Helping Principles

This strange thing called support: on being reflective   18/06/2010
What does it mean to serve?   11/06/2010
Seeing ourselves as servants in supporting people   22/01/2010
Helping relationships as partnerships   09/04/2009
Going beyond good intentions and compassion   15/08/2008
Enabling first, rescuing last   13/06/2008
The‘uncommon way’   05/10/2007
Participation   28/09/2007
Questioning the deficiency approach   21/09/2007
Working with/in Life-worlds   27/04/2007
Thinking that we know   16/02/2007
Being a trainee   09/02/2007
Of experts and lifeworlds   26/01/2007
Social work as a craft   22/09/2006
Being effective helpers   15/09/2006

This strange thing called support: on being reflective  18/06/2010

Our Streetwise Run is 3 Sundays away and  we  could certainly do with more runners. As of today, we have 2310 runners of which 537  are running competitively. Do pass the word around and get more to join us. 

Yesterday, more than 60 youths from different estates we work in came together for a joint training session. To their credit, these young people did not stick to their cliques and mingled well with each other. After the run proper, these young people gathered themselves into different teams for a kick about and it was heartening to see that the teams were not representative of the estate they came from. Later, when refreshments were served, these young people worked together on our manual ice-kachang machines to ensure that every one of them enjoyed a cold syrupy ice-ball. Tomorrow, all our runners will be going on a trial run at 9.00 am and I am glad to note that those of us who are not caught up with work will be there to support our young people. 

Support is something all of us could have a little more off. However, helping professionals are often weary about the amount of support to render fearing that we will be cultivating dependency. So we create protocols and guidelines to ensure we remain objective and stay true to "getting  people to learn to fish." Such efforts are well intended but the resultant effect often is that helping becomes something that is done from a distance. At best this type of professional distance removes the human touch and ironically, it hinders authentic problem solving that helping professionals believe we are attempting. However, support is also not just about us jumping into a problem quickly but also about keeping a respectful distance.

Brenda's (AWB- 1021) 2 young children were with us when we received a call that their mother's condition at the hospital was critical. While it would have been easy for us to send them to the hospital, we contacted their father to do so. It was a very difficult and confusing time for the family but we were mindful that the  most helpful and respectful support we could give was simply to let the family work through the difficult period in their own way and in their own time. We watched respectfully from a distance as the father guided the children to bid goodbye to their mother in accordance to their cultural traditions. 

After the funeral, father contacted us to ask for support. As someone who was working long hours at the port, he wondered how he could adequately care for his children. We then accompanied him as he approached 3 of his neighbours for their assistance. To his relief, none of his neighbours turned him down. Even an elderly couple with one spouse who needed to move around on a wheelchair,  opened their home to his children. These neighbours were expecting nothing in return except for the satisfaction of knowing that the children were cared for. Such unconditional goodwill can never be replicated by a professional helping system. 

Standing with  father as he spoke to the neighbours, we heard these neighbours speaking fondly of Brenda and reminiscing about her generosity. One neighbour related how Brenda would bring her favourite "squid cooked in black ink" whenever she noticed that she was having a rough day. They had also noticed how Brenda had offered her home to others in need and felt that they were now duty bound to do whatever they could for her children.

It is going to be going to trying for the family as they learn to cope without Brenda but the outpouring of support from people around them has given father strength. He has asked us to let him organize a surprise birthday party for his son at our premises next weekend. The children remember our  premises as the last time they had a very happy time with their mother. We now have to support father as he builds on this happy memory. 

Wishing you a restful weekend.

We can work together for a better world with men and women of goodwill, those who radiate the intrinsic goodness of humankind - Wangari Maathai

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What does it mean to serve?  11/06/2010

20 participants from 12 different organizations (including ourselves)  completed a Social Circus Trainer Workshop conducted by Andrea Ousley from the National Institute of Circus Arts, Melbourne today. With the support of Cirque du Soleil, a partner-in-service, we had the honour of hosting this rewarding learning experience which began on Monday.  The new friendships that fellow participants have found are now a potential resource for further mutual learning and inter-agency collaboration. Most importantly, they are an important resource for the well being of the young people and families we serve as the skills acquired from this workshop are meant to serve a social purpose.

By hosting this workshop, opportunities were created for parents and young people to showcase their strengths and to give back to the community. Refreshments for the entire workshop were prepared by the parents of the young people we serve. In the spirit of inclusiveness, these parents contributed to a different cuisine each day that reflects Singapore's multi-ethic culture. Participants were also waited upon by our children and youths who made sure that tables were cleared and the cutlery was spick and span. These parents and young people can stand tall as participants had nothing but praise for the pride they took in their work. 

While participants were exposed to circus arts, this was not a circus skills workshop. It was a workshops aimed at getting participants skilled and confident in managing a group of youths and facilitating important conversations among them. Learning was not just the taking in of new information but also the processing of the experience from within. One participant shared that  the exercises got him thinking that be needed to be communicating better with the people in his life. He had a nagging feeling that others had a lot to tell him about himself but he had avoided listening.

Another related how he was just about to let go during a pyramid building exercise. He was part of a team attempting a circular pyramid when participants opposite him fell. His immediate reaction was to stop supporting his side of the the pyramid and start all over again but because the others around him did not let go, he continued to hold steady with much effort. Soon he found himself joining others who were encouraging those who fell to reorganize themselves. Realising that their team-mates were holding on for them, those who fell acted with urgency and the pyramid stood.

After the pyramid building exercise, it hit this participant that his experience summed up an aspect of social work quite nicely. Serving others is sometimes disappointing and there will be many a time we feel really weak but if we perservere in reaching out to strengthen others, we will eventually regain our strength. We should always be grateful to those we serve because by strengthening others, we strengthen ourselves.

For the record the organizations represented at the workshop were the Association of Muslim Professionals, Beyond, Canossaville Children's Home, Care Community Service, Children At Risk Empowerment Association, Club Bilya, Muhammadiyah Welfare Home, Pertapis Bukit Batok Boys' Hostel, Teen Challenge, We Care Community Services, Yayasan Mendaki and Youth Guidance Outreach Services.

Enjoy your weekend.

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.  ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Seeing ourselves as servants in supporting people  22/01/2010

Farizah was potting balls at the pool table when we walked in. She looked up and with a big smile greeted us by our names.  Farizah made our day as she would usually just look up, nod and if we were lucky, she would grunt a little too.  Soon after we learnt that she was in a very good mood because she was part of our girls’ soccer team that was declared Champions at a soccer tournament organised by the Central Narcotics Bureau over the weekend. Was is just that winning feeling that got Farizah behaving like a champ?  Perhaps - but that winning feeling did not just come from winning the tournament. It was the cheering support from family and friends, the admiration of peers and the recognition from authorities. It was being recognised but not for all the wrong reasons that would have ended up in her experiencing some pain.  It was being ‘someone’ in the community.

Sometimes, as helping professionals we focus too much on the treatment of the individual that we no longer see that the normalcy we aspire for our clients is in their family and their community. Their families and their communities are the nurturing factors that protect and develop them positively. Today, I was at a networking meeting for youth serving agencies organised by the National Council of Social Services and I was tasked with suggesting ways to empower youths-at-risk. As the cases were presented, it hit me that if the youths concerned were listening to the way we were describing them; they will punch us in our face. Our descriptions of their situations, their character and their families were just downright humiliating.

I think the problem we end up doing this is because we regard ourselves as experts who need to help these people set their lives straight. We may be experts in our own disciplines but we can never be experts of other people’s lives simply because there is more to people’s lives than the perspectives offered in the disciplines we have been trained in. It is not that our perspectives are irrelevant but our perspective is still just one perspective among many others and we have no right to impose it.

If one looks at the helping sector, one will find helping professionals with different life experiences and at different life stages. Often, I hear beginning professionals voicing a discomfort engaging parents and parents openly doubting the credibility of a young professional that is before them. Well, I would say that we can get around this if we can see ourselves as servants that support these people who are experts of their own lives. Servants who genuinely aim to serve are usually quite helpful.  We are in the service of others and these people have given us a sense of purpose, a sense of competency and a living. Let’s always remember this the next time we are talking about them.

Enjoy your weekend.
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few. – Shunryu Suzuki

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Helping relationships as partnerships  09/04/2009

As I was guiding a case discussion, it hit me how our vocabulary actually influenced our perspectives and our resultant actions. The person presenting the case described the situation as a mother needing help in managing her child. He added that the mother had a problem because the child did not fear her. What sounded like an innocuous description from a helping professional was actually part of the problem.

Should parents actually be managing their children or should they be guiding, valuing and loving them? Everyday, we leave home for work, perhaps relax or socialise a little after that and eventually return home. A large part of the day is spent at work and without realising it; we carry the practices from the office into our homes. So instead of loving children, we end up managing them. Instead of cultivating a nurturing relationship, we find ourselves instilling fear. If we think about it, most management techniques use a carrot and stick approach. The image of a donkey pulling a cart with a man on it, who is dangling a carrot with one hand and a whip in the other, comes to mind. This is carrot and stick approach. Reward and Punishment like the carrot in one hand and the whip in the other are 2 sides of the same coin.

I am sure we don’t see our children as donkeys but management techniques work. Seduction and fear are powerful tools. However, they would not be tools for helping children to learn what it really means to do the right thing. They show children how to navigate towards incentives and to avoid pain but first, there has to be someone or a system holding a carrot and a stick. These tools do not directly address children’s moral reasoning ability or their growth towards becoming a caring and responsible person.

Often we go about our work on auto-pilot. When it comes to managing children, systems with clear consequences for misbehaviours are in place. Standard Operating Procedures we call them. A kid who behaves inappropriately is most likely feeling some form of pain but such systems often have consequences where we inflict more pain in the name of delivering a lesson or in the name of fairness.

As helping professionals, our primary tool is the helping relationship which we believe must be a partnership. The answers to problems don’t lie with us; it lies with the people concerned. Each ‘problem’ is a challenge to get things right, a challenge in learning how to adapt and an opportunity for people to work through what life throws at them so that they can live.

Enjoy your long weekend.

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Going beyond good intentions and compassion  15/08/2008

Many of us would like to think that ‘compassion’ is our driving force as we go about serving those in need. This week, on Day One of our 2 week Certificate in Case Management Programme conducted in association with the Potsdam University of Applied Sciences Germany, 60 of us were challenged to reflect deeply on ‘What is Help, why we do it and what are the ill-effects of our efforts?’ In the process, we differentiated between help that is professionally organized and help that is inherent among the natural support networks of those we serve or what we call their Life Worlds. We received a huge helpful dose of humility as we realized how compassion can be lost within a professionally organized helping system of which we are a part of.

Professional Helping Systems are organized with the best of intentions and they are an expression of society’s concern for its less fortunate members. People like us are employed to fulfil various helpful roles within the system but over time, there is a tendency for us to be concerned only with the specific role or task we play and to stop thinking about how the system or our approaches could be creating problems for the very person we seek to help. Perhaps, we feel it is not within our power to change things but then such a stance perpetuates an unhelpful situation.

I guess if we want to fulfil our role as members of a professional helping system with integrity, we must be brave enough to look squarely at the paradoxes and ill-effects of our efforts. There are no straightforward solutions and easy answers but it starts with an awareness of our limitations, it starts with the humility that we strive to do ‘good’ we inevitably do ‘harm’ too.

When we impress the little children in our homes with our polite and democratic ways of dealing with them, they may start to devalue the ways of their family. The failures of their parents or care-givers become obvious and the efforts of their parents are devalued.

Another example is when someone concludes that social workers are a dependable bunch, they start building a support network of helping professionals to replace their relatives, friends and neighbours. This weakens his natural support network. Finally, sheltered programmes that are created to nurture those with special needs will exclude its participants from mainstream society if they remain sheltered for too long.

These examples show that even professional efforts have drawbacks and we as professionals could perhaps be a whole lot more understanding and accepting of the inadequacies we see in those who we aim to help. Life just ain’t that neat!

Enjoy your weekend!

Anyone who proposes to do good must not expect people to roll stones out of his way, but must accept his lot calmly if they even roll a few more upon it. - Albert Schweitzer

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Enabling first, rescuing last  13/06/2008

We experienced the genuine care and concern of people in our community who went out of their way to help those in need. A family in the neighbourhood held a meeting to firm up a duty roster for a 9 month old baby who they were fostering on a voluntary basis. This baby's mother had passed away and she was living with her father and 5 year old brother in a one-room rental flat that is under-going upgrading works. The baby kept getting sick as living conditions and care were not ideal. In the longer run, the baby's safety and general well-being would be of concern and so alternative care arrangements were put in place.

The baby's father who is struggling with grief and health issues acknowledged that he needed support with infant care. Because of the trust and rapport he had with family who was caring for his baby, they were able to persuade him to enrol the infant in our child development centre. On our side, we arranged for him to visit his baby daily with his son so that the family as a whole continued to spend time together. Along the way, our teachers at the child development centre will also help him strengthen his infant care skills.

We were also attending to 3 children who were ''living' at the corridor with their grandfather. We have since arranged for them to be with relatives but what touched us was the care and concern from other residents in the block. Residents took turns to ensure that the children had their meals and one even asked if we were going to place the kids in our programmes. Generally, these residents were glad that we were in the picture and told us to let them know if they could help. We will be taking up their offer and will be visiting the block in the week ahead to ask these residents what they understand about the children's situation and to seek their advice how the situation can be improved.

Time and again, there will always be a need for social services to 'rescue' the situation but we rather that such an approach be the last resort. We rather see social services as a facilitator that enables a community to help itself. As such, we are really grateful for the foster family that stepped forward and the residents who attended to the children and their grandfather. We also believe that these residents will be able to offer us useful guidance on what would be helpful for the 3 children and their grandfather.

Enjoy your weekend.

While the spirit of neighbourliness was important on the frontier because neighbours were so few, it is even more important now because our neighbours are so many. ~Lady Bird Johnson

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The ‘uncommon way’  05/10/2007

This has been a year where we strengthened our understanding of the helping principles and restorative practices that guide our work. Our work in child protection, juvenile justice and residential guidance brought us into constant contact with other professionals and people who had a stake in the lives of the young people we serve. Thus, this demanded that we were clear about our roles and our sense of who we are and what we stand for.

We stood for the young people and their families and sought their best interest. Often this meant diverting them away from state care or the criminal justice system. It also meant ensuring that they were treated with respect and valued simply for who they are and not what they can do or who they can be. Often this remains easier said than done.

Good social work is understanding and valuing what people are trying to tell us even if they are doing so in the most awkward way. A female resident kept telling us that she was not well but refused to visit the doctor. Looking at her complicated medical records, we were a little nervous. However, when we took the perspective that she was trying to tell us something, we realised that she was 'asking' to go home to her mother. Her mother was visiting later that day but her probation order did not allow her to go home. She had wanted to go home as her mother and others in her household have recently told her that they would like to welcome her home and work through their difficulties. We managed to get her home that evening on an extended home-leave arrangement.

A father who tells the Child Welfare Officer that they can send his 13 year old daughter into institutional care may be actually saying he is worn out by the assessment process which casts doubt on his ability as a parent. How do we reassure him that we would like to support him so that he can still have his daughter at home? It is quite easy to take him literally and conclude that he is an irresponsible parent who simply wants to dump his child.

A teenager who underwent an appendectomy had a wound that 'never' seems to heal. He had to return to the hospital every now and then and remains under observation. I guess he preferred the hospital to the half-way house that he was compelled too. How do we respond to his cry for a less 'restrictive 'order as he completes his statutory supervision in the community? The rules were put in place with the intention of nurturing these young people but when rules prevent alternative developmental opportunities, they may have lost their purpose. It takes much effort and skill for people like us to have an honest discussion on such matters with the rule-makers and it is probably not easier for a young person to do so.

I thank you for contributing to this meaningful year of service and hopefully we are a little stronger and wiser as we take on the New Year.

Enjoy your year-end!

A miracle is often our willingness to see the common in an uncommon way.

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Participation  28/09/2007

As we have been saying for a while now, participation is a key principle in social work. How do we actually persuade those we serve to participate fully in transforming their difficult situations? An effective social worker is not a rescuer but a support person who helps people to help themselves as much as they can. For those of us on the ground this is obvious and clear. 

I just wanted to say that participation is also a very important principle even when we are relating to various statutory agencies. Recently, we were asked by the Child Protection Department if we could offer intensive family preservation programmes to facilitate the reintegration of children under State supervision back to their families. We indicated our interest but told them that we needed to study the situation from the eyes of a voluntary welfare organisation who would like to make a strategic difference from a long-term point of view. 

We are grateful that the Department invited a VWO like us to play a part in addressing the welfare of children under State care. This is an acknowledgement that social problems need the cooperation and participation of both voluntary and statutory agencies. We have studied the situation and felt that the most strategic approach would be to narrow the doors into State Care and widening the exits into the community. 

To do this there has to be 1. Early Intervention targeted at at-risk children and families that may be identified through helplines or other referral sources; 2. Diversion Work where crisis are stabilised, harm minimised and cooperation with the State to keep the kids away from State care; 3. Intervention where intensive family preservation work helps reintegrate the children with their families and I would argue, most importantly; 4. Participation or Joint Action between voluntary and statutory agencies on various levels that address child abuse. 

I feel that so much more can be achieved if there is Joint Action or Participation as I have just described. There was an observation about such relationships between Statutory and Voluntary agencies in another country and here are the usual prejudices observed from both sides: 

From the Statutory Side: 
1. They are choosy. They pick primarily the easy cases 
2. They want funds to grow. Therefore they come up with all sorts of new programmes. Regardless whether 
there is really a need for them. But of course one can find a need for everything. 
3. They do not stick to the contracts. Once they are working on a case they do what they think is the right 
thing without consulting us. 
4. They do not provide enough information about developments. 
5. They do not provide sufficient data for good management decisions. 
6. The information they provide always reflects their performance in a positive light. If there was no success 
with a case the performance of the NGO is never questioned. 
7. They have inexperienced staff. 
8. They are too specialized. When there are new developments in a case, they refer out. When we need 
something out of the square they cannot deliver. 
9. They do not know enough about the legal constraints and requirements. 
10. They play mainly the role of the good guy and leave us the shit work. They sometimes even form unhelpful 
coalitions with clients behind our back. 

From the Voluntary Side: 
1. They know little about the real life of their clients. They sit in their offices and wait for clients. 
2. They are paper tigers. All what they do is to write and file. 
3. They are rigid in applying rules and regulations. They follow a one size fits all approach. 
4. They work without heart. They are just bureaucrats. 
5. They make life difficult because they are not flexible and open to new things. The system is rigid and stable. 
6. Emphasis is on structure and status quo.They are working in a hierarchy and just obeying their boss. 
7. They have an easy life and standard working hours. 
8. They think people change because they set up a support plan or give an order but in reality there is a lot 
forward and backward movement and changes in a plan. If we do that, they think we violate the contract. 
9. They always want to save money. They do not know enough about the real needs out there. 
10. Their system is not transparent. They are not allowing us to have a say. 
11. They can not stand critique. 
12. They have the power. 

Quite a list right? Imagine how much energy could be better utilised if there was joint action and participation. So now that we have clarified our ideas about how we see Child Protection it is still not for us to simply propose how things could be improved. The clarity of thought is simply for ourselves as we proceed in the spirit of participation to continue a dialogue where the views and objectives of the Child Protection Department are seriously considered in shaping services. Together, we will work towards enhancing the child protection system. 

Enjoy your weekend. 

Progress and innovation are made by people who think without lines. - John Maxwell 

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Questioning the deficiency approach  21/09/2007

The Family Services Team conducted a door-knocking exercise with a difference. Every now & then, we outreach to various housing estates to do a needs assessment of the community. The door-knocking exercises we have done in the past always looked out for the deficiencies within the homes we visited. Once needs were identified, we would offer the appropriate services. 

I guess deficiency identification is the 'usual' way a needs assessment is done but if you think about it carefully, how are we actually helping people to help themselves? Isn't getting people to help themselves a key tenet of our work? We are portraying ourselves as kind souls out there making a difference. We leave such an exercise feeling like we have just done the most helpful thing and may even wonder if we could have done more. Perhaps, it would have been a decent exercise in empathy but still such an approach would lack a longer term strategic view for the transformation of their life situations. 

On Wednesday the Family Services Team led by Tue Teck and Vera bravely embarked on conducting a capacity finding exercise. They led a team of staff and volunteers to a one-room rental block in our neighbourhood looking for the skills and abilities residents had. The survey form looked for skills such as cooking, household maintenance, office work as well as aspirations such as running a business and serving in the community. While initially apprehensive, those that took part in the exercise came back very energised and positive about the experience. 

The one-room rental block is the most basic public housing available. Each floor has a long narrow corridor with doors facing each other and the flat is just a small living space with a toilet/shower and cooking area. Usually, 2 elderly persons with no family share one flat. We decided to visit this block because we were told by our partners such as child care centres, residents' committees and our existing service users that several young families with children have moved into the block. 

Here is one example how our approach made the difference of providing hope and creating possibilities for both the community worker and the family interviewed. Farizah was the community worker and after the initial pleasantries, she asked the lady if she could cook. Instantaneously, the lady replied that she could and proudly exclaimed that she was very good at it too. This led to further information that she used to cook for private gatherings and enjoyed doing it very much. She would be very happy to get involved in any 'cooking project' that came her way. The energy was positive and this lady then introduced her 20 year daughter who had excellent office skills like data entry and record keeping. Eventually Farizah also found out that this 20 year old had 2 young children aged 4 & 2 years old and she was optimistic about their future. The older one was already enrolled in the kindergarten below the flat and she had already made plans for the early childhood education of the younger one. When the visit ended, we found ourselves another friend and resource in the neighbourhood. 

If we had taken the deficiency approach, we would have met a 20 year old single mom with 2 needy young children living with a mother and her mother's boyfriend in very cramped living conditions. Am I suggesting we put on rose tinted glasses? Of course not, these realities do not disappear just because we take a capacity finding approach but if we are to help people help themselves, we need to begin seeing them as citizens with capacities and gifts and not clients with deficiency and needs. 

Every single person has capacities, abilities and gifts. Living a good life depends on whether those capacities can be used, abilities expressed and gifts given. - John Kretzmann & John McKnight (Advocates for Asset-Based Community Development) 

Enjoy your weekend. 

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Working with/in Life-worlds  27/04/2007

"A good social worker always needs a pen as well as a pin." - Frank Hans Fruechtel 

Dear Team 
The above was a key message at the Diploma Graduation Ceremony last Sunday as our graduates collected a pen and a collar pin along with their certificates A pin to provoke and a pen to advocate. A pen is also to heal should the provocation from the pin burst a bubble. Largely, a pen is use to inform, inspire and invite more to get involved with the work we do. 

This week I was pleasantly surprised to receive a call from a Superintendent of Schools who told me that she had read our latest Juvenile Justice email update and was pleased to learn that there was a school that was willing to set aside curriculum time to strengthen the teacher-student and the home-school relationships. She wanted to know which school we were writing about so that she could send them a note of encouragement and affirmation to keep up the good work. I told her that there were more than 20 other schools we worked with and I would send her a list and perhaps she could affirm them too. This positive development was a result from the use of a pen. 

At a training session on Wednesday, we were discussing how to help a 34 year old mother who has 9 children. Currently, she has 2 infants from her second marriage and 5 of her children from her previous marriage have been removed by the Child Protection Department. As participants were asked what they thought about the woman, the positives were hard to come by. Some participants expressed concern for the children and others came up with solutions or ideas how the situation could be improved. 

As the trainer, I was a rather disturbed that no one had anything to say about the mother. The silence was deafening. No one in the room had 9 children and many were not even mothers or parents so what makes us experts of this woman's situation? So I asked "Who would like to trade places with this woman? If we really think we know better, why not trade places and see if we will survive?" This was the use of a pin to jolt us up from our world into the woman's reality. 

For me it was amazing that this woman still has the WILL to be a mother and to believe in love all over again. She leaves the house every morning at 5 am to assist her husband as he ferries children to school for a fare. Despite the inconveniences she must have experienced with so many of her children stuck in the welfare system, she continues to believe in her ability as a mother. At 34 years old she believes that she still has much life to live for and refuses hang her head low as the criticisms from the welfare system fly in her face. 

I believe it is a privilege to enter into realities or life worlds that are so far away from our own. People like this 34 year old mother enrich our lives professionally and personally. Offering our positive regard and respect to value her as a fellow human being striving to live a fulfilling life would be the least we can do. Often during training, many participants express that the way to empathy is to come down to the level of the people we serve. I have to say let us get rid of 'our level' and 'their level' from our vocabulary because levels imply that we are 'high life' and they are 'low life.' This is definitely not respectful. 

It would certainly be a whole lot more respectful to view the people we serve as living in life-worlds that we have yet to explore. Some of these 'exotic' destinations challenge us to get out of our comfort zones and if we proceed we will see a whole new world. 

Enjoy your weekend. 

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Thinking that we know  16/02/2007

If you know, to recognize that you know, 
If you don't know, to realize that you don't know: 
That is knowledge. - Confucius 

Dear Team 
During Journey Beyond this week, we highlighted the helping trap that a helper falls into when he assumes the role of a rescuer. It is a pillar of the helping profession and a common maxim that we are here to help people help themselves. However, when we are really honest about our efforts, we realise that we are often rescuing and denying others the responsibility to take charge of their lives. 

Overtime, rescuers end up feeling like victims because the people they are helping keep coming back for more; they keep coming back even when the rescuer has nothing more to give. Rescuers who feel like victims then react by blaming or persecuting the very people they set out to help in the first place. No helper would want to see himself as a persecutor but it a common occurrence among voluntary and professional helpers. 

To do our work well, we just need to continually think about the quality of our work and it will be downhill when we stop thinking or think that we already know. A sense of humility and openness is absolutely necessary and I am glad to note that this week several teams got together in the spirit of learning. Healthy Start and the Family Service Teams worked hard at their case management skills, the Children,Youth, Restorative Justice and Residential Teams reflected on the Rock and Water positions they take with their charges and a mixed group of Managers got together to reflect on their roles, challenges and the task of building and sustaining their colleagues. 

On Valentine's Day, the Streetwise Programme Participants and their family members had a very sumptuous and pleasant steamboat dinner in our classrooms. Since Chinese New Year is coming up, it was a 2-in-1 celebration where the staff shared a good time with the participants and their families. By hosting this event, we conveyed our respect for the families especially the parents in a culturally appropriate manner and this should go some way in strengthening our partnership that looks into the best interest of their children. Well done Anne-Marie and Jerry for administering the family meetings required by the Streetwise Programme in such a meaningful and respectful manner. Parents with children in the Streetwise Programme are often disappointed and defensive about their situation and the steamboats would have melted the ice for your next parent meeting. 

This morning, the Healthy Start pre-schoolers celebrated Chinese New Year with the ABC Child Development Centre (CDC) in Tampines. Our children brought gifts of home-made greeting cards and red packets filled with chocolate wrapped in gold-coloured foil. They came home with a bag of goodies too but more importantly the experience of feeling welcomed during a Chinese Celebration. You see, the majority of our children are not Chinese and so our teachers decided that to really experience Chinese New Year, our children had to be with other Chinese children taking part in an 'authentic' Chinese event. ABC is operated by a Buddhist group and they do not have any non-Chinese children so it was a first of sorts for them too to be with our children. 

Our children applauded their host who entertained them with a play about the legend of 'nian' (a pun on the Chinese word for 'year') as well as a couple of cultural dances. They even got a lesson on the proper use of chopsticks as they had to 'lo-hei' (toss to good fortune) with their hosts as well. This morning's activity is one of many in a series that our Healthy Start CDC has planned to help our children value and appreciate the rich multi-ethnic cultures we have in Singapore. When the next non-Chinese festival comes around, our children will return the favour and play host to the children from ABC. 

Enjoy your long Chinese New Year weekend! 

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Being a trainee  09/02/2007

Journey Beyond, our series of in-house training sessions begun again this week and we started by revisiting the Foundations of Charity, our Helping Principles and our work model called the Art of Social Work at Beyond. After much reflection over the last 6 months when we were working together with the Otto Friedriech University on the curriculum of the Social Work Diploma Programme for some of our colleagues, we have decided to tweak the model to incorporate our learning and improve our service delivery. 

Beyond believes that effective social work requires us to work in different dimensions or levels of society namely; the Structural Level where we try to influence policies, the Organisational Level where we encourage organisations to be more inclusive, the Natural Networks where we draw on the responsibilities of the family groups and of course the Individual whom we believe has many capabilities despite the many deficits he has. Hence, by taking such an approach towards social work we find it necessary to frequently play the roles of an Advocate, Resource Mobiliser and now instead of a Trainer, the role of a Trainee forming the acronym ART. 

Being a Trainee is obviously quite different from being a Trainer and this came about after much reflection on the process of helping and whether help is always helpful. Actually, when I first started off many years ago I remember being asked this question in my training and then I was showed 2 drawings that depicted help. The first one had a person in a superior position helping another who was portrayed as weaker. The next drawing showed 2 people facing each other, suggesting that they were on an equal footing mutually gaining from each other. It was then drummed into me that as a helping professional we must view help as portrayed in the 2nd drawing. 

Today, I would like to say that the 2nd drawing depicts a helping relationship as a mutually respectful partnership but to actually reach out the marginalised as in our mission and to persuade the marginalised to enter into a partnership with us, we need to take a one-down position. Coming down to the same level is not enough simply because as helpers we are not marginalised people. Among other things when we are at the same level we will still speak better, dress better and probably still come across as pretty threatening and disempowering to the marginalised person. This then will be a big barrier for them to cross even if they sincerely want to enter into a partnership with us. 

Therefore, we need to assume the role of a Trainee where we allow the people we serve to teach us how we can really be helpful to them. We need to be 'consciously incompetent' so that they can become experts of their own life-worlds. Only then, will we begin to see their strengths, capabilities and really appreciate them for who they are. 

While I was with the FSC and Healthy Start teams this week, Gloria shared a wonderful example of a parent being the expert of his life-world. She has just finished briefing a group of parents that to continue receiving the government's child care subsidy, mothers had to get a job within the next 3 months. After the briefing this parent came forward and told Gloria that he was very disturbed when he heard what Gloria had to say. He told her that many mothers could not go to work because they had other children to look after. What would happen to these children if there was inadequate parental supervision? He then suggested that we help them locate home-based work where mothers can easily meet the minimum working hours that entitled them to continue receiving the government's child care subsidy. I applaud this parent for having the courage to teach us and the onus is now on us to be an effective resource mobiliser. 

Being a Trainee requires us to have a fair amount of humility but then true service is when we can really value the dignity of the less privileged and sincerely believe that they are people of worth. This will continually be a challenge for all of us who have chosen to serve and must be regarded as the hallmark of an enlightened volunteers & helping professionals. 

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Of experts and lifeworlds  26/01/2007

For those of us on our Diploma in Social Work Practice Programme, the week has been frantic for them as they worked at tidying up their final paper submission which is due on 31 January 07. The one common thing about most students all over is that they enjoy burning the midnight oil. Oh well, guess our guys are no different but just wanted to say 'Hang in there!' 

This week I would like to elaborate on the Time Out Learning Centre Programme that we are now conducting at the YMCA's Project Bridge Centre in Woodlands. On a daily basis, the programme comprises: 
1. Revision of schoolwork 
2. 'Teacher' of the Day 
3. Experiential Learning or Moral Reasoning Training 
There is also a Project Segment where the participants have to come up with a project that they think would be beneficial to the community. 

Revision of School Work 
The revision of schoolwork section reminds the participants that they are first and foremost students with student obligations. The TOLC is not a holiday enrichment programme for them while their peers are in school. 

'Teacher' of the Day 
Here participants take turns to make a presentation on a topic of their choice. The idea was to give them the experience of standing in front of a class and sometimes in front of a very unruly class. So far the participants have taken this reasonably well and many have expressed that they now feel a little for what it must be like for their teacher to face an uncooperative class. The topics that participants have spoken about included 'Jackets that are Trendy' , 'Mastering the Yo-yo' and 'Everything you need to know about a Fishing Rod' among others. 

We are really glad that besides helping the students empathise with the difficulties of their teachers, this is turning out to be an activity where the participants get to be 'Experts of their Life-World'. It is not an activity that puts the participants in a spot but rather one that makes them Teachers in the true sense of the word. 

Experiential Learning or Moral Reasoning Training 
These are 2 different types of activity that we alternate where appropriate. Experiential learning helps the participants learn to take responsibility for the progress of their group. They learn a simple way of evaluating their group performance by asking and answering 3 questions when they are debriefing their experience: 
1. What happened? 
2. So What? 
3. Now What? 

Moral Reasoning Training presents participants with a dilemma that they can identify with e.g. cheating during an exam, shop-lifting, standing up a friend and so forth. They are then to decide how they would act based on limited options. The usual first response from participants would be to protest that it is not fair. This is normal because most do not like taking a moral stand so they will try their best to get out by changing the dilemma or other methods. As facilitators our job is to keep them within the parameters of the dilemma and to instil discipline in thinking through it all. When answers have been collated we will examine the reasons or the rules behind them. You see, it is not simply about coming up with the correct answer but explaining how one came up with it. This usually gives us a good idea where they are in their level of Moral reasoning. We are guided by Kohlberg's 6 stages of moral development but for the our usage we normally find Stages 1 to 4 most relevant. Here are the 4 stages: 
Stage 1 - Will I Get Caught? 
Stage 2 - What's in it for me? 
Stage 3 - How will I be recognised by the people who are important to me? 
Stage 4 - I will act according to the Law. 

Community Involvement Project 
At the moment the participants are trying to organise a soccer match against some children from a children's home. It is strictly their imitative and we look forward to seeing them succeed. 

Enjoy your weekend! 

You need chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star - Nietzche 

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Social work as a craft  22/09/2006

Social work is a job that will continually challenge our beliefs, values and actions. To have our actions, feelings and thinking constantly questioned is not exactly a comfortable position to be in but then, it is only because helping is not so straightforward. Helping may look easy but the help we give over time must be empowering the people we serve and not disempowering them. We can never be 100% sure and it requires a judgement call based on a set of principles, ethics and information available at a point in time. 

This was one important point I took away as the Singapore lectures of our Diploma Programme wrapped up today. I want to thank all participants for giving it your best shot during the past 2 weeks. The training was designed to challenge your thinking, beliefs and actions and I know it was really uncomfortable at times but you all bounced back and dare I say, are now looking forward to finishing your exam on Monday. 

Social work is not an exact science and in a sense, it is more of a craft. Life is complex and social work training is about developing people who can embrace life's little riddles, injustice, calamities and from the complexity, craft out understanding, compassion, dignity, peace and hope. Both the films screened this week brought this point glaringly into focus. 

The Children are Dead by Aelrun Goette is a documentary based on a true story of a 22-year-old mother who leaves her children unattended in her flat for two weeks. She is charged for murder when they die of dehydration. The film focused on whether the mother is the only one responsible for the death of her children. How about the neighbours, the friends of the mother, the grandmother, the youth welfare service worker, the owners of the building? What is their role in ensuring the safety of the children? All communities have their strengths, and their networks which can be termed the Social Capital that workers can tap on to help the people they serve. 

Ladybird, Ladybird by Ken Loach is a film about a mom whose children get taken away as she is seen to be an unsuitable parent. Every time she gives birth, the authorities are at her door to take the baby away! She loses 6 children to the state, and she will never see them again. What they see are her deficiencies - no stable home, no proper job, someone who talks loudly and uses foul language, and has multiple partners. What goes unnoticed by the social workers in the film is other side of the mother - her struggle to find them a stable home away from an abusive husband, her attempts to maintain a relationship with her boyfriend, her love for her children, and most of all, her fight to want to keep her babies. 

The realistic scenes in both the films challenged our own values as people and as social workers, and left a lot of us questioning how well we know the families we serve, and if we were truly open to their strengths. Adopting a strengths perspective when serving our community requires us to be flexible yet grounded. The ability to focus on the vast grey between the black and white. 

So as not to get lost in the "grey", a craftsman for hope needs more than knowledge, he needs understanding because "Understanding is living in a house where every room has a point of view." - Noah ben Shea. In my view, good social work training builds character and I am glad our team is now stronger and a tad wiser : ). 

Enjoy your weekend! 
Ranga & Gerard 

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Being effective helpers  15/09/2006 

"Few men during their lifetime comes anywhere near exhausting the resources dwelling within them. There are deep wells of strength that are never used."-- 
Richard E. Byrd 

We are into Day 5 of our Diploma in Social Work Practice Programme and firstly I would like to express my deepest appreciation to those of you who held the fort while 30 of us were at lectures. I am also very glad that many of you took time to attend our movie night and the Bavarian evening. These were 2 small events that enabled Diploma participants to include their colleagues in their learning journey. I am sure you had a good time at the Bavarian evening and I hope you were inspired by the movie "Rhythm Is It" which is really a documentary showing how through the guidance of an enlightened dance choreographer, 250 youths from diverse backgrounds, discovered strengths within themselves. 

We can only build on strengths and every sports coach worth his salt would advise his players to play to their strengths and attack the weaknesses of their opponents. It is similar in our work and fittingly, the series of lectures began with an elaboration of the Strengths Model. We must begin by acknowledging that the people we work with are the Experts of their Own World and it is the context that determines whether a behaviour or an ability is a strength or a weakness. 

To be effective helpers, we need to be able to be congruent with helpful viewpoints e.g. Someone who describes himself as depressive could only be someone who has an ability to show and accept feelings of sadness. The ability to stay in touch with sadness is a strength as it a useful starting point for honest introspection. In other words, this person has a sensitivity that promotes deep thinking. Hey, this is not a clever play of words, an effective helper that adopts a strengths perspective must really believe this. 

Another related point is that our society tends to create 'new' problems every now and then. With 'new' problems, new solutions are touted and one wonders if the human race is one that keeps degenerating. Actually, for most of us we are strong enough to say "When the going gets tough, the tough gets going!" We just got to get going on a playing field where our strengths give us an advantage. As effective helpers, we must be able to see that the world is big enough for every person we work with, to find a playing field where they can excel. There are definitely strengths within the people we work be it in their Hearts, Heads or Hands. 

During the Bavarian night, Elisabeth the tutor who charmed us all in her traditional Bavarian outfit, told me that Beyond is a special place. A place where she could experience our passion to serve despite the difficult situations we find ourselves in. Moreover there is a positive energy where everyone seems to get along and aims to make things work. 

Thanks Elisabeth for your encouraging words. Affirmation is always strengthening and I would also like to thank Frank & Oja our Professors for strongly challenging us when we fudged up an experiential learning activity for our youths. Adopting a strengths perspective does not mean that we ignore mistakes. We must sincerely believe that people can do better and perform at their true potential and we must always challenge them to do that. So let's respond to our Professors' challenge by strengthening our Culture of Evaluation. Let us humbly look at our mistakes, correct them and get it right the next opportunity that comes our way. 

"Good timber does not grow with ease; the stronger the wind, the stronger the trees."-- 
J. Willard Marriott 

Believe me, I am not implying that we are kayu (wood) : ) 
Enjoy your weekend! 

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