say ‘no’.

Saying no is difficult but necessary in ensuring that THM resources remain available to many other beneficiaries. These are moments where she balances compassion and wisdom; both necessities in walking the path of Dhamma.

The next chapter?

What’s next for Annabel and THM? She shrugs and declines to give a concrete plan/path ahead.

Having already walked an unconventional path of embarking on many initiatives, I guess that she is wise to not answer with certainty. As the sea of life always changes, we merely adjust our sail to brave the journey.

She is actively looking at options in her career and reflecting on what to do next. What I do know is that she is very joyful and fulfilled in what she is currently doing.

So how does Annabel ‘measure’ herself against others? 

That is probably an irrelevant question for someone who sees little separation between herself and others.  Rather, Annabel sees herself in others. When it comes to the wisdom of the heart, we can see the interdependence we have on one another.

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Author: Heng Xuan Teo

Data driven nerd who you may find hanging out more at libraries than at parties. Passionate about finding different ways to not fall asleep during meditation. A borderline social media luddite.

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