Zawani Ali's volunteering journey started after she chanced upon an advertisement in late 2018.
Upon further research, she felt that the values of non-profit organisation New Life Stories (NLS), which helps children of incarcerated mothers, resonated strongly with her.
"I had never heard of any volunteering organisation that focuses directly on the children with incarcerated parents.
"This was the deciding factor for me to sign up as a learning friend," said Zawani, who has been volunteering with NLS for the past two years.
The 20-year-old opened up to Youth.SG about her experience reading to children with incarcerated parents and what keeps her going.
Engaging children beyond reading
Through the Early Reader programme, volunteers, who are called Learning Friends, spend an hour each week having reading sessions with the children, or Early Readers, aged between three to 10 years old, in their homes.
As a child psychology and early education student, Zawani believes that these reading sessions benefit the children greatly. She said: "Story-telling is a good method to engage the children interactively and build up their communication and language skills, without them feeling like it is a chore."
Zawani occasionally brings her Early Readers to the library where they get to pick their own books.
Depending on the child, Zawani tweaks these reading sessions to include other activities like playing outdoors and making crafts.
One such activity is hand-painting.
Zawani recounted the Early Readers taking charge of the experience: "The children voiced out that instead of throwing away the protective plastic sheet I'd pasted on the floor, why not use their feet to paint all over it?"
The children happily got their hands and feet dirty to paint the plastic sheet.
Once, during a show-and-tell session Zawani organised, the Early Readers requested for her to record them throughout the sharing session so they could rewatch it, which touched her deeply.
"Previously, they were shy to even talk to me about their week. Now, we are able to talk about how our week has been, and what we want to have and do in the future," shared Zawani.
"As time passes by, our relationship gets stronger. The Early Readers are also encouraged to be themselves, knowing that there is a safe space they can rely on every week."
An Early Reader with the artwork she created.
Learning on-the-go while volunteering
One major challenge Zawani faces as a volunteer is dealing with the guilt whenever she has to cancel reading sessions due to being sick or other personal reasons.
She explained that cancelling the one-hour session might also mean the children miss out on precious play-time like going to the playground, which they don't get to do every day.
"Cancelling does make me feel bad for them as I do know that they were looking forward to the session. Till today, I feel guilty when I hear them say 'I miss you Kakak (sister) Wani. I so long never see you'," admitted Zawani.
When physical reading sessions had to be moved online during the circuit breaker, Zawani found it difficult to keep her younger K1 and K2 readers engaged as they got distracted more easily.
Thankfully, things got better after she received suggestions by NLS on how to improve her online sessions.
Zawani added that the organisation also organised many volunteer sharing sessions and events for volunteers and Early Readers to meet each other before the outbreak, which helped to strengthen her relationships with them.
"I do not feel alone in this journey as the organisation would always check up on me and ask how I am handling the sessions," said Zawani, who is constantly looking for ways to improve her skills as a volunteer.
The volunteers took the Early Readers on a trip to River Safari in 2019.
Hoping to leave a positive impact
Despite these challenges, Zawani shared that the sense of fulfillment from seeing the Early Readers grow and progress every week keeps her going.
She has even come to regard the Early Readers as her own family: "They are not only the people I volunteer for but they are also my little sisters and brothers I treasure most. They have left an imprint in my heart.
"The mutual love we have for one another makes me want to be more positive as I see how they view me and my volunteer partners as their role models, and a constant support system they can rely on," said Zawani.
Zawani with her Early Readers.
Ultimately, Zawani hopes her time volunteering will be able to leave a lasting impact on the children in her community.
She encourages other youths to volunteer, even if they're afraid: "It might be daunting especially when you do not have someone by your side to do volunteering work with.
"However, coming out from that fear and doing it is something you would not regret."
Head here to find out more about volunteering opportunities at New Life Stories.
PHOTO CREDITS: ZAWANI ALI
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