Through their NGO, two best friends provide warmth and hope to neglected and high-risk youths, writes Sulyn Chong
OPPOSITES attract, they say. That’s exactly how Gillian Chong and Avis Ng are to one another. They are the founders of Agape Vision, a non-profit organisation that empowers youths from shelters and drop-in centres to live up to their fullest potential and be leaders in their own lives.
As best friends since childhood, the pair doesn’t only finish each other’s sentences; they also share tremendous affection for the youths under their care.
“I remember meeting Avis when she was only 8. She was such a cute girl. But we clicked immediately even with the age gap,” recounts Gillian, who’s seven years Avis’s senior.
“I was always interested in helping children and youths. I’d talk to Gillian since she has experience in the area. She’s like my big sister,” Avis chips in.
The two didn’t experience the typical childhood. Instead of wasting time in front of the TV or computer like most children in the city, the two opted to sacrifice their time doing volunteer work. After church, they’d rush to Yayasan Chow Kit. They’d return home, have a quick shower and head out again to Rumah Hope.
Volunteering became their weekly ritual and it wasn’t surprising when Avis decided to further that passion later through her bachelor’s degree in Psychology and master’s in Counselling. Gillian, however, while fulfilling her parents’ wishes of graduating in accounting and finance, continued her volunteer work in Malaysia as well as overseas during her free time. She’s currently finishing her master’s in Counselling that would help strengthen her footing in her area of work.
Sitting in a darkened corner, both share a quiet joke. All smiles and bubbly is Avis, while Gillian exudes seriousness. Across from them are Amy (not real name) and Eric Sivanesh, two of the youths who have benefited from the organisation.
“Amy and Eric are currently the youth leaders in the organisation. They help lead the youths that come in for our programmes from different shelter homes. They understand the youths best because they were once like them and they’ve been to more than enough expeditions and camps to know what we do,” explains Gillian.
Starting Agape Vision for disadvantaged youths hasn’t been an easy journey. “We’ve to deal with so much emotion and most times, these youths have lost attachments and find it hard to connect with people,” says Gillian, before adding: “Many also have trust issues which makes it hard for them to trust adults.” This is why, as founders and volunteers, both Gillian and Avis face tough tasks in making the youths open up and speak about what’s in their hearts. However, when trust is established, the bond between volunteer and youth becomes rock solid and that in turn, empowers the youths to be the best that they can be.
Unofficially, the organisation began in 2010 with monthly camps, something that Gillian was familiar with, having done some volunteer work in Singapore. Agape Vision eventually became a registered organisation in 2014 with bigger aspirations. The youths who join the organisation are aged between 13 and 18 and are recommended from the selected homes or centres that serve that community.
The monthly camps eventually evolved into yearly programmes that see the youths participating in three core activity components. The first being fortnightly workshops aimed at developing leadership skills as well as to promote positive and creative thinking. Later, the youths embark on a week-long travel expedition, also known as Expedition Agape, to serve in less privileged communities.
The youths are in control from start to finish. “The volunteers are there just for support. We want the youths to grow through service learning. We’d always remind them that whatever they did during the four to five months of the expedition programme should be applied to their daily lives as well,” Gillian explains.
Meanwhile, Eric confides that the programme has not only pushed him out of his comfort zone, it has also been the best experience he has ever had. “You think your life is difficult? You think staying in an orphanage is bad? Let’s go see how people live in other places and you’ll know that they have it even worse,” he says, recalling the initial impact of his first expedition.
Amy concurs, sharing a similar sentiment, when she refers to it being “a lesson to stand on your own feet”. “There’s that satisfaction when others get to learn from me and it feels great to be acknowledged when I’ve done my best,” she says.
FIGHTING FOR UNSPOKEN RIGHTS
“I’ve always wanted to help sexually abused children and children from disadvantaged backgrounds since I was a child. I always felt that our country isn’t really prepared to handle people like them. There’s a large need in that area but nothing’s been done,” confides Gillian.
Avis adds: “What we try to do is to instil a sense of belonging to these children. We build a space where they can call home. A place that’s filled with love by frequently asking ourselves, how can we move on from here? Do we become helpless victims? Or do we become agents of change?”
At the moment, the organisation has about 10 volunteers who are happy to shoulder the heavy responsibility of guiding these youths. “Our volunteers are a wonderful bunch and they usually stick with us for two to three years,” shares Gillian, before adding: “Many NGOs have been bewildered because their volunteers usually come and go within a few months.”
To be able to hold to such commitments, the volunteers are usually briefed on the task ahead. To maintain a well-connected and close knit community, the volunteers are first vetted by the founders and vouched for by the people whom they can trust.
Eric describes them as “trustworthy people whom we can discuss everything without having to fear that it’ll be leaked out”.
“I see them as sisters and friends,” says Amy, poignantly. “They’re people whom I can share my stories with. I feel loved and appreciated as they always find time to listen and give me sound advice. If I were to put it all into a song, Josh Groban’s You Raise Me Up sums up their effort perfectly for Agape Vision has raised me up from the bottom where I used to be.”
With a combination of over 10 years in volunteer services between them, it’s a blessing that Gillian and Avis’ passion hasn’t died out. Rather, it has propelled them to further build a stronger and more sustainable programme to help disadvantaged youths to develop confidence and self-esteem.
As Avis concludes: “Everyone just wants a place to call home. You can either find it with the gangs or in a positive crowd like Agape Vision.”
Source: New Straits Times