Saturday, August 1, 2009

Tiong Bahru's 'village chief'

The Straits Times
Aug 1, 2009
By Melody Zaccheus

For 25 years, Linda Koh has served the needy

CALL her a village chief, of sorts.

Mrs Linda Koh, a spry 71-year-old volunteer, knows the name of every single resident she has been helping for the past 25 years at Tiong Bahru estate.

She can even rattle off their ages, family backgrounds and medical history.

Every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, she packs and delivers food rations to seniors at Blocks 105 and 125 in Kim Tian Road in a Nissan Sunny that her sons gave her.

These days, she sees a growing number of younger people hit by the downturn.

Since June last year, about 40 more people have joined her group needing free rations - most of them young families.

A recent beneficiary is Mrs Zulaiha Abdul Wahab, 33, who was retrenched earlier this year as a factory production operator. She and her odd-job labourer husband often skip meals so that their three children aged five to eight can go to bed fed.
'This is a difficult time for my family. Even as my husband and I look for stable jobs, my children still need to eat.

Here, there's rice, canned food and sometimes Milo that we can rely on, when we run out of milk powder,' she says.

Mrs Koh is particularly moved by the plight of such families.

'I am willing to help these young people out because they are genuinely at their wits' end.

I allow them to join our food queues because I trust them and want to help them.'

Known to Kim Tian residents as 'Hui Tai' (Mrs Koh in Cantonese), she is well-known for her work with senior citizens as a volunteer at Lions Befrienders.

Since most of the seniors at Kim Tian Road live alone and are cooped up in one-room flats all day, she encourages them to socialise at the void decks.

She has even appointed a level representative for each floor of Block 124, and an overall block representative, to help them solve day-to-day difficulties such as buying provisions and running errands for the immobile and taking the sick to the doctor.

'They can keep a lookout for each other when I'm not around and forge a bond through their daily chats,' she says.

Several times a month, she charters a bus to take them to places such as the Singapore Zoo and the Jurong BirdPark, or lunch at the Goodwood Park Hotel.

Mrs Koh's sons fund her volunteer efforts. Dr Hsu Li Fern, 40, is a cardiologist at the National Heart Centre, while Dr Hsu Li Yang, 36, is an infectious diseases specialist at National University Hospital.

Her 80-year-old husband, a former businessman, continues to be supportive of her volunteer work.

She has always been a housewife.

The daughter of a businessman and a housewife, she started volunteering in 1984 when she taught handicraft-making to senior citizens at Tiong Bahru Community Centre.

Her heart went out to them when she found out they survived on meals of salted fish and rice.

She says: 'They needed proper meals and nutrition so I asked my maid to cook for them.'

But the food her maid prepared could serve only 10 elderly folk.

So she recruited 20 housewives to cook at Tiong Bahru and Kim Tian community centres.

'The old folk I met told me that they were waiting for death to come.

I said: 'No, this shouldn't be how you live your golden years',' she recalls.

'They needed to have meaning in their lives and with proper meals, I thought they would have at least something to look forward to a few times a week.'

Since then, she has roped in other meal ration sponsors like Zouk, Bo Tien Welfare Service Association and Tang Gah Beo Temple.

Her friends, as well as kind-hearted individuals who have heard about her efforts, also chip in at times.

Over the past two decades, she has also helped arrange funerals for almost 40 people in the area - including some samsui women and amahs.

She and her group of 10 volunteers, mostly middle-aged working adults, chip in to pay for the funerals.

The free-thinker attributes her giving nature to the example her mother set.

'I was brought up in a middle-class family and I learnt from my mother that it was always a blessing to give and help others, in cash or in kind.

'We're all Singaporeans so we should always try to help the needy. We can start by being friends with them,' she said.

71, and still a volunteer

MRS Linda Koh, 71, has been a volunteer with the community group Lions Befrienders for the past 25 years and chairman of Tiong Bahru Community Centre for 15 years.

The housewife started out in 1984 as a volunteer teaching handicraft skills weekly to senior citizens at Tiong Bahru Community Centre. A year later, she started thrice weekly food drives for the elderly at Kim Tian Road, which has continued until today.

She recently started helping low-income families and young singles affected by the recession. She welcomes them to join her food queue, providing them with free food parcels three times a week at Kim Tian Road and once a month at Jalan Bukit Merah and Punggol.

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