Inspiring People

‘They needed help, so I went down to help’

Under our "Inspiring People" column, we highlight the incredible journey of one person who has overcome tremendous odds to achieve personal success. This column celebrates the triumph of the human spirit and we hope it will inspire you to reach for your dreams, too. This month, we bring you a girl whose passion for helping children took her around the world.

22-year-old Sneha Iyer looks like your regular high-flying university undergraduate.

The final-year business student at the National University of Singapore (NUS) is on a full scholarship to pursue her undergraduate degree with an option for a one-year top-up for a Masters in public policy, and is also part of the school’s university scholars programme.

What sets her apart from her peers, though, is how her ambitions have been geared toward helping others, especially needy children.

When Sneha was 16, she started giving tuition free-of-charge to a struggling family of three children.

The kids’ mother worked with her mother, who told Sneha about the situation they faced.

“They were people we knew — family friends, basically,” she told Yahoo! Singapore in an interview. “It started off when they (the children) needed help with PSLE, and just continued and became a more regular thing after I finished JC, on a weekly basis until I started my second year (in university).”

She went on to help more of her mother’s colleagues’ children, coaching them through their ‘N’ and ‘O’ levels, and says she is still in touch with most of them even though she stopped teaching them at the beginning of her second year in NUS.

“I started off helping them in my free time, but after that I just formed a relationship, a bond—and after that I just wanted to help them,” she said. “I realised that I did like teaching them; they were nice kids.”

Counting books for orphans

Her interest in helping needy children was amplified when she travelled to India with her family to visit her grandparents in 2009 for a month, before she started university.

There, she spent about three weeks shuttling between her grandparents’ home and an orphanage nearby — at first delivering clothes she had brought to donate, but Sneha ended up staying on for a couple of hours that first day to “help count books”.

“I would just call them and say, ‘Are you free? Can I come down at this time?’ and it soon became a regular thing, where I would just come every day after breakfast to about lunch hour, and then go back in the afternoon,” she shared. “They needed help, so I went down to help,” she added quite simply.

Her time at the orphanage in India was spent helping the English teachers there prepare materials for their classes, standing in to help teach class when volunteers were absent, and of course, her favourite pastime — spending time playing and interacting with the children.

“The most striking thing that hit me was that the kids are really happy, and it was very easy to make them happy,” she said. “If your mum gives you a pencil, you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s a pencil’ and you’re happy for a minute. These kids will be happy for the entire day or the week because they got a new pencil — so it really puts into perspective how the little things in life should make you happier.”

While there, Sneha said she observed that the children at the orphanage were poor and lacked enough clothes, and the teachers there were neither qualified nor paid, and lacked any structured syllabus or curriculum to follow.

“It really puts a reality check on how fortunate you are in life,” she said. “(But) a lot of them are doing it because they want to do something; they want to help... you see the people who do that — you see real passion — they want to serve the community, they want to do something, and I thought it was very inspiring as well.”

Spending a semester at sea

The students and staff in Sneha's batch of Semester at Sea, pictured here together on the MV Explorer. (Photo courtesy …

In her second year of university, Sneha clinched the chance of a lifetime: to spend a full school semester period on a ship with about 600 undergraduates and 100 faculty from around the world.

On board the MV Explorer, Sneha and her international classmates sailed from Canada to Spain, then Morocco, Ghana, South Africa, Mauritius, India, Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Japan, Hawaii and then ended in San Diego, California.

Instead of spending her time sightseeing or shopping at each country she visited, however, Sneha chose to volunteer her time in three different countries: Ghana, South Africa and Vietnam. Her time in Ghana and South Africa was so impactful, in fact, that she now hopes to someday be able to work somewhere on the continent, she said.

Sneha cradles a child as others gather around when she and her friends visited a village in Ghana. (Photo courtesy …

In Ghana, Sneha and a few of her friends chanced upon two locals who brought them to the village they hailed from, and she spent her first day there getting acquainted with the people and being shown around.

“Everyone in the village was excited because they had never seen foreigners before,” she said. “They were very interested to know why I was dark and why my friends (who were from America) were white, and they were very excited that their colour matched mine — we were similar in colour!”

Meeting the natives aside, however, Sneha went to the village school on her second day there to discover that it lacked writing materials, and decided to do something about it.

“We went back to the ship that night, spoke to the leaders and asked if we could give spare materials to the village, and they said okay, so the day after we took the supplies to the village — papers, crayons and pencils — and spent the whole day there too,” she said.

Sneha poses with a young boy at a school where she and her classmates helped out in. (Photo courtesy of Sneha  …

At the seaborne school’s next stop, Cape Town in South Africa, Sneha joined a group of 14 classmates who linked up with Operation Hunger, a local non-profit dedicated to helping malnourished children.

There, they spent the first half of a day weighing children in two schools and a few villages, identifying signs of malnourishment based on their height and weight, and bringing those they determined to be malnourished to a doctor.

In the afternoon, the group visited a feeding home, where Sneha and her friends helped cook food for and feed the children who were there.

“We couldn’t speak to them because most of them speak Afrikaans (the native South African language),” said Sneha. “But they make you forget everything because they’re always so happy meeting people... it just gives you a sense of joy working with the kids — they’re just so happy with the little things,” she added.

Meeting victims of toxic war
One of the Vietnamese children Sneha met while at the orphanage. (Photo courtesy of Sneha Iyer)

Sneha’s most humbling experience with children came when the ship docked in Vietnam.

It was there she decided to gatecrash a friend’s service leadership project that took them to an orphanage housing third-generation children affected by Agent Orange, a herbicide used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam war that killed and maimed up to a million locals over four generations.

“These kids were severely disabled, both mentally and physically, and (my friends) were telling me how sad it was... when they told me about it I felt that I really wanted to go there and see them,” she said.

Over the two days Sneha spent there with her three friends, she helped to feed and bathe the children in the high-dependency level of the orphanage — where their disabilities were so major that they could not hold their own heads up — and spent time with the ones with milder disabilities on the lower floor.

Many of the Vietnamese children Sneha met at the orphanage were disfigured from birth, a genetic result of Agent …

“These kids (with major disabilities), they didn’t grow — they were 10 or 12 years old but they were the size of three-year-olds, and feeding them required two of us because we were so afraid of hurting them,” she recalled, adding how she frequently had to excuse herself to wash her face from crying. “They could blink and grab our fingers, but it was really bad, and they couldn’t talk... sometimes they would jerk and do something, and I was very scared.”

“I felt really, really sad when I was there, to see the kids in that state by no fault of theirs,” she continued. “They were born with it — a lot of them are third-generation (victims) and some of their parents aren’t even as badly affected as they are... we were told a lot of the kids (in high dependency) don’t survive beyond 13 or 14 years old.”

Human rights education on-board
The write-a-thon that Sneha organised as part of the Amnesty International club she and her friend started onboard …

If all this wasn’t enough, Sneha felt she could still do more — and more she did, by setting up the school’s very own Amnesty International (AI) club with a friend she made on board.

“I’ve always been a huge supporter of human rights, and it’s something I very strongly believed in when I was a kid,” she said. “Amnesty doesn’t have a presence in Singapore, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to be involved with if I could... so we started a club to educate people about basic human rights that people in the countries we were going to didn’t necessarily have.”

AI is a non-governmental organisation that focuses on human rights around the world, frequently acting as an international watchdog that adds pressure on governments to release political prisoners or to reverse human rights abuses, among other things.

In line with what it does, Sneha organised panel discussions with human rights professors and representatives who shared the challenges they faced with respect to human rights in their home countries.

She and her friend also organised a write-a-thon in conjunction with World Human Rights Day, where they encouraged students to write letters either to governments to petition against human rights abuses or to political prisoners or victims of human rights abuse to encourage them in their endeavours.

From the two-day event, Sneha said they collected more than 370 letters, which the dean of the school personally paid to have packaged and mailed to their recipients. The Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was sailing with them, also spoke at the write-a-thon, personally writing a few letters for them as well.

“Amnesty helped me link my theoretical understanding of the problems to what it was like on the ground,” she said. “You understand these things, but when you go through it you feel it and see it, and it hits you very differently.”

Doing business to help social enterprises

Most recently, Sneha spent her third academic year interning with Conjunct Consulting, a local firm that assists social enterprises in Singapore on a pro-bono basis.

“This is something I want to do in the future — working with microfinance firms,” she said. “A lot of the orphanages I visited had very basic operational problems... they do a lot of great stuff socially, but in terms of managing the organisation itself they have problems, and I think that since I study business, I can help out with these things, so Conjunct Consulting was something I believed in.”

Whether it's from ground- or strategic-level, Sneha knows for sure she wants to devote her life to alleviating poverty around the world. In fact, she will be starting work with a poverty alleviation firm in India in August, shortly after she graduates.

“I think no matter what I’ve done in these places (South Africa, Ghana, India or Vietnam), I’ve helped myself more than I’ve helped them,” she says. “I’ve helped myself grow, I’ve helped myself understand what I want to do with my life... I don’t think I’ve necessarily helped anyone much!”

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