Saturday 22 September 2012

Prison Volunteers Awards Ceremony 2012: 161 honoured for 'big-hearted' efforts to help youth offenders

By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 21 Sep 2012

MARKER in hand, Mr Jay Seilan, 59, makes a small black dot on a white board at Changi Prison.

"That is what you have done. You can see this black dot very clearly, even though it's just one small dot... your parents, the public easily notice it," he told the room of 15 teenage inmates. The teenagers, a month from release, might understandably have been worried about whether society would give them a second chance.

But with a flourish, he wipes the dot away and tells them simply: "Leave it in the past. You have paid your debt and it's time to move on."

The dot analogy is just one of the many tools Mr Seilan, a pioneering member of the Community Reintegration Programme, has used over the past five years to help nearly 900 youth offenders ease their way back into society.

Yesterday, Mr Seilan, an engineer, was one of 161 volunteers presented with five- and 10-year awards honouring their contributions at the inaugural Prison Volunteers Awards ceremony at The Grassroots Club in Yio Chu Kang.

In his speech, Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs Masagos Zulkifli described their efforts as "big-hearted".

"The long hours spent counselling the offenders and ex-offenders have strengthened the motivation and impetus to turn over a new leaf," he said.

"Indeed, their contribution explains a good part of why our recidivism rate is among the lowest in the world," said Mr Masagos, who revealed that there are 1,200 volunteers aged between 21 and 88 working with the Home Team.

They include Ms Ashley He, 30, and Ms Elaine Tan, 60, both members of the Toastmaster Club of Singapore who devote Saturday mornings to teaching inmates both young and old the art of conversation and speechcraft.

"We give them one week to get ready for a prepared speech while in some classes, we get them to give impromptu speeches on challenging topics, and then evaluate their performance," said Ms Tan, chief financial officer of a listed company. Other sessions include role-play of a job interview, she said.

While the inmates are generally shy at the start of the eight-session Speechcraft Workshop, Ms Tan said that they never fail to open up. One memorable occasion was when a middle-aged inmate who had been reticent for many sessions delivered a 10-minute speech in Hokkien.

"Counselling tends to be one-way; here, they are given the opportunity to speak in front of so many people, to be heard, and you can see them slowly gain the confidence to speak and be able to share with you."

Ms He, an accountant, said seeing inmates overcome mental and emotional barriers time and again has kept her volunteering these five years. "It's a living reminder to me that where there is a will, there is a way, and that really puts my own problems into perspective."

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