My involvement with the social service sector started many, many years ago when I was doing my PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. My first area was, and still is, HIV/AIDS.

I’ve been volunteering at the Communicable Disease Centre at Tan Tock Seng Hospital since 2001. Every Saturday, I lead a group of volunteers to visit HIV/AIDS patients in the wards, and offer services like massages, haircuts and manicures and pedicures.

In recent years, we have extended the same services to patients in the geriatric wards – mostly grandmas and grandpas who suffer from dementia and mobility issues. 

Today, I serve as the Director of the Chua Thian Poh Community Leadership Centre (CTPCLC)* at the National University of Singapore (NUS). I play a supervisory role and work very closely with our students.

Every year, the new batch of students tell me what their interests are in terms of community engagement. For instance, some might be interested in mental health issues, while others might be keen to learn more about older persons.

From there, we connect them with partner organisations that share their areas of interests. Our students then become field researchers for these organisations, and they in turn benefit because they get to immerse themselves in field work and experiential learning.

In recent years, we have a good number of students who are interested in the reintegration of ex-offenders – so we match them with ISCOS. Let me share with you three research projects that our students have done for them.

One research project looked at the aspirations of the wives of ex-offenders. Our undergraduates interviewed these spouses, and from what I remember, most of them had dreams and aspirations for their children, but not so much for themselves.

In another study, our students looked at child development issues. They studied how kids of ex-offenders perceive their parents – inevitably, the stigma attached to their parents will also affect them as some kids feel stigmatised in school as well.

More recently, we did a study on the ex-offenders themselves. From interviewing them, we learn that those who regularly attend ISCOS support group sessions feel a sense of belonging in an environment where they can emotionally be there for one another.

They are also persuaded to join other pro-social networks outside of ISCOS as this helps with the reintegration process. For example, they are encouraged to join sports groups, and they get comfortable interacting with those beyond the ex-offenders’ community. 

After each project is completed, the students would share their research findings with ISCOS. On two occasion, the students were given the opportunity to present their work at the annual CARE Network Workplan Seminar, where different agencies from the aftercare sector come together to learn from one another.

I think the work that we do here is very important because we get to help address the stigma that a marginalised group faces. By doing ground sensing and listening to the voices of the community, we also learn just how complex and multi-dimensional their problems are.

With ex-offenders, for example, our students understand – more than they did before – that reintegration concerns do not just affect the individual. They also involve the person’s family, social network, workplace and the community at large.

Such insights are important so that organisations with an intent to help do not waste resources crafting solutions based on their own assumptions of what the community needs. It is really important to identify and prioritise what the community’s actual needs are.

And in an ideal world where we can really make a difference, I want our students to discover and harness the community’s resources so that marginalised groups will be self-motivated to realise their own dreams and aspirations.

I understand that researchers are only facilitators, but I really hope our students can be catalysts for social change.” –  Albert, 57 

Professor Albert Teo is a director at NUS’ CTPCLC, a working partner of ISCOS. 

 *The Chua Thian Poh Community Leadership Programme was launched in November 2011 to facilitate community engagement among NUS students. The programme was later scaled up to a centre in November 2016. 

Humans of ISCOS is a collaboration between The Everyday People and ISCOS, a co-operative that helps ex-offenders in Singapore. Read more here.