Every Saturday morning at 9.45am, the lobby of the Institute of Mental Health/Woodbridge Hospital (IMH/WH) is bustling with noise. Despite the long week at school or work, volunteers from the Matchsticks of IMH (or Matchsticks, for short) are still pumped up to spend time with their special friends.
As the volunteers enter the wards, they are enveloped by the warmth emitting from their special friends as they eagerly greet the volunteers. At times, the volunteers find it difficult to even put their bags down because their special friends are too excited to start the activities for that session.
The sound of laughter and happy chattering can be heard as the volunteers and their special friends enjoy the activities and the company of each other.
Matchsticks is a group of passionate volunteers, mainly consisting of youths from all walks of life. Since its formation three years ago by founder Mr Jonathan Kuek, the volunteers have been meeting every Saturday to carry out activities with their special friends, sharing the common goal of bringing some fun and change into their otherwise mundane lives. Matchsticks prides itself on being built by the hard work and commitment of volunteers with undying passion and care for community – in particular, their special friends and the mental health community. It is also a platform for individuals with similar interests to build companionship and friendships, and share experiences.
The group has adopted four wards – two female wards, one male ward and a child ward. During the weekly visits, each ward would carry out a distinct set of activities catered specifically to the interest of the special friends living in that ward. The activities range from arts and craft and colouring, to board games, and even karaoke and dance sessions. Volunteers are given opportunities to step up and initiate, plan and execute new activities, allowing for more involvement during the sessions. These various activities allow the special friends to demonstrate their many talents and provide them with an alternative means of expressing themselves.
A common question that the volunteers get is, “Aren’t you scared that they would get violent?” This is exactly the stigma that the Matchsticks volunteers have been trying so hard to combat. Through spending time with the special friends, one would find media portrayals of the mentally ill to be a far cry from the truth. The special friends are polite, friendly and have many life stories to share – if one is willing to listen. This is also what keeps the volunteers going – the special and pure friendships that are forged with their special friends.
Through the ward sessions, the volunteers have gained various skills. These include patience in interacting with those who are different from them, collaborative skills from working closely with fellow volunteers and helping one another, flexibility from handling various situations in the wards and humility from hearing the many stories shared amongst both volunteers and special friends, amongst many other soft skills.
Quoting one of the regular volunteers from Matchsticks, Miss Xavierlyn Tan, “Within a month of volunteering, my previously held stereotypes of the mentally ill were dispersed. Not at all are our special friends violent. In fact, they are affectionate, sensitive and so generous in their love to us volunteers…… I find myself anticipating weekly sessions when I can listen to our aunties’ life stories, and understand them for who they are, not what they have been diagnosed with.”
Matchsticks hopes to encourage more individuals to step up and speak up about mental health issues, and to do their part in removing the stigma surrounding the mentally ill. It also invites anyone who have a heart for the community, and may be interested in learning more about mental illnesses and making a difference to the lives of people living with mental health issues to join them.
The volunteers leave the wards with their hands full – of cards, drawings or crafts that the patients made for them – and with a sense of immense satisfaction, glad that they could have left a positive impact on their special friends. Leaving IMH, the volunteers of Matchsticks are already looking forward to the next session, when they can spend time with their special friends again.
To find out more about the group and what the volunteers do, check out https://www.facebook.com/matchsticksofimh.