A divine initiative to assist underprivileged teens BY JERRY CHOONG (MALAYMAIL)
KUALA LUMPUR, March 4 — It pulls at the heartstrings to know that the meal you pay for will help train underprivileged teens to face life’s long road ahead.
De’ Divine Cafe in Brickfields, which opened on Jan 14, offers such an experience.
It is the second social enterprise venture by non-govermental organisation MySkills Foundation. Its first venture was MyBakery in Klang in 2014.
MySkills foundation executive director S. Selvamalar said the encouragement of its supporters and donors made them open De’ Divine Cafe where it was felt the concept of a social enterprise would be more widely understood.
“MyBakery specialises in pastries, cakes and wholemeal loaves. There are two chefs who have volunteered to train the students on a weekly basis,” she said.
“Although we did all right by supplying loaves to old folks’ homes in Klang, the bakery faced stiff competition from other eateries. Besides, in its less-strategic location it did not bring in as many customers as we had hoped.
“By including the teens who were with MyBakery, De’ Divine has trained or employed 40 girls, equipping them with pastry-making skills, and now also in culinary arts.
“The chefs who trained them in Klang also volunteered to do so here. All profits generated go to support the students.”
Selvamalar said the foundation was set up in 2009 when social activists and good Samaritans decided to go the extra mile and help underprivileged teens.
“Actually, we started by trying to help school dropouts. We began promoting government vocational courses, assisting these young adults in the tedious application process,” she said.
“However, there were some who did not fulfil the requirements to enrol in the courses as they did not have a minimum pass in Bahasa Malaysia for their SPM. Many ended up becoming drug addicts and getting involved in criminal gangs. Caught in this dilemma and to stymie the slide before it was too late, MySkills was formed.”
The underprivileged teens typically come from society’s bottom 20 category families, whose parents are normally low-paid lorry drivers, cleaners, or undertake odd jobs. Some are also from single-parent families or have at least one parent in prison.
“Although the teens have completed primary education they are functionally illiterate, unable to recognise alphabets or speak simple English. At our Port Klang campus for boys, 70 per cent are between the ages of 13 and 15,” said Selvamalar.
As many of these teens are unsure as to where to go after dropping out or uninterested in finishing their secondary education, MySkills trains them in vocational skills.
For boys, the most popular skill is electrical wiring, followed by mechatronics. In recent years, plumbing and air-condition repairing courses have been introduced.
“The boys stay on campus for one to two years and only go back for a week or so during festive holidays or on a case-by-case basis, such as wanting to spend time with a parent recently released from prison.
“Towards the end of their stay, they will be sent for on-site training with our corporate partners or any good Samaritan willing to train them.”
Girls opt for secretarial skills if they are literate, with the less literate preferring baking and culinary courses. Six hundred students have graduated from MySkills, with 72 per cent gainfully employed in blue-collar or vocational professions. Another 130 students will graduate next month, 90 per cent of whom are boys.
Yet challenges remain, as Selvamalar has noticed a trend of younger male dropouts these past five years.
“Prior to this most of the boys we took in had usually finished Form Three but now they are as young as 13. I believe it is the lack of a father figure or good role models coupled with insecurity in themselves and a sense of loss, which usually leads to them to being involved in gangsterism,” she said.
“Still I am positive. About 30 per cent of MySkills alumni offer to volunteer and train the new batches. We even have one or two that work as hostel wardens now. It is an encouraging sign that 30 per cent of the boys graduating are determined to complete their SPM.”
The foundation’s efforts have not gone unnoticed, as the Economic Planning Unit under the Prime Minister’s Office allocated RM1.2 million for 100 students in 2015.
“They wanted to look into urban at-risk youth and we were among the organisations working in this field. We stretched the allocation as much as possible, since we did not get any government funding last year and had to rely solely on the public and our corporate partners,” Selvamalar said.
Things look set to pick up as MySkills will soon be opening its Youth Transformation Centre hostel and campus in Kalumpang, Hulu Selangor, next year. It can accommodate up to 1,200 students and will include sporting facilities, workshops and training rooms.
Selvamalar said courses offered will focus on character re-engineering and values teaching while ensuring students who complete their vocational courses receive their certificates.
“When you are down and out, the only thing you have left is your self-dignity. At least by going through MySkills, I hope it can increase the self-esteem of these children and lead them on the path to becoming productive members of society,” she said.
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