Not your usual vacation: mixing cement to help build a school wall.
It was "a lesson of perseverance, love, hope and life." Recalling what she took home from a trip to Cambodia earlier this year, Pinchanok Ling confessed that she used to be selfish and uncaring. "I thought my life and the people around me were not important," said the Secondary 3 student of Paya Lebar Methodist Girls' School (Secondary). "After the trip, I realised that I had taken many things for granted, especially my mum."
Another Sec 3 student, Elsa Lim, found herself on a "life-changing trip" in a small village near Klang, West Malaysia. "I gained a lot of valuable experiences, like realising how fortunate I was and how so many people out there needed help", said Elsa. Her levelmate Cara Loh, who ended up in Yangshuo in China, expressed a similar sentiment, stating, "The experience has taught me to appreciate what we have."
Cara, Elsa and Pinchanok were not the only students to spend a week of their mid-year holidays in a journey that opened eyes and transformed minds. In fact, the school's entire cohort of Sec 3 students, numbering 278 girls, took off from 28 May to 5 July on an overseas community involvement programme (OCIP) that led them to rural schools and villages in five locations across three countries.
Seeing the world from a different perspective
Painting a classroom in Yangshuo, China.
The brainchild of principal Ms Pamela Yoong, the school's first-ever level-wide OCIP emerged from a desire to give every student a chance to see the world beyond Singapore, get their hands dirty in different communities and develop a heart for those in need. Planning began as early as October 2010, when a core team of teachers discussed and eventually chose a quintet of locations: Yangshuo in China; Cheras and Klang in Malaysia; and Baray and Siem Reap in Cambodia.
The places may sound exotic, but there was little time for sight-seeing as the students embarked on tasks such as mixing cement, laying concrete, constructing and painting walls. During breaks from the physical work, they took part in classroom sessions, games and other activities with the young people they met.
Before a wall is painted, the girls stencilled in their designs.
To ensure that the 23 teachers who accompanied the girls as team leaders and facilitators would be able to cope with the outdoor and rural environments, the school sent them on a 4-day training stint. Conducted with the support of the National Youth Council, this camp included workshops and an overnight taste of the wild at Pulau Ubin.
Meanwhile, the students conducted their own preparations with lessons about their destinations and team-building activities such as a games carnival and campfire. They also collected old clothes, stationery and staples like rice, soy sauce and toothbrushes for the communities they would visit. It was no wonder that the airport was crammed with cartons and bags on D-day, as excited students bid farewell to their anxious but proud parents before a week of adventure and sleeping under mosquito nets.
Learning not to take life for granted
The finished wall of art.
Having observed the resilience of her Cambodian peers, Pinchanok is inspired by the way they take "every opportunity to learn and not give up even though their lives have been really hard." She added, "Now, I'll treasure everything I have and persevere in life, just like the Cambodians, no matter how hard it can be." Recalling the sense of community and espirit de corps she experienced in Siem Reap, Ashley Sim said, "I learnt not to take things for granted and to cherish the people around me more than I did before. This trip was unforgettable and I will always remember all the people we met there."
Joining their peers for morning exercises.
In Yangshuo, which is near the city of Guilin, Cara discovered new facets of Chinese culture and ways of life, including a few surprises. "One thing I found out was that China is a very environmentally friendly country," she revealed. "The people we came into contact with practised the 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), something we don't do very often and that made me realise how much material comfort we had become accustomed to."
A week in Malaysia has even ignited a new flame in Elsa, who stated, "This trip sparked off my passion and dream of helping less fortunate children and I hope that eventually, when these children grow up, they will also pass the love on and help others." She shared that the line 'We're pilgrims on this journey' from the school's Faithful in Service song provided a fitting theme to the whole experience. "I will never forget this trip, with so many new friendships formed and the joy of leaving a mark in these children's lives," beamed Elsa in satisfaction.