Volunteering at CSB with My Family

by Neha Patel, PACE Chair

Shoulder to shoulder, the students were painting the wall while singing along to Taylor Swift. It was a perfect snapshot of the week – three UWC students* (ages 12-15) seamlessly working together with CSB students creating a mural on a drab wall in a primary classroom. Earlier in the week they had divided the wall into 6 panels – one panel for each student to hand draw. Where one panel met another panel, the students worked together to make sure the lines were connected and blended together. Over the course of the next three days, this group would stay behind after school to paint, snack, chat and laugh together. Whatever their differences (in religion, culture, and opportunities) – there was so much they shared (including a love of art and bubble tea).  

In my time at UWC, I have come to deeply appreciate the transformative impact of hands-on volunteering on both my own family as well as the lives of these resilient young learners.

Family volunteering at CSB is an intense, heart-warming, eye-opening experience. We stayed at an Airbnb within 5 minutes walking distance from CSB. It was a 2 bedroom apartment which cost $60SGD/night. We packed our lunch every morning before leaving for school and took turns cooking dinner when we returned home (usually grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, or pasta with vegetables). Our days were long – often 10-12 hours per day and we were exhausted by the time we went to bed every night. It wasn’t luxurious but we were comfortable. 

Our days started around 8:30am at the school-wide morning assembly which is held in the only room which can capacitate the entire student body and teachers. As we filed in every morning, the younger children waved enthusiastically, peeking beyond me to see if my girls (and their new friends) were also coming that day. The older students would mouth “Good morning teacher” and eagerly await whatever Lulu and we had planned for the day. The receptiveness and willingness to listen, learn and participate in everything we suggested was not lost on any of us.

Due to insufficient funding, CSB routinely faces teacher shortages and the week we were volunteering was no different. Since there are never enough teachers (or classrooms available) – early primary students are only able to attend school on alternate days and secondary students often sub-in for teachers at the primary level so the professional teachers can teach higher grades. Principal Lulu manages the teaching schedule on a daily basis – slotting teachers, volunteers and herself where they are needed most on any given day. This also means that volunteers are at the heart of the action – whether it be tirelessly entertaining primary children with educational games while they wait for the bus, like my 12-year-old did; or teaching IGCSE exam mark schemes and running science experiments with secondary students who will be sitting the Coordinated Science exams next year, like my two 15-year-olds did. 

For my part – I spent the week with the four students who would be leaving for the Philippines within the week – trying to teach them all the important life skills they would need once they were on their own in a foreign country. Skills like “how to open a bank account” “time management” or “how to use Google Calendar.” I was inordinately pleased when a few weeks later – each of the four students sent me a message with a screenshot of their own Google Calendars where they had inputted all their new university classes and were actively managing their time.

I was also humbled by the enormity of what these four students were committing to. For the week leading up to their departure, I saw how they battled nervousness about the challenges ahead, excitement for the adventures that awaited them and sadness at leaving behind their families and communities, with no expectation of seeing them for at least four years. Only one student of the four had his family’s support in leaving – the other three were going against their families’ wishes which required an inordinate amount of strength. At that same time, I witnessed how Principal Lulu, Founder Madama Soraya and all the teachers at CSB unwaveringly support these students as they embark on this journey. There were celebrations (and tears), help buying necessary items like their first suitcases, and a lot of reassuring and building up of these young men and women. 

In my time at UWC, I have come to deeply appreciate the transformative impact of hands-on volunteering on both my own family as well as the lives of these resilient young learners. By working directly with the refugee children, we create opportunities for our own children to understand the challenges faced by these young learners. This firsthand experience fosters empathy and encourages a sense of global citizenship, helping our children grow into compassionate and open-minded individuals. Every night, as we planned for the next day’s activities, my own girls and I shared laughter and pride at the connections we’d made and the bridges we had built that day – all transcending cultural differences and reminding us that our shared humanity unites us all.