by Ting Claravall
Aidha is fortunate to enjoy strong support in the expat community for our work with low-income women. Many in this community are happy to send their foreign domestic helpers on their Sunday day off to benefit from Aidha’s programmes. .. . Or even to become volunteers themselves.
But there are some who believe so deeply in the Aidha mission that they end up doing both.
Such is the case with Australian employer Sarah Druce and Norma Casinova, her domestic helper of five years. We sat down with this employer-employee team to learn more about what powers their commitment to Aidha – and to each other.
An opportunity to help
“I was struck by the sacrifice that foreign domestic workers make,” shared Sarah when asked what inspired her to become involved.
“Norma told me she made the brave decision to leave her family when her children were very young to come work in Singapore,” Sarah continued. “As a recent young mother myself, I found that to be heart-breaking – choosing to leave your family in order to offer them a better education and life.”
Sarah confessed she still struggles to comprehend that level of sacrifice. “And yet we see it again and again with our students,” she said. “I thought if these women had sacrificed years away from their families to give them a better chance in life, then I would love to help them.”
The immediate beneficiary of her compassion and generosity was her helper, Norma, who enrolled with Aidha shortly after Sarah started volunteering.
Negotiating a ‘win-win’ deal
Sarah recognised the impact Aidha could have on students and thought it would help Norma too. “I wanted her to make the most of this opportunity before it was time for her to go home for good. So I suggested she enrol with Aidha.”
“I was reluctant at first,” Norma confessed. “I already didn’t have any savings and so didn’t want to ‘waste’ money.”
But Sarah offered her what Norma refers to as a unique ‘win-win arrangement’ to get her motivated. “She said they would pay for half of my tuition fee with the promise that if I finished the course successfully, they would reimburse me my half.”
Sarah explained the strategy. “We did this so that she had some ‘skin in the game’.”
Norma was excited by the challenge. And at the end of her Module 1 course, she didn’t just get her refund, she was also given a laptop to help her write her business plan in her next module..
A life improved. A relationship transformed.
Norma says she had poor communication skills before she joined Aidha. “I had a tendency to just speak my mind without thinking about how it affected others,” she said. “I had no vision for the future except to send my kids to school. That’s why I couldn’t save: all my money was going to their education. Also, I was spending on unnecessary things.”
At Aidha, Norma said she was forced to deal with these weaknesses in class where she also learned about tapping her strengths. “As days went by,” said Norma. “I realized that it’s time for me to seriously think of my future.”
“She is certainly more motivated now that she knows her end-game,” explained Sarah, who mentioned that Norma plans to leave Singapore when the Druce family departs for good. “It makes us happy to know that she’ll be returning home. She is motivated to work harder and make the most of her finite time in Singapore.”
Norma has already started laying the foundation for her ‘retirement’ back in the Philippines. “I bought my first piglets in 2012. And after about a year, I sold them and started making a profit,” Norma proudly shared. She has since expanded her business investments and now also grows dragon fruit and purchased a rice farm which are all being managed by family members. “When I go home I will still have an income. So I’m only ‘retiring’ as a domestic helper. But I will keep working –as owner of my own businesses!”
All this business acumen was the result of her Aidha education, one that has also given her confidence. “I’m now more comfortable with raising my hand to share my ideas or suggestions to my classmates, mentors and to my co-trainees.”
Sarah couldn’t agree more. “I find Norma is more active and assertive in her work. She is a stronger communicator which means that we have a more open and trusting relationship. She is more likely to suggest when she has a better idea of how to do something – and is usually right! And there is a higher degree of mutual respect.”
From employer-employee to co-volunteers
Both Sarah and Norma volunteer their Sundays at Aidha. Sarah is a mentor as well as a project-based volunteer for Aidha’s many events, such as the recently concluded ADP Big Pitch and Tour de Singapore – Aidha’s signature fundraising programme. Meanwhile, Norma is a trainee who helps out with administrative as well as operational tasks on campus.
“At first, I was uncomfortable when I found out Ma’am Sarah and I were both going to be volunteers,” confessed Norma. “I felt self-conscious and afraid of the day we both will be assigned to the same event together.”
But Sarah firmly reassured her they weren’t going to have the employer-employee dynamic between them on the Aidha campus because “‘… it’s Sunday… your day off…’” Norma claims her employer even asked her to just call her ‘Sarah’. “But I still say ‘ma’am’ out of respect,” she said sheepishly. Still, she bravely agreed to help out as the featured student speaker at a recent Volunteer Orientation organised by Sarah. “I felt proud that we were both involved,” said Norma about working as co-volunteers with her employer.
Both Sarah and Norma feel the same fulfillment from their volunteer work.
“I love mentoring our students,” Sarah shared. She has taught computer workshops where students learn to use Microsoft Office, email and Skype to help them cut down on their phone bills (the largest expense among migrants). She has mentored a Leadership Club –a management and business communications class; as well as a Compass Club –Aidha’s foundational financial literacy programme that teaches students to, among other things, save, plan a budget and handle constant requests from family members’ to remit money home.
“Watching my students go from having no self confidence and feeling as if their voice isn’t being heard to honing their public speaking and negotiation skills is an awesome way to spend a few hours on a Sunday!” Sarah enthused.
Meanwhile Norma has maximised the many personal development opportunities available at Aidha. “As a member of the trainee pool, I’ve learned and get to practice my computer skills, such as how to use Excel. I regularly apply it in my business.” She has also taken part in numerous events and initiatives, such as being a research volunteer. And more recently, as the spokesperson for Aidha when it was the topic of a recent Channel News Asia TV feature.
The gains of giving
Ultimately, it’s the people that they get to work with that keep Sarah and Norma committed to Aidha. “The volunteers I’ve met so far are professional, interesting, highly skilled and passionate about the cause of financial education for low-income workers,” said Sarah. Norma expressed the same sentiments, and added that, “Working with our dedicated volunteers and mentors is inspiring because I see their sincerity in wanting to help us make our life more meaningful and productive.”
In other words, both Sarah and Norma have benefitted much from their involvement with Aidha. “Mentors like myself also have the opportunity to develop our group facilitation skills and other skills that are applicable in the professional world.” Meanwhile, Norma shared that, “From being a student to a volunteer trainee, I’ve picked up many useful skills that I can apply to my business.”
As with any worthy goal, hard work is needed to succeed. “Sometimes, a challenge makes you more determined to reach your dreams,” Norma wisely shared. “Aidha challenged me to not give up on myself. There were tough times, such as the first time I had to say no to my family. But in the end, the short term difficulties were worth the long-term results I got.”
And because of their shared belief in continuous growth and learning, Sarah and Norma are only too happy to keep supporting the charity that has benefitted them both and countless others –employers and domestic helpers alike.