Three law and management students from Temasek Polytechnic are perched on a sofa in a two-room flat near Redhill MRT station.
Speaking tentatively, the teenagers take turns asking "Jane", a 42-year-old single mother of three, a series of questions about her money woes and family problems. They listen, take time to clarify the finer details, and then type her responses into a laptop.
Their job is to summarise all this information in an advocacy report, which will be sent to agencies to support Jane's application for financial aid.
This is part of an initiative by Beyond Social Services, a charity that helps children and youth from less privileged backgrounds escape the poverty cycle.
Since August, Beyond Social Services has held workshops for about 20 Temasek Polytechnic students who are doing the Diploma in Law and Management.
Beyond Social Services' executive director Gerard Ee told The Straits Times: "We think this is an opportunity to rally the community towards some common good. The students are putting their training to good use, and the families have the chance to share stories and build friendships with people they don't feel threatened by."
So far, students have drafted reports for applications for citizenship and financial assistance.
They will also write advocacy reports for young offenders using principles of restorative justice. This is when offenders and victims meet to decide how to repair the harm caused by a crime.
The families whom Beyond Social Services writes advocacy reports for have longstanding issues related to finances, family conflicts, immigration status of foreign mothers and housing. Previously, the charity had worked on advocacy reports only on a needs basis. In a push to get more trained volunteers, it decided to partner institutions such as Temasek Polytechnic so that the stories of more people in need can be told.
At the moment, the staff and volunteers at Beyond Social Services clock about 45,000 man hours every year, Mr Ee said. He hopes that in three years, this figure will more than double to 100,000. Mr Ee added: "We are driving things towards a volunteer-driven organisation. It is a lot more sustainable, from a financial point of view," he said, adding that this would also bring people from more diverse backgrounds together.
The group has a staff of 50. About half are community workers.
Vishnupriya Raja Mohan, 17, was part of the team of four Temasek Polytechnic students who drafted a report to help Jane's family apply for financial assistance.
The single mother had quit her job as a cashier to look after her 18-month-old son, who suffers from laryngomalacia, a condition that can partially block the airway. At the moment, Jane, whose eldest son is 25 years old, relies on a Good Samaritan next door who pays for her food and me-dical expenses.
She said: "When I make applications (for financial aid), I have to wait for two to three months. What do I do when I am waiting? Without my neighbour, we would be mainly surviving on bread and instant noodles."
Vishnupriya said the experience of drafting a report for Jane, based on her meetings with the woman over a three-month period, taught her to be a more sensitive interviewer.
It was an eye-opening experience. "It is too real," said Vishnupriya, confessing that she had never been inside a two-room Housing Board flat before.
The project has affirmed her aspiration to be a lawyer one day.
Vishnupriya said: "Some people don't have a voice. I think I can be their voice."
•Those interested in helping to write advocacy reports can visit http://beyond.org.sg/volunteer/ or call 6375-2940Polystudentsgivevoicethoseseeking
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