He told me to come hungry, no need to bring anything. But I could not resist contributing my part. Going to someone’s place for dinner empty handed made me uncomfortable, paiseh was the word I was looking for.
My wife bought two roasted chicken from NTUC and we lugged two big bags of books and left home for his place, which was incidentally called The Last Resort.
Yes, the host for the night was a couple named Kenneth Thong and Adeline Thong. You may have seen them in the papers. They were recently nominated for the Singaporean of the Year award - amongst the other humanitarians who have made a lasting difference in society.
When we came into their rented four-storey high terrace house with three of our kids, we were first greeted by a family dog. This was followed by a handful of young adults standing by the sliding glass door, with one I think as young as sixteen.
You must know that The Last Resort is a temporary haven for them and I once told Kenneth during my first visit that the last resort could very well be the "lost" resort when they come knocking at the door not only for a place to stay but for a place to find their bearings in life.
I understand that they came from everywhere in Singapore because they had no place to go. Each of them has a story to tell. There was an unwed young mother struggling to care for her baby, another whose father had passed away when he was only four and his mother was sent back to her home country, a youth who was chased out of her home by her own mother, and a NS boy whose background I did not have the opportunity to ask that evening.
Nevertheless, I decided to write this post because of what Adeline told me when we were having dinner. She said that we must change the way we look at the idea/concept of family in Singapore because not all of the children are born into an unbroken family or into a family still intact.
While the fortunate ones are born into a close-knit family, I realised that there are many out there who struggle daily to understand why their parents had left them at a young age or why their father beat them up frequently or why they were considered an eyesore or a burden to their parents.
And if there were a common yearning I felt after talking to some of them that night, it was not so much a lack of a roof over their head, but a lack of love in their lives that they long after.
For you have heard of the saying that a home is where the heart is, and undeniably, it is a heart of love that makes it so. And by extension, no matter how big the house, how lavished and expensive, where love is absent, the house becomes no different from a large human container with a lot of empty spaces and various holes at the side that are called doors and windows.
Admittedly, I have to say that the visit to The Last Resort had opened my eyes to the reality of what a family means to different people.
The standard script is simple enough. We have a father who is normally the sole breadwinner and a mother who plays the nurturing role. Nowadays, it is about a dual-income family.
But what do you say to a child who is raised by a single parent who can hardly make ends meet and is struggling for society’s understanding? Or a child whose father is in jail and mother is in rehab? What does the standard script mean to that child then?
How about a teenager who lives with a non-existent parent or an abusive one where the only way to keep one’s sanity is to escape from it all?
And what do we say to an orphan? How about a child whose parents can’t stand the sight of? Or a teenager whose parents have abandoned for reasons he or she will never come to know? What is a family to them then?
More importantly, who will fill in the gap for them? Who would be their family? Who would be a father to the fatherless and mother to the motherless?
This is where people like Kenneth and Adeline come into the picture. There are of course many loving families out there who have adopted kids, donated to the cause and organisations which have been set up to give the lost and homeless a home and hope. Altogether, they have answered the call to stand in the gap.
And that evening, while speaking to Kenneth, he admitted to me that this gap is not perfect. By this, he meant that there were cases that went beyond them, that is, cases that their limited resources could not help.
But that has never stopped Kenneth and Adeline from doing what they have been doing for the past ten years. He said that even when times are trying, they continue to show love, to be a friend, and if they are ready, to be a father- or mother-figure to them in the earnest hope that what was denied to them in the family they were born into, they could find a community of love, healing and trust in The Last Resort.
Alas, that was my take home that night and I recall those were the exact sentiments Adeline had. From my talk with her, I gathered that where a family sadly falls short, it is a community that bridges the gap. This community plays multiple roles and functions as a brother, a sister, a parent, a friend, a mentor and a teacher.
What therefore stands in the gap when biological ties fail are communal bonds where love in substance heals the hurts that betrayal left behind and hope in endurance fills the hearts with strength and confidence to face yet another day. Ultimately, the hope is that they can return to their family when they are ready, or set up their own family when they are able to stand on their own two feet.
So, kudos to people like the Thongs who never gave up when society is either too busy to care or too distracted to offer the attention and nurturance that these children need. At this juncture, I am reminded that we are not called to save everyone, just one soul at a time. And at times, a soul may take a lifetime. Cheerz.