A year as a volunteer teacher in Timor-Leste was all it took for Singaporean Alvan Yap to make a significant change in the lives of the deaf community there.
Yap, who is deaf himself, taught deaf children and developed a curriculum – including a standardised sign language – to improve education and communication in the capital, Dili. He had gone to the country as an overseas volunteer with the Singapore International Foundation (SIF).
Since his 2010 attachment at Agape School for the Deaf, a ripple effect has taken place in the Timorese community. Families are more accepting of their children’s disability and more willing to allow them to attend the school. A few of Yap’s students have also become teachers there, passing on their knowledge to the community.
Adapting to his new life in Dili was not difficult culturally because certain traditions the Timorese hold dear, like respecting the elderly, were familiar.
“Seeing how eager my students were to learn also gave me inspiration to stay and move forward,” adds Yap, 39, currently a freelance writer and editor. Before his Dili attachment, he had worked at a publishing company and taught at a school for the deaf in Singapore.
He threw himself into teaching sign language, developing lesson plans and training four students to be teachers, who have since gone on to teach at Agape School. Two of those four students, Josefina Doutel Conceicao and Joao Agostinho Da Silva Castro, say that as teachers, they are now able to support their parents and help deaf Timorese children.
Yap also initiated activities to improve communication between the deaf and their families and communities. He and the Agape School principal Rowena O. Fernandez convinced a few families to send their deaf children to the school; many had hidden their kids at home out of shame.
A positive change took root and Agape School’s enrolment numbers rose. When he started, it had 16 students, aged between eight and 39. By the end of his stint, the cohort had doubled. Today, the school has more than 50 students.
Yap says he was deeply supported by Fernandez, who was a mother figure to him. Besides giving administrative and logistical help, she also invited him to join in her family activities and helped care for him when he fell ill.
She says: “Alvan is the best thing that happened to the deaf community here. The families are amazed at how their deaf children are transformed and are happy they have a place to learn, develop and be empowered. Deaf people are now less marginalised and discriminated against.” They are also able to communicate, read, write and do simple mathematics better.
A strong sense of understanding grew between Yap and his Timorese contacts too. He says: “We share the same goal – to work together to build up the educational foundation and infrastructure for deaf education in Timor-Leste. All of us know it’s not an easy task, but everyone is willing to do their part.”
For his volunteer work in Timor-Leste, Yap was held up as a role model for young people by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his 2010 National Day Rally speech. Mr Lee had said: “The Singapore spirit is not based on a common race, language or religion. It is based on deeper things that we share: Shared values like multiracialism, meritocracy, or respect for every talent; shared loyalty and commitment to Singapore; shared responsibility for each other and pride in what we have done together; shared memories as well as dreams and aspirations… It is the spirit in each of us which makes Singapore work the way it does and which makes Singaporeans special… I hope more young people will venture forth like Alvan, pursue their dreams and make a difference to others.”
Snapshots of treasured connections
More than five years have passed since Yap returned to Singapore. But he still tries to visit Agape School once a year for one week at a time, keeping in touch with his Timorese friends. He says: “I want to see them grow and progress; it’s turned into a personal mission.”
Part of that quest includes supporting Agape School as much as he can. Since 2010, he has raised S$20,000 for the school through fundraising projects, such as the sale of prints from a photography exhibition that he organised and was sponsored by the SIF. The event showcased his photos of Timor-Leste – each captioned in great detail – taken during his time there.
He recalls: “I wanted to educate Singaporeans about what Timor-Leste is really like. It’s a land of great beauty and beautiful people. The response was very encouraging. People liked the photos and I sold half of them.”
Yap is also sponsoring the return airfare of up to four deaf student participants to attend the Asia Deaf Youth Camp in October 2016. Singapore is hosting the camp for the first time. He says: “I’m doing this as a personal contribution to show my support both for the camp and Agape. I wish to give at least one of my students there a chance to participate in an international event and be groomed for a leadership position within the Timorese deaf community.”
Through these actions, Yap hopes to inspire “more adventurous people to make the world a better place”. “If you have the chance to do something meaningful and you have the ability to do it, take the risk. As a volunteer, you help others, but you also help yourself by growing as a person. If you have the right skills and knowledge that are needed in a certain place, don’t hesitate – volunteer!”