Monday, 26 November 2012

'Mother goose' gets kids to pick up litter

Twice a week, artist and neighbourhood children go on rounds to clean up Woodlands
By Melody Zaccheus, The Straits Times, 25 Nov 2012

Growing up in Trinidad, Ms Gail Pantin would fling mangosteen husks and used cups out the window of her family car or home.

But now, the 52-year-old Singapore permanent resident spends her Wednesday and Friday evenings picking up litter with the children living in her Woodlands Drive HDB estate.

Ms Pantin, who was born on the Caribbean island, said the habitual littering of her childhood did not last long.

"My mother chided us and said we were crazy to think we had a right to do that," said the artist.

"She asked us what we would do if we were to live in another country. Her logic made sense to us and we stopped littering."

Ms Pantin moved to Singapore in 1997 and taught art at Nanyang Polytechnic.

While littering did not on the surface appear to be a widespread problem, she realised that the city's clean streets were actually the work of an entire army of cleaners who picked up after innumerable recalcitrant litterbugs.

It spurred her to start picking up litter on her own in 2010, after complaints were lodged with the town council in her estate against its cleaners, for not doing a thorough job.

Surprisingly, said the artist, it was children aged between three and 11 from her neighbourhood - not adults - who would show up and ask if they could join in as she went about her rounds.

For two years, Ms Pantin and a group of 20 or so children have spent two evenings a week, armed with tongs, picking up litter around the HDB blocks and at the nearby park and basketball court.

On some occasions, especially during the school holidays, as many as 100 children will wait for her at the foot of her block to set out for each 20-minute session.

"All the children in the estate love her. She's chatty and can relate well to them. She's a mother goose of sorts," said Ms Wendy Ong, 37, whose two daughters, aged four and six, like to take part in these outings.

Ms Pantin said it is not difficult to fill a garbage bag on their regular route with litter such as tissue paper, candy wrappers, plastic bottles and food packaging. If she spots people littering, she says she makes it a point to correct them politely.

"I do this in front of the younger children to let them know it's okay to tell someone to pick up after themselves," she said.

If the litterbugs are not amenable to her suggestion, she will pick it up herself. She said people most often say "not my one" to avoid picking up their litter. "So I ask them, is this not your park? Is this not your Singapore? You can be an expatriate, a citizen, a foreign worker, why not take the initiative?"

Some onlookers and parents have asked Ms Pantin why she got the children involved in such "janitorial tasks". Her response - it is no shame to keep your country clean.

Ms Ong, a nurse, said parents may give their children the wrong idea. "We tell them not to play with dirty things, so it might give them the idea that they shouldn't be involved in picking up litter. But if it's done with tongs and if the children wash their hands after that, I really don't see a problem."

Because of the efforts made by Ms Pantin and the children, she added, the estate is now much cleaner and more liveable.

Ms Pantin hopes to spark a passion among the children by being a community role model. "I want to let them know that it's okay to do something from the heart without the need for a goodie bag or a medal," she said.

Littering is becoming more rampant. From January to September this year, the National Environment Agency received 5,700 reports of high-rise littering. For the whole of last year, it received 5,232 such reports, and 4,449 in 2010.

Public Hygiene Council chairman Liak Teng Lit said Ms Pantin should be commended for her efforts to make a positive difference.

"If we are to achieve a truly clean - as opposed to cleaned - Singapore, we will need many more people like her," he said.

Mr Liak, who also heads the Keep Singapore Clean Movement, added that he is keen to work with Ms Pantin to see how they can "expand and spread her good work".

Ms Pantin said she is looking forward to this. She has been publicising the efforts of her young green crusaders on her Facebook page "Just Pick It Up".

Now teaching art modules part-time at Nanyang and Republic polytechnics, she also spends time with the children doing art and craft projects such as designing green posters and decorating bins after each clean-up session.

She said: "I'm proud of the little ones who don't care what others think. They can see for themselves that they are doing good and that it's not degrading to pick up trash."

When velvet glove's more effective than an iron fist

Mr Liak Teng Lit, the new chief of the Keep Singapore Clean Movement, wants tougher punishments for serial litterbugs by, among other measures, shaming them publicly ("S'pore a clean city? Don't joke"; Nov 4).

He has articulated cogent reasons to promote an iron-fisted approach, which he thinks will transform cleanliness into a way of life here.

While his call for punitive action has some merit and will deter potential offenders, it may not be the most effective way to encourage people to be more environment-friendly. What is needed is educating the public to have a sense of personal responsibility.

There is another, proactive way to involve more people, and that is to initiate neighbourhood clean-up groups.

The volunteer work of expatriate Gail Pattin at the Mandai Tekong Park in Woodlands comes to my mind.

Although the regular cleaner there clears the rubbish every morning, by evening, the area is littered with plastic bags, drink cans and all manner of rubbish.

Ms Pattin visits the park several evenings a week armed with litter-skewers, broom and rake. There, she enlists the help of a dedicated group of little boys and girls, who play in the vicinity, to clear the rubbish.

To motivate these children and make their job pleasurable, she teaches them various forms of arts and crafts by supplying materials. Her motherly warmth obviously helps too.

She also operates a Facebook page entitled Just Pick It Up, where she displays pictures of these children enjoying themselves while going about their acts of kindness.

V. Subramaniam (Dr)
ST Forum, 25 Nov 2012

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