The gift of self

I have supported a safe house for girls and women-at-risk for nearly 30 years now.

Dec 08, 2023

Word in Progress - Karen-Michaela Tan

I have supported a safe house for girls and women-at-risk for nearly 30 years now. As an independent fund-raiser, I share the life and challenges of the girls and women this non-profit helps with the people that my career brings me in contact with. In my head I have the dossiers of these women, and I try to match a donor to one specific person so that I am able to give personalised updates on how their gifting affects a life positively.

While it takes a lot more effort, I believe giving a face and a name to a person elevates them from a statistic, number, or a catchall phrase like ‘migrant’ or ‘underprivileged.’ A name makes someone real. It humanises them, and sometimes opens hearts.

Christmas is the one time of the year that I get to rest from my fundraising. This is because corporations come out of the woodwork seeking good causes for their year-end Corporate Social Responsibility programmes. On the run-up to Christmas, orphanages and kids’ homes are inundated with offers of Christmas meals, days out, and gifts.

While many of the younger children are thrilled when friendly strangers come to their normally quiet residences, with Santa and gifts in tow, not all home residents are as pleased. I have a 17-year-old friend who will soon be leaving the care system when she ages out (the term used when minors become adults and can no longer depend on social care systems to support them). She entered into care as a three-year-old, when her drink-addled father left her at a cousin’s house, and disappeared, never to be seen again.

After a few months, the cousin, a single mother who had four children of her own, and whose husband had died, surrendered my friend — we will call her Nina — to the shelter where she has lived since. After 14 Christmases of strangers hosting her and her friends to meals, and receiving well-meaning but trite gifts of dolls and teddy bears, Nina has had it.

“No one from these organisations have ever come before their whole office arrives, and asked us what we wanted for Christmas. The office just gives a list of genders and ages, and leaves it to the companies to buy whatever present they see fit. For years all I wanted was a music player so I could listen to the bhangra that makes me happy. The other residents in the house don’t like it so I cannot have it on the CD player there, even if I did have any CDs to play. I just wanted something private so I could do my chores with it playing without disturbing anyone,” Nina told me.

Situations like these are why we need to put names, ages and faces to the people we are trying to help. Most old folks and homes for the disabled are thrilled when visitors come to spend time with the shut-ins. The mental capabilities of people in these homes are such that most will accept the food, fun and games, and then forget when the event has happened, because of dementia or lower cognitive function.

It is not so when the recipients are in complete possession of their faculties. When younger, kids in orphanages can be cajoled to dance and play with visitors. By a certain age, their boundaries need to be respected. Nina is old enough to be allowed to stay back in the home when her other housemates are brought to a party, but she tells me that some even as young as 13 have expressed a lack of desire to go to these functions.

“We are not real to these people. After the event they leave and we never see them again. Nobody remembers us, and even if we remember them, they do not return. I would rather stay in the home and eat bread than feel that I have to act a certain way to impress them,” she tells me defiantly.

Nina is just one of the hundreds, if not thousands, of children who will pass out of the social welfare system yearly. Educated enough to have an SPM certificate, all that she has ever known of life is the rhythm of the care centre, where everything is structured, and safe, if boring.

Many of the young people who pass out of the system will fall through the cracks because they have not been given the emotional and social scaffolding they would/should have had if they had had families. They will be thrust into a world where they have to learn financial planning, economics, negotiation. In a world of job applications, interviews and work commutes, many of them will not be able to find proper footing, and will become prey to cruel, conscienceless users. For a young girl, one ill-fated relationship can saddle her with a pregnancy that forces further dependence on the father of the child, setting into motion the entire cycle of lost hope.

So, this Christmas, should your workplace plan an outing with the underprivileged, take this chance to seek the face of God in those who are alone and lost. While food, shelter and clothing fulfil Maslow’s hierarchy of need, humankind, especially young lives, need so much more to grow and thrive. Look for ways that enhance your interaction with them. Go beyond Matthew 25:36. (“I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”)

Find ways for the goodwill of Christmas to stretch well into the year ahead. Jesus did not clap straw and stable dust off His hands after He was born. His birth was just the beginning of 33 years of love, service, and ultimately, sacrifice. If we call Him ‘Lord’ and ‘Messiah’, then we too must be called ‘Emmanuel’ and allow others to see God-with-us throughout the entire coming year

(Karen-Michaela Tan is a poet, writer and editor who seeks out God’s presence in the human condition and looks for ways to put the Word of God into real action.)

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