Travel has given a whole new meaning for three families who volunteer, trading posh hotel stays and theme parks for mission trips in far-flung corners of the world.
A holiday for good
Dr Claudine Pang, 38, is a consultant ophthalmologist and medical director at Asia Retina Eye Surgery Centre, and Aaron Tan, 38, is lead data architect at Singapore Exchange. They have two kids, Nathanael, six, and Sophie, three.
As a young doctor, helping the less fortunate who have no access to medical care has always been on the forefront of Dr Claudine Pang’s mind. It was also one of the reasons she pursued a medical degree.
Armed with her medical skills and knowledge, the 38-year-old ophthalmologist has volunteered in rural areas in Sri Lanka, China and Cambodia, where she conducts eye health screenings, treats eye diseases and performs sight-saving cataract surgery.
Now a mum of two kids aged six and three, Dr Pang hopes that her passion for overseas mission volunteer work will rub off on her little ones. She recently started a private practice at Paragon Medical Suites and will be volunteering her time overseas more regularly.
“I’ve always returned home enriched by these experiences, and the acute awareness that there are much more important issues in life, apart from those we face at home. I hope to inculcate this habit of volunteering in my children from a young age so that they may appreciate the meaning behind it and grow up to do the same on their own accord,” says Dr Pang, medical director of Asia Retina Eye Surgery Centre.
For a start, she took her kids to Siem Reap, Cambodia, in March. They were among the eight families who participated in the Holiday for Hope programme, a pilot project between Operation Hope Foundation and social enterprise Crib Society that aims to help charities become sustainable by enabling them to raise their own long-term fundraising capabilities.
There, they distributed clothes and shoes to students from a local primary school and interacted with them. Donor families contribute funds that go towards building a well, toilets, electrical wiring which will help enable digital learning, as well as a playground for the school, which houses nearly 300 children between the ages of four and 12.
Dr Pang shares that she was motivated to personally deliver the clothes and shoes, which she gathered via a donation drive, to the village after learning that the local children usually go barefoot and that donations sent by sea or air freight may be hijacked by corrupt officials.
“I got my kids involved in packing their own used clothes and shoes for the children. They were surprisingly very enthusiastic to donate their stuff and happy that they could contribute to the less fortunate,” she says.
Nathanael and Sophie took well to their new environment, although their grandparents and some friends initially expressed concerns about safety issues such as food-borne diseases, insect bites and political unrest.
“They were enthusiastic to see all the new sights. It was a real eye-opener for them because it looks nothing like what we are used to at home,” Dr Pang shares.
Besides seeing first-hand what a village house looked like, complete with farm animals, the children also tried food from street stalls, such as traditional sticky date rice and coconut juice straight from the husk, and hiked through the steep temple ruins at the Beng Malea temple, among other activities.
The most unforgettable part of the trip for her older child, Nathanael, was befriending one of the students, even though they do not speak the same language. “Just before he left, the girl said bye to him. He told me he liked her very much,” she says.
Dr Pang plans to have her kids travel with her for an upcoming medical mission to another village in Siem Reap in Cambodia at the end of the year, where she will perform cataract surgery and provide general eye screening for about 150 school children.
“I am thinking of bringing them so that they will be able to interact with the local school children there and help give out a pair of sunglasses for every child, which we managed to obtain through sponsorship from Essilor Vision Foundation,” she says.
The best bit about such trips for her is spending time with the family while doing something meaningful for someone else. She plans to organise more of such meaningful journeys for families in the future.
Despite his tender age, her son has already learnt invaluable life lessons from his recent trip.
“After the trip to Cambodia, my son told me: ‘Mummy, I don’t need so many toys anymore because the children there have no toys but they are still happy’,” Dr Pang shares.
Building friendships around the world
While some of their classmates spend their school holidays at padded indoor playgrounds, or check into luxury resorts, Sim Kye Yue, 11, and her younger brother Mu Yu, nine, have hang out with their friends living in less developed parts of the world, jumping across drains and shooting cans with a catapult.
Over the past three years, the siblings have gone on numerous mission trips to rural parts of Thailand, Cambodia and Batam with their parents, Elijah Sim and Grace Loh.
In Phnom Penh, Cambodia for example, they visited a Christian non-government organisation working with families in an urban slum area. In Sangkhlaburi, Thailand, they crossed over the border to visit a village and primary school where the Internally Displaced People stayed.
Internally Displaced People are among the world’s most vulnerable people, and unlike refugees, they have not crossed an international border to find sanctuary but have remained inside their home countries, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.
Along the way, they’ve forged new friendships. “When we visited the schools, the kids had more time to interact with the students. At all of those places, the kids had little to no common language beyond phrases like ‘Hello, what is your name?’. Yet, surprisingly, given time together, they could find something to do and play together,” shares Grace, a stay-at-home mum.
As a couple, Grace, 44, and Elijah, 49, lived and worked in Phnom Penh for four years as social workers with the Operation Mobilisation-Mercy Teams International. When the kids came along, introducing them to a wider perspective of the world and life came naturally.
“To experience the world, we need to go beyond the overseas holidays in hotels and tourist spots, and instead, interact with local families. We wanted our kids to know more about other places where people live very differently but are still like us in many ways,” Grace says.
Her advice for families who wish to participate in such trips is to “get used to some dirt” in Singapore. “Parents should make sure they are comfortable with such trips. Our kids watch us and if as parents, we show unease, they’ll pick that up and feel uneasy, too,” she explains.
To mentally prepare the kids, Grace showed them photos and explained that these places had very different standards of cleanliness from that in Singapore.
For the trips, she packed common children’s medication, probiotics and first aid supplies, all of which can be difficult to obtain in areas far from the city, as well as clothes they were “happy to get dirty in”.
“My daughter used to bring along her blanket from her baby days. It helped her to fall asleep more easily,” Grace shares.
Having seen how easily kids adapt quickly to new environments, Elijah, a family therapist, says that children are often more resilient than most people think.
“The kids made local friends easily, got themselves dirty and adjusted to the living environment and climate. They found every opportunity to have fun, even while travelling on bumpy dirt roads,” he adds.
Apart from the fun, Elijah shares that the trips presented many precious lessons and teachable moments.
“Our kids see first-hand how simply other people live,” Grace says. “My daughter tells me that sometimes when she thinks about the things other kids in Singapore have, which she lacks, she reminds herself of the lives of the children in the village. They have much less than her…and while they hardly have any toys and yet find ways to play and have fun.”
Grace and Elijah hope to do more overseas mission trips as a family. “Every stage of our family and children’s development is different, and we perceive and experience the world and our environments differently.
“Hopefully as the children grow, these trips are less of an ‘exposure’ trip but more of a ‘service’ trip where they can do more to be helpful,” Grace says.
Related: How to volunteer with my child