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Sassy Mama Supports: AIDHA Singapore Helper Education

LearnPost Category - LearnLearn
Family LifePost Category - Family LifeFamily Life - Post Category - Domestic HelpersDomestic Helpers

Heard of AIDHA but not exactly sure what they do? We break it down, and speak with one of their absolutely amazing alums!

Founded in 2006, the non-profit organisation AIDHA provides training programmes in financial literacy and self-development skills to helpers in Singapore, who use their days off to study at UWC Southeast Asia’s Dover Road Campus on Sundays. Nearly 3,000 foreign domestic workers have taken courses in money management, computer literacy, leadership and entrepreneurship from AIDHA (Sanskrit for “that to which we aspire”), under the tutelage of volunteer teachers from top financial institutions and corporations like Google and Microsoft. Each 9-month “module” is held on alternate Sundays, with a 3-hour time commitment. Costs are kept low – $350 per module – so that helpers can pay their own way if need be, or, preferably, employers can comfortably subsidise their helpers’ educations.

With these skills, AIDHA aims for its alumnae to open businesses of their own, or invest in productive assets like livestock and land in their home countries so as to break the cycle of poverty. We sat down with one particularly accomplished programme alumna, Blezy Tikiden from the Philippines, to learn more about her experience in AIDHA, how it’s changed her time in Singapore, improved her outlook on returning to work in the Philippines, and affected her relationship with her employers.

AIDHA

Blezy is the mother of three children (her oldest just started his first year of college), and has worked in Singapore for eight years, currently looking after three children for a German family. She hopes to start a coffee roasting business in her hometown of Sigay, Ilocos Sur, selling the beans to grocery stores and cafes. She teared up as she described her mission to help the farmers in her region sell their product, and the real-world implications of the business plan she’s worked so hard to develop. Her hard work and positive attitude are truly inspiring!

When did you start attending AIDHA? How did you hear about it?
I started coming to AIDHA in May 2012; I heard about it from a friend. I had been a caregiver with a lot of downtime and was looking for something to do on my day off. 

What classes did you take?
I started off in Module 1, Finance and Technology, learning about computers, savings and budgeting. I knew I needed to have savings, but I didn’t know how to start. I began by asking my employer to withhold $150 a month from my salary; when I saw the result after a little while, I though ‘WOW!’ I just wanted to save more and more.

Module 2 focuses more on business planning. I hate numbers, I hate math, and I didn’t think I was really business-minded. But I came to AIDHA and suddenly realised, ‘I can do business, too!’

AIDHA

What were the most important lessons you learned from your classes?
Besides learning about how to save, I’ve learned a lot about Excel in advanced computers (but I feel like there’s a lot more that I can learn!).

AIDHA teaches us how to think. We learned about market research, which I’ve used to figure out what kind of business I want to run, and to shape my business plan. For instance, at first I thought I wanted to start an Internet café, but market research showed me that wouldn’t be sustainable in my area. So then I began to focus more on coffee and discovered that after rice, it’s my region’s biggest product.

It’s become my mission to help the farmers in my province and I know that will help my business and my family too.

How does it feel spending your day off doing an activity like AIDHA? Do you still have time for other activities like hanging out with friends, church, relaxing etc? Is there a lot of weekly homework involved?
I’m happy to be here. Sometimes even if I don’t have class I’ll go to the library. I feel happy and relaxed doing my things that I really want to do. There isn’t a lot of homework and we complete our assignments on Sundays.

AIDHA

How have your employers encouraged your participation in AIDHA?
I searched this out, but they’ve always been very supportive. They’ve paid more than half of my course fees.

How has AIDHA helped you plan for the next stage of your career after working in Singapore?
Preparation. I’ve learned through research that I need to be more prepared financially before I launch my business, because then even in the event of failure it won’t be so bad.

AIDHA
What advice would you have for other helpers who are hesitant about joining AIDHA, either because they don’t want to give up their free time, or they’re not confident in their writing/computer skills?
I tell helpers that they need to spend their time productively, educating themselves. We’re not here just to work, or just for our families, we’re here to learn and hopefully better ourselves as well. We should always be learning, no matter our age.

I would say, ‘If you come to AIDHA, you’ll find a real family. You won’t just be sitting outside chit-chatting; you’ll be learning. When you first start out, it’s as if you’re a baby – everyone looks out for you to make sure you are taken care of and have everything you need to learn and stand on your own two feet. My mentors have all been so good to me, they’re like sisters!

What advice would you give to employers about how to best support their helper who would like to take an AIDHA course?
If your helper asks to go to someplace like AIDHA, wouldn’t you rather she be spending her time there than outside getting into trouble? I’ve also found that it has strengthened my relationship with my employer. As helpers we rely on our employers and think of them as supportive, my employers’ encouragement has been a real confidence booster.

Plus, I’d say helpers learning these skills, developing their self-confidence and self-discipline will only help them to improve their job performance in the home. They’ll even pass those lessons on to your children!

Thank you so much Blezy! Just prior to publish, we also received the following feedback from Blezy’s employer, Ute Hirsch, who had nothing but great things to say about AIDHA:

“Blezy is incredibly hard working. She usually uses her free Sundays and holidays to work on her class assignments or sits down in the evenings to work on them. On a rare occasion we have encouraged her to take some extra time to finish an assignment with a deadline, but that was the exception. She would never ask on her own behalf and it never interferes with her work for us, as she is very conscientious about her duties. The children always come first for her. I really admire her work ethic and can hardly believe how she manages it all.

I was very lucky to get in touch with the president of a local NGO, The Seedbasket, which supports women growing coffee in Indonesia, and he was an invaluable source of information for us on how to get started with coffee roasting. He was even kind enough to come to our home for a chat with Blezy about how to get started. After that she was equipped with a list of necessary equipment and a clear idea of how to proceed. For a birthday present we got her some of the things she needed and I decided to become a small start-up investor in her company so she could purchase the rest of it and pay me back in coffee beans once the business is running. We were surprised at how little was needed financially to get the business started. I think what is much more important is providing moral support, taking an active interest and believing in the value of the idea.

I believe all helpers really need to have their weekly Sunday off to pursue such opportunities, and more importantly to have a social life and become part of a supportive community. In her time with us Blezy has taken a number of courses, but she is also very active in her church community and even volunteers to help other foreign workers. Often helpers who start with a new employer haven’t had a day off before or are new to Singapore, so it really helps to give them some information on what is available and encourage them to get in touch with others.  They might not have access to a smartphone or computer to find that information for themselves and as we all know from our own experience as expats it helps to find others who are also new to Singapore and exchange information and support. Of course it is just the same for our helpers, too.

Once the course has started, I think it is great if you show your interest in the developing business idea and just be someone to discuss ideas or concerns with. Depending on the business plan it might help to provide access to a computer, the library or some time off during the week if the helper needs to visit a place that is not open on a Sunday. Just little things really, that we might take for granted, but that can be difficult for them to achieve. It’s really fun and very rewarding to see how the ideas progress. One of the nicest moments we had was when Blezy invited us to her graduation ceremony and we could witness what these women are achieving. We are incredibly proud of her.
I think the work that AIDHA and similar organisations do is very valuable and makes a real difference, not just in the lives of foreign workers but also to their families at home. I would encourage everyone to just take a moment to step into their helper’s shoes and think about those things that take very little effort for us to provide, but can make a huge difference to them. After all, so many of them are mothers too, just like us, doing the best they can for their families and making huge sacrifices for their children at home, so we should be providing all the support we can, Mama to Mama!”

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