From The Straits Times    |

Credit: Priscilla Ong

To seniors living alone in Housing Board rental flats in Yishun, Ms Priscilla Ong is more than just a volunteer.

The 41-year-old is part-daughter, part-24-hour helpline to the lonely elders of blocks 436 and 438, even putting herself down as their next of kin to help them settle their affairs before the end of their lives.

In March, she started an emergency fund to help them foot their medical expenses and cab fare to appointments after noticing that they often put off seeing a doctor when they fell sick as they could not afford it.

“They’re all above 75 years old. Many of them are not in the best of health and are in and out of hospital. I feel that it’s a good thing to be there for them.”

These efforts are part of the former infant care teacher’s initiative Project Love Lunch, which she started in 2014 to provide free food to children who were showing up to class hungry.

But in 2016, Ms Ong met with a car accident which left her barely able to walk.

She was two days away from being promoted to senior teacher, but had to quit as she was unable to keep on teaching.

She now uses a mobility scooter to get around.

Her partner, who works in information technology, is the family’s sole breadwinner. Her daughter, Stephanie, 20, is interested in studying early childhood education, while her son, Zechariah, 22, will be signing on to the army.

“I could have thrown in the towel then and said ‘forget it’, but when I thought of my own pupils who really benefited a lot from what I’d done for them, I decided to keep going differently,” she said, referring to her volunteer effort.

Ms Ong’s mother, who died when she was 12, is her inspiration.

“She was the most selfless person I have ever known,” she said.

She recalled how her mother, a staff sergeant in the Singapore Armed Forces, kept a metal box filled with cash at work in Seletar Camp so that any national serviceman who was short of cash could take from it.

Wanting to ensure that children living in rental flats had a happy childhood, Ms Ong delivered gifts to them on Children’s Day and during Christmas, and organised carnivals with games and prizes for them.

Ms Priscilla Ong (left) with volunteer Danica Tan and Ms Tan’s daughter, Elise. PHOTO: COURTESY OF PRISCILLA ONG

She also reached out to elderly residents who asked if they could have a share of the food that volunteers were giving out.

She now serves about 400 rental block residents in Yishun, Marsiling and Sengkang, together with about 20 volunteers and a core team of 10.

More than the food, their monthly visits became the highlight of the seniors’ days. “It really hit me when we went back to the block after Covid-19 and they said: ‘We missed you, why didn’t you come down?’

“Being able to see us once a month is heartwarming for them. They feel the love.”

Ms Priscilla Ong serves about 400 rental block residents in Yishun, Marsiling and Sengkang, together with about 20 volunteers and a core team of 10. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

As a full-time volunteer, Ms Ong spends her days handling food drop-offs, coordinating deliveries of groceries and household items, and raising funds.

But her condition is getting worse, and doctors have advised her to slow down. “My doctor told me to take it easy. But I want to do what I still can until I cannot.”

She hopes her daughter, who has gone along on her visits since she was nine, can take over as the lead for Project Love Lunch in the future.

Ms Priscilla Ong’s daughter, Ms Stephanie Ong, with a rental flat resident in Yishun. PHOTO: COURTESY OF PRISCILLA ONG

Ms Ong has grown close to the rental flat residents over the last eight years.

She recounted how one of them, Mr Francis Chee, baked a banana cake for her and other volunteers when he learnt that she liked it.

“It’s a way of showing that they care, and they don’t want to feel that they are just asking for handouts. They also want to feel that they are useful.”

Mr Chee, a 65-year-old retiree, enjoys the monthly catch-ups with Ms Ong and the volunteers at the staircase while waiting for deliveries. “She’s a lovely lady, very kind,” he said.

Ms Ong has lost count of the number of elderly residents she has said her final farewell to.

“It’s devastating to lose one after another, but I still have to be there for the rest,” she said.

She added: “I always tell volunteers not to cry in front of the elderly, but to go downstairs first, because it affects them a lot. They don’t need your tears; they need your listening ears.

“My main goal now is to ensure that I’m there for my elderly residents till the end. I don’t want them to leave the world alone. I want them to know that there are still people who care for them.”

This article was originally published in The Straits Times.