Two lawyers, who are presidents of their charities, share how they manage their time and keep their passion for volunteering burning.
By SHARON CHEN
“Lawyers, they are the worst. Lawyers are not nice. They are obnoxious, arrogant. Don’t date a lawyer,” joked Nicholas Aw.
Lawyers may have a bad reputation, but Aw, who specialises in property law at Clifford Law, and Gregory Vijayendran (below, pictured with a beneficiary), a partner at Rajah and Tann, are no ordinary attorneys. These legal eagles are also the presidents of the Disabled People’s Association (DPA) and Club Rainbow respectively.
They have different motivations for choosing to take on such big commitments with these organisations, but stressed that volunteering is a lifestyle and being busy is not going to hold them back from helping those in need. In fact, their legal training has made them all the more equipped to lead their teams.
It is all about the beneficiaries
For Vijayendran, it’s the resilience of Club Rainbow’s beneficiaries that keeps him motivated. Club Rainbow helps chronically-ill children and their families, by providing emotional, financial and educational support, among other services.
He recalled an event at the Singapore Botanic Gardens when a mother came up to him teary-eyed and thanked him “because when my daughter gets a Club Rainbow programme invite, she’s just so excited [because] she gets to go places. Her siblings didn’t want to be seen in public with her.”
He shared: “This simple, safe haven that we’ve created allows them to feel loved and accepted for who they are. We cannot cocoon them, however, there will be a journey from the safe haven into societal integration but for some [chronically-ill children], they haven’t even had that sanctuary experience yet. They are walled in. It is that group that we continually strive to reach out to so that they know they are not alone. So that they know they are loved, we accept them and they are still part of the Singapore community.
“We aim to restore their dignity back and empower these families and these children so they move from a victim mindset to a victor mentality.”
Witnessing that journey of healing over the year is his greatest reward.
One of Club Rainbow’s activities during the year is a three-day Camp which is filled with various activities for the beneficiaries. Vijayendran said: “One of the greatest joys I have now is seeing some of the older children who have outgrown [our] Camps [as] they are now more than 21 [years old] … come back as mentors and encourage the Camp attendees. We see everything come a full circle … the subtext of these youths and growing adults involvement is that: “We’ve overcome, we’ve made it, we’ve found our feet and you can too.” And that message speaks volumes – much louder than anything I can say.”
As president of Club Rainbow’s council, he heads monthly meetings where they provide oversight for the organisation. This includes approving plans for new services, reviewing past programmes, analysing reports, managing staff hires and making strategic decisions to improve outreach. The council also participates in major events like the Meet-The-Council sessions. Here, Vijayendran gives legal advice when needed, pointing parents to the right places and giving them a roadmap of options.
But, mostly he and his team focus on policy, strategic planning and oversight. They think of ways to collaborate with other charities (such as Children’s Cancer Foundation and Muscular Dystrophy Association of Singapore), and roll out new initiatives such as respite care and parents’ support group initiatives. They have started an internship programme for youths and young adults this year to build the confidence of the older Rainbow children.
His challenges include increasing volunteer engagement and balancing beneficiaries’ expectations against the kind of assistance Club Rainbow can realistically provide. “It’s really about inspiring and mentoring, and encouraging … that really is more of my role now, [I am] definitely being more of an ambassador now,” he said.
“The challenge is how do we ensure that the visions that are conceptualised by the council at the strategic planning sessions get implemented and executed? Is the same level of passion being felt all across the organisation? Volunteers need to feel that this is where we are going; this is where this big ship is going. And we’re all on the same journey as bumpy as this ride can be at times, even though we’re all playing different roles.”
He’s learnt a lot in the 15 years he has been president. Most of all that sometimes charities have to draw the painful line between what is needed and what it can provide.
“It’s a maturing process even for me. When you’re youthful and you’re optimistic about everything … you think you can be all things to everybody. But you are limited by resources; you’re limited by whether everyone who is working with you (volunteers and staff) will sign on and are equally passionate about the priorities. I think the greatest learning curve to realise is that you can’t solve all the problems and issues that the Rainbow children and families have. You can only hope to touch their world with compassion and healing, one touch at a time, to make a difference,” said Vijayendran.
This is where being a lawyer has given him invaluable insight. “You can arguably be a lot more objective [with legal training],” he said. Practical measures for conflict management, and his experience with employment law have helped him to work out tricky situations and ensure that hiring goes smoothly.
“I think it is a plus to be able to bring in your skill sets into the social service area although I’m technically not the “lawyer” in this setting but the leader. But you know you can’t ignore that corpus of knowledge you have or the ability to see a legal issue.”
And, there’s a need for more lawyers to step up to the plate. He’s noticed that lawyers tend to shy away from legal work when it comes to volunteering because they don’t want “more of the same”. But, he suggested, it should be about what non-profit organisations need, not what volunteers feel most comfortable doing.
“Increasingly now with an environment that is more heavily regulated, strongly emphasising charities’ governance … lawyers are invaluable and I hope they would step forward … throw your hat into the ring. You will find an extraordinary sense of meaning and purpose,” he encouraged.
A different kind of mouthpiece
For Aw, helping persons with disabilities is a matter close to his heart. He suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome, and understands the difficulties of being different. “I’m spending more time helping the people who need help and having a condition myself, I can try and empathise what they may go through. I do not wish for the people with disabilities (PWDs) to be ostracised or treated differently,” he explained. The DPA’s mission is to be the voice of PWDs, helping them achieve full participation and equal status in the society through independent living.
He quoted a passage from the book “To Kill a Mockingbird”: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
A big challenge he faces is getting those who are abled to understand that “until they are able to appreciate, [to] totally understand how and what it is like to be disabled, I do not think they are in the position to make decisions for PWDs. I try and tell the authorities, we can be your voice, we can talk to our members and let you know what their needs are.”
As president of the DPA, he acts as spokesperson and advocate for the organisation and its beneficiaries. His goals are many but they include educating the public on the misconception that PWDs are to be pitied or less fortunate, public awareness, and to get the Government to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in whole.
“I think that educating the public is going to be very difficult because people are very set in their ways … [They think that the] disabled need help, they are less fortunate, they are very poor thing,” he shared.
Being a lawyer, “you’re just a mouthpiece for others … as a lawyer, talk is cheap,” he quipped. But it is this very skill that “helps me be more vocal and more assertive,” he admitted.
It’s a lifestyle
But, both Vijayendran and Aw agree on one thing: Volunteering is a lifestyle, not an extracurricular.
“I think you can’t really count the time. It’s 24/7… If you’re going to do this kind of work, you can’t say you got no time. We all have time,” said Aw. “Charity work is all part and parcel of life. Time management is a very often-used word but it’s also about prioritising. You won’t know when you’re needed.”
Said Vijayendran: “This whole work-life balance is really critical and we are constantly trying to find solutions. All of us are trying to strike the right balance and make sure we don’t neglect important people, important things in our lives.
“To me, the whole idea of balance is not so much a static concept but a dynamic balance. It’s not that one formula that you can apply right through every single day, 24 hours [a day], 365 days a year. When the charity has a major project and I’m involved … I pour myself into it, but when work has a demanding trial or a major case or something else that requires a lot of focus then I give myself to that.”
Work and family are important, Aw surmised, but it’s about figuring out what should take priority at each time. “It’s about deciding what is important and what you want to do with your lives.”