It takes a village to raise a child
Agape Vision grooms underprivileged, at-risk youths to become leaders in their lives
“I was just as shy as all of you when I first joined in Form 2, I was bullied in school and everywhere, the other kids laughed at me. But here I am standing in front of you,” recounted a confident 20-year-old Ayesha at the latest annual graduation ceremony of Agape Vision.
“And I want you to know that the work that you do here with Agape Vision is important, because it grows you to be a leader who takes care of the people that matter to you.”
Agape Vision is a not-for-profit organisation that empowers youths from shelter homes and drop-in centres to live up to their fullest potential, and to be leaders in their lives.
What differentiates Agape Vision from other do-gooders is its methods developed from its founders Gillian Chong and Avis Ng’s in-depth counselling experience. With a combined experience of over 10 years in volunteering with various shelter homes and welfare organisations, Chong and Ng saw the need for a stronger, sustainable programme that would help at-risk youths develop confidence and self-esteem.
“Youths from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to have low self-esteem, they tend to know only how to take and take, rather than give, because things have always been taken from their lives. So in Agape Vision, this is the first time where they have the chance to give, to be empathetic and to care for others,” said Chong, who has many years of experience in counselling children and youths who have survived abuse and/or sexual abuse.
Every year, over four to five intensive months, Agapian youths – youths enrolled in the Agape Vision programme – undergo three core activity components.
First, they are immersed in fortnightly workshops aimed to develop leadership skills and to promote positive, creative thinking. Then, they embark on a week-long travel expedition called ‘Expedition Agape’, where they see the difference they can make to other less privileged communities. They return home to apply their breakthrough learnings for one last community service.
By graduation time, the Agapian youths are in fact ahead of their teenage peers in terms of work readiness, as they are required to plan and execute three community service activities in total. They know how to conceptualize and execute a project from beginning to end, including skills on how to effectively raise funds, how to motivate and lead their teams, and how to communicate effectively with each other.
“We have about six Agape volunteers who facilitate all of the activities. After each activity, we hold debriefings and self-assessments where the youths are individually challenged to internalise their new insights.
We ask them to rate themselves and reflect on room for improvement,” explained Ng, who is a professional counsellor in her day job, working with primary school students and couples. Other volunteers consist of other working professionals with full-time day careers, such as accountants and lawyers.
“Soon enough, you see that the youths start to inspire each other, one might say ‘I can’t do it’ or ‘this is impossible’, and the others will say ‘look, I have been through that myself, you are stronger than you think’. They encourage and influence each other, and they relearn how to depend on one another,” added Avis.
Thomas, 18, who has been in a shelter home for said that when he first came to Agape earlier this year, he was so why that he wouldn’t talk to anyone.
“But when I went on Expedition Agape to Sarawak this year, I realised how much I wanted to work on helping the Penan children, so I stepped up to be a team leader, and I started to talk like this! I am proud of myself for being able to talk more now; and I learnt to trust people again, who is good, who is bad.”
For 16-year-old Darshini who has lived in a shelter for nine years, “In school, we are scared of what we say is wrong, scared that people will laugh at what you say and make fun of you. But in Agape, I learnt that whatever you say, people who respect you will respect what you have to say.”
Chong clarified that the end goal for the youths was to be resilient adults.
“We want our youths to not give up on themselves when they experience pitfalls in life, and to find a way just like when they faced challenges in their expedition. What do they do during construction when they have no more strength? What do they do when they cannot control the kindergarten children who are running around? We want them to know that they can first count on themselves, and then count on their friends, so that they form a foundation of meaningful, interdependent adult relationships in life.”
The overarching value that Agape Vision is powered on, is love. As in the ancient Greek language, the word ‘Agape’ signifies a universal, unconditional love that serves regardless of circumstances; Agape Vision is not associated with any religion or political movement.
“We started Agape Vision to show long-term love and commitment to youths from backgrounds of abuse and neglect, because they typically become very hardened as a self-protection mechanism. We now have youths who have stayed in touch with us even after their graduation, as we become their support system when they have no one to turn to,” Chong said.
Ayesha who has also spent nine years in a shelter home perhaps summarised it best: “Agape teaches us essentially how to appreciate other people, and how to serve others who are less fortunate than us, and to grow us into a better person. After I learnt to speak up and lead from my five years with Agape Vision, I started to interact with more people in school, and lead my shelter home to clean up, and lead projects in my school. I stepped up because I didn’t want to be bullied forever and I cannot sit at the shelter home forever not knowing better.”
This year, 17 youths graduated from Agape Vision’s yearly programme, totalling to more than 100 youths who have graduated from the programme since Agape Vision kick-started in 2010.
For Expedition Agape this year, the Agapian youths led an eight-day expedition to Sarawak and served a Penan community in Mulu, where they built a kindergarten playground for the village children and ran holiday camps to occupy the children. In the past, Expedition Agape has been in Cambodia serving underprivileged communities and orphans and in the Philippines serving street children.
*The names of the youths referred to in this artcle have been altered to preserve their privacy and confidentiality.