The Power of Volunteering

By Lee Khiam Jin

September 2022 FEATURE
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The digital library is decorated to calm the mind.

THE ARMY OF VOLUNTEERS from the Buddhist Tzu Chi Merit Society are used to sprucing up almost-forgotten, old residential areas. Their latest project involves the community in Padang Tembak (Rifle Range), which resides in nine blocks of 17- and 18-storey low-cost flats built by the Penang state government in the late '60s. 

The Tzu Chi-backed initiative was launched in June and July 2019, and has proven to be a turning point in the promoting of volunteerism.

The initiative undertaken by Tzu Chi volunteers led to the birth of Padang Tembak Community Centre (PTCC), which currently administers a day care centre, a digital library and flexible use of indoor badminton courts. The project has bloomed into a long-term community effort, done in collaboration between Tzu Chi, Penang Women's Development Corporation (PWDC) and Majlis Bandaraya Pulau Pinang (MBPP).

PTCC acts as a safe haven not too far from home, where children and young people can seek temporary shelter and a conducive place to study. For example, faith-based NGOs like Persatuan Kebajikan Ci Ai Pulau Pinang provides vegetarian meals and general supplies for needy residents, whereas House of Hope offers tuition classes for children.

Before (left) and after (right) a coat of paint.

A library transformed

The signature project is the digital library. It is the product of a total facelift of a once-abandoned public library above the Padang Tembak wet market. The idea for it kicked off when PWDC was invited to take over the operation of the childcare centre. One step led to the next, and soon, they decided to transform the once dilapidated library into what it is today.

Volunteers and suppliers worked tirelessly to renovate the library, completing it within seven weekends. It was publicly launched in early May this year. Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow visited the library on May 22, and was impressed by the zen setting of the digital library and its compassionate programmes. He considered the PTCC to be the role model for community transformation projects.

Though digital libraries are not new to Penangites, the one administered by PTCC is different in many ways. First, school-going children, particularly those from single-parent families can seek shelter there almost daily to complete their homework, exchange notes or attend tuition classes after school. Volunteer teachers, some of whom travel by bus from afar, come to the library to give one-on-one coaching in Maths, Science and English.

The library also imposes a policy where its users must also be volunteer librarians. This arrangement has afforded adult librarians the opportunity to exchange life experiences with the young and provide emotional support to each other.

Teaching the elderly

Smartphone and social media clinics for the elderly have been organised to teach them about e-wallets, internet banking and social media. The library has also played host to English communication and basic computing classes for adults living here.

Recently, the digital library has turned into a budding makerspace. Makerspaces, according to Harvard Business Review, are “informal sites for creative production in art, science and engineering, where people of all ages blend digital and physical technologies to explore ideas, learn technical skills and create new products” (Sheridan, 2014, p. 505).

According to Edwin Khoo and Chris Ting, core team members of PTCC who lead the elderly care and youth care activities respectively, PTCC’s mission goes beyond giving relief allowance to needy families. Instead, service-on-demand has replaced the old model of providing care. For instance, PTCC arranges volunteers to help bathe bedridden patients, chaperon ill neighbours to the hospital or accompany them when needed. Edwin explained that some needy families, despite a monthly living allowance, are still inept at caring for themselves or solving daily challenges such as water leaks.

Dr. Lee Khiam Jin (right) during an interview with Edwin Khoo, core team member of PTCC.

Regarding youth care, Chris believes in integrating holistic, humanistic and sports-driven elements in the programme. For example, in addition to providing one-to-one coaching and mentoring children, sport activities such as running, table tennis and badminton are considered effective ways to motivate and uplift the can-do spirit of the children.

When it comes to children day care, the emphasis lies on supporting children’s emotional needs and inculcating humanistic values; this makes the place different from other centres where a heavier focus is put on academic pursuits.

Contribute to a caring Penang

PTCC connects or reconnects volunteers as well as residents of Padang Tembak and external partners, including corporate partners and government agencies, for common community good. Some residents who used to receive assistance from Tzu Chi had since stopped receiving it, and have instead returned to be volunteers who help other needy neighbours.

Within the next year, PTCC hopes to focus on upgrading the day care’s daily programme. It wishes to collaborate with universities, education providers and environmental protection educational centres to enrich the curriculum design. In three years, PTCC aims to be regarded as a role model for integrated community work in Malaysia.

Support from the local government, NGOs of multiple faiths, higher education institutions, civic society organisations, philanthropists and the private sector would be generally helpful. PTCC welcomes people and organisations with experience in stakeholder engagement, community-based project implementation and storytelling to work together to uplift society through volunteering.

A simple act can snowball to revitalise whole communities.

  • Sheridan, K., Halverson, E. R., Litts, B., Brahms, L., Jacobs-Priebe, L., & Owens, T. (2014). Learning in the making: A comparative case study of three makerspaces. Harvard Educational Review, 84(4), 505-531.
Lee Khiam Jin

As a former officer in the UN and ASEAN intergovernmental body, Dr. Lee Khiam Jin is passionate about sustainable development, disaster risk reduction and community volunteering. He has a PhD in dynamics of cross-sector collaboration between national government agencies and external partners in emergencies.