Helping children with nowhere to go, Leaena Tambyah (born 1937 - )


Leaena Tambyah

The spirit of giving is not new to Leaena Tambyah. She grew up in a family active in community service. Her mother tended to the sores and injuries of night soil carriers who cleaned toilets and her father was an Anglican clergyman who helped set up St. John's Home for Elderly Persons. 

For Leaena, volunteerism and compassion begin with "believing in people other than yourself". Her journey as one of Singapore's special volunteers has been exceptional. She completed her training to be a social worker at the University of Birmingham, England, then worked at the then Ministry of Social Affairs. She stopped working when she had children, to take care of them. She was then invited to help in a family service centre run by the Asian Women's Welfare Association (AWWA). For almost 40 years, Leaena has been actively involved in AWWA, at Board level, and as AWWA’s representative to the public, funders and government. 

In 1979, Leaena led a group of compassionate volunteers to initiate a playgroup for children with multiple disabilities. They were not in school because no school would enrol them. 

Leaena recalls: "I remembered this mother at a special school who had this very severely disabled child who couldn't communicate with her. She had a fantastic spirit. She would talk to him and joke with him. Her son had nowhere to go after he was discharged from that school. When 1979 was declared the International Year of the Child, I thought of her, her son and others like them. I approached the medical social workers at the paediatric unit at the Singapore General Hospital who were very helpful. They had long waiting lists which they allowed me to go through. I picked about twenty names and together with AWWA members we visited the homes of these children and found that about twelve of them would be suitable for a service that we could cope with." 

This was the beginning of the Handicapped Children's Playgroup, which started out in the Church of St. Ignatius with seven children. It has since grown into AWWA School with more than 200 children benefitting. Some of them have gone on to university. In 1986, the Handicapped Children Playgroup was awarded the United Nations Community Excellence Award.

She also introduced a mobile therapy service for students with physical disabilities in mainstream education whose parents could not afford the money or the time to take their children to hospitals for therapy. This is one of the features of AWWA's Therapy and Education for Children in Mainstream Education (TEACH ME). This has benefitted many children and young people including Paralympians. TEACH ME received the Innovative Programme Award from the Family Resource and Training Centre in 1994.

When she worked at the Ministry of Social Affairs, Leaena mentored others in the profession, some of whom are now leaders in social work. One of them, Ang Bee Lian, Chief Executive Officer, National Council of Social Service (NCSS), said: “Mrs Tambyah had a pioneering spirit that was infectious. In her inimitable way, she would keep nudging those who are around her to speak for those who were vulnerable.”

Leaena feels the most fulfilling part of her work is seeing children progress. She also sees the importance of helping their parents. She feels blessed to see the dedication and compassion of other like-minded people whose paths she has crossed on her journey as a volunteer. Among them are professionals as well as home makers who have volunteered their time enthusiastically. She attributes the growth of AWWA’s services to children with special needs to them. 

Leaena has met with several challenges while serving children with special needs. She recalls TEACH ME being asked to pay over $20,000 COE for a vehicle which was part of the mobile therapy service to help disabled children to receive therapy. She brought the matter up to the authorities, eventually helping to establish the exemption from COE payment for VWO vehicles. She believes that Singapore could do a lot more to help the disabled and has lobbied for children with special needs to be included in compulsory education, maintaining that every Singaporean child is entitled to equal educational opportunities. 

Leaena was was named Her World Woman of the Year 1994 for having made an outstanding contribution to the country. Leaena said: “I feel the woman of the year is the mother of the child with multiple disabilities, the poor woman who has been betrayed time and time again by her drug addict husband, the woman who is battered and trampled upon by her husband who thinks it’s his right to do this. These women have a certain inner strength and a resilience that one can only stand in awe and wonder at.” 

In 1984, Leaena was awarded the Public Service Medal (PBM) and ten years later, the Public Service Star (BBM). She received a special volunteer award by the Community Chest of Singapore in 1991. In 2011, Leaena was given the Special Recognition Award at the National Volunteerism & Philanthropy Awards for her pioneering spirit that she has kept burning through the decades and for leading others to serve children with special needs in Singapore.

On nurturing a spirit of giving, Leaena said: “Emulate other people who are helping those in need. Money is not the only thing in life. We do need money; we do need our three main meals for the day but we need to know that some people manage with two or even less. Other people are living on something like $300 per head per month. Stop and look at the person next to you. They might need a little bit of help one way or another. Not all of us have got millions of dollars to give away but we have time and if we manage our time well, we can do something for somebody else in need”.

By Yeoh Lai Lin