Note: This is the first of a two-part series on volunteers at All Saints Home. Read part two here.
An old lady in a wheelchair looks up at me. She smiles and says something in Teochew to the volunteer beside her. They both share a laugh.
“What did she say?”, I ask the volunteer.
“She says her painting isn’t very nice, and she’s afraid you’ll laugh at her.”
“No lah, it’s very nice!”
I turn to the old lady, trying to recall its Mandarin equivalent.
“很漂亮!”, I manage.
She looks up at me again with a sweet smile, then continues painting with the brush in her left hand. Her hand trembles slightly and her lips press firmly together with a glint of determination in her eyes. I look around the room and notice similar expressions on the faces of the elderly residents seated around several tables. Newspapers spread atop each table beneath red and white paper; palettes and clear containers lay about, reminiscent of an art class in Kindergarten.
They're painting lanterns, I’m told, as part of the Chinese New Year celebrations.
“We did the same thing last week, at Tampines, when President Halimah visited”, Sherry tells me. Sherry is the organiser here, the one who manages the volunteers.
She’s referring to the All Saints Home in Tampines. Started in 1986 by Bethel Presbyterian Church, All Saints Home is an elderly nursing home that began at the very place we were at, Poh Huat Road in Hougang. They eventually built three more homes around the island, in Tampines, Jurong East, and Yishun.
As for Sherry, she started volunteering some nine years ago, initially with just a couple of people. A member of Bethel Presbyterian Church, she approached the home and started out by having weekly sessions, singing a mix of Christian songs and old Mandarin, Malay songs that the elderly residents could relate to.
It was tough initially, with little help and organisation. So why did she do it?
“I saw all these old people and felt that they were in need of someone to come and befriend them because they were all so lonely in the home,” she recalls.
“We were very few, so we didn’t have a name nine years ago. But God sent people.”
I look around the room and count seven volunteers helping thirteen elderly residents with their artwork. Some residents are unable to complete the task that followed the painting: pasting little paper flowers on the painted branches of their lanterns. A volunteer approaches me.
“Can you help Aunty paste the flowers? Because their hands are a bit shaky, so we will help them with that.”
She’s referring to the same old lady with the sweet smile, and I readily sit on the chair next to her. A stack of paper flower petals, cut out from old red packets, are laid before me on the table. Aunty now uses her paintbrush to paint glue on the places she wants to place the petals and points them out to me. I follow, laying and pressing them firmly on the lantern, hoping the glue will stick. I, however, have autonomy on the colours that I paste. I try to alternate between colours, making sure I get a good mix of red, gold, and occasionally, rare blue petals, in. We finish one side of the lantern and Aunty smiles, once again.
“Thank you, teacher!”, she says in Mandarin. I chuckle at her remark. Around the room, the volunteers likewise share smiles and laughter with the residents they are attending to. For a while, you forget the gloominess commonly associated with old folks homes.
This merry band of volunteers calls themselves ABBS. “It stands for ‘All Saints Home’, ‘Bethel’, because many of us are associated with Bethel Presbyterian Church, and ‘BefrienderS’ because many who aren’t part of the church come and help, too.”, Sherry explains. “After getting more people, we officially had a name seven years ago.” ABBS now conducts activities at all four homes, several times a week. Today’s session was fully dedicated to painting.
”It’s like art therapy”, a volunteer remarks to me. “It helps with coordination between their eyes and hands, good for old folks. You know, it takes a lot of work and preparation to come up with ideas for the residents.”
So, who came up with this idea for painting?
“Foong Peng, she’s very good with art.”
She points to Foong Peng, who's helping with the final stage of lantern assembly. Armed with a hot glue gun, she glues two paper lanterns perpendicular to each other, transforming what were two flat paper lanterns into a three-dimensional one. There are holes at the tips of the lantern for strings to go through.
“Oh, so that’s how it’s supposed to be”, I remark.
“Yeah I’m supposed to glue it and hang it up, like the one on the window”, Foong Peng explains, still concentrating on glueing both pieces together.
“So how did you come up with this idea?”
“Oh, you know, Google and put things together. Every month we’d have to come up with a new idea for artwork, and we’ll do it in Tampines and Poh Huat. We’ll do different types of lanterns for Chinese New Year and Lantern Festival, and then for Christmas and National Day too..”
“Wait, did you say every month?”, I ask incredulously. “Not just Chinese New Year?”
“Yeah, every month, I know! It’s draining me!”, she jokes. “But I’ll have lots of help from the rest.”
“And how long have you been doing this?”
“Two years. I’ll just put this string through and stick it up.” She puts the finishing touches on her lantern and heads to another table.
I return to the table Aunty was at to help her with another round of petal pasting. She was getting good at administering glue on various parts of the lantern, faster than I could paste the flowers, even. Aunty finishes her brushing early this time, looking keenly at me struggling to keep up. We complete two more sides, and I decide to switch it up a bit for the final petal.
“Which colour do you want?”, I ask, offering her the choice between a red and gold one. She pauses for a moment, then points to the gold petal. I oblige. After glueing both lantern pieces together, I thread a string through the top hole for hanging, and a red ornamental ‘tail’ at the bottom usually found on Chinese lanterns. It looks really respectable now, I thought.
“Gam Xia.” Aunty thanks me in Hokkien and pats my arm. She seems pleased with it, too.
A Filipino nurse comes along. “Wow, this is very nice,” he marvels. “You have to sign your name ah, Aunty.” Aunty jovially nods as he takes out a pen to write her name on the lantern, reminding me of the age-old tradition of artists throughout history signing their work.
“So, do their lanterns get to be hung up somewhere after they’re done?”, I ask one of the staff.
“Yes, yes, at the main entrance. When we hang it up, their families can see it. They will also know that they did it and feel very proud and satisfied, and they will want to participate more in the future".
I can’t help but feel a sense of pride at my contribution to Aunty's lantern, too. As we depart, I wonder if I'd be able to recognise the lantern and my strategically-placed blue petals the next time I returned.