Thursday 29 March 2018

New life stories, one at a time by Choo Waihong

At Chinese New Year, The Kingdom of Women:  Life, Love and Death in China’s Hidden Mountains by Choo Waihong won the Asian Books Blog Book of the Lunar Year in the Year of the Rooster.

The “prize” for the winning author of the Book of the Lunar Year is to write a guest post about a secular charity of his or her choice, promoting literacy or education in Asia.

Waihong chose to write about New Life Stories, a Singapore-based non-profit supporting pre-school education for the children of incarcerated mothers. New Life Stories helps provide vulnerable children with essential educational and social skills, to ensure they aren't left behind in the crucial early years of their development. It also supports the children's incarcerated mothers, both while they are in prison, and during reintegration into society.

Together, mother and child are able to rewrite the stories of their lives and to chart a more positive future.

So, over to Waihong, to talk more about New Life Stories...

The clock hands are not moving this morning, thought five-year-old Aziza, who has just mastered the art of telling time.  She had been staring at the small alarm clock since she woke up, waiting with all her will to push the smaller hand to reach the digit 10.  This was when her teacher, Aunty Clare, would arrive every Tuesday to begin her reading lesson.

Aunty Clare would always arrive on time, settle herself on the floor next to Aziza and dig into her big bag to bring out a new book for the little girl who was fast learning new words and sounds as the teacher took her time to slowly read out the words of another new story.  Leaving the book behind for Aziza, the volunteer reader would hope that the child would continue to read and reread it as she progresses in her literacy programme.

Just last week, Aziza heard a voice recording on Aunty Clare’s phone when she turned it on for Aziza.  The female voice was reading the very book that has become Aziza’s favourite book of late.  To Aziza’s surprise, the voice sounded very much like the voice of her mother, a voice she had not heard for the longest time since mummy ‘went away for a little while’, as her grandmother would say.

“Yes!” Aunty Clare said when Aziza looked up with incredulous eyes, “It is your mother reading your favourite story book.  She knows you like that book very much!  Next week I will have an even better surprise for you!!”

This was the reason why Aziza kept looking up at the clock today when Aunty Clare was due to arrive with the bigger surprise.  As the clock hand finally crept to 10, Aziza heard a knock at the door to her grandmother’s humble one-room flat.  She leapt up to open it – it was Aunty Clare, smiling and waving a colourful book in her hand.

“My dear Aziza, this is a present from your mum to you!” Aunty Clare said as she handed the book to Aziza.  The little girl, who could now make out many more words in English, read the words on the cover, Family Love.  Then flipping inside the book, she saw that it was dedicated to her, Aziza, and it bore the name of her mother, Maimun binte Ismail.   She looked up at Aunty Clare with a question mark in her eyes.

“Yes, Aziza, your mum wrote this book, and she wrote it especially for you. Why don’t you take a look, while I will play the recording she made of herself reading this very book she authored for you!”

As Aziza listened intently to her mother’s voice, she leafed through the pages of the book, recognising most of the printed words, words speaking of a mother’s love for her daughter.  These were words actually written by her mum, and actually spoken by her mum on the audio recording being played by Aunty Clare.  Aziza understood most of the words spoken as well as the words appearing on the pages of the book, and the words speak of a time soon when her mother would come home after going away to prison for what seemed like a long, long time.

“My mum will be coming back soon,” Aziza thought, as she smiled through her tears of joy, sensing in her heart of hearts her mother’s warmth from hearing and reading her words in this special book written by her mum.

The story of Aziza and her incarcerated mum (not real names) is typical of the families identified by a Singapore charity called New Life Stories to offer their reading-cum-befriending service with the aim of giving underprivileged children of incarcerated mothers a fairer start to life.

Started nearly four years ago, the idea behind the charity is to weave a connecting thread between a mother who is in prison and her child who is cut off from the constant care and companionship of her mother.  In a two-prong approach, a first group of volunteers act as learning friends to the child and a second group of volunteers act as befrienders of the mother behind bars.

Women prisoners are invited to sign up for the programme, designed with the aim of enabling both mother-and-child to write new life stories for themselves.  At the level of the child in her formative pre-school years, the programme helps the child with none of the usual family support system at home by sending a learning friend volunteer to the child’s home once a week to read to the child one-on-one.  The books read to her are value-based books designed to increase the child’s reading level as well as to develop her social skills, raise her curiosity and self-confidence and foster a reading habit in her, thereby enabling her to have a fairer start in life when she eventually goes to school.

Working with the mother in prison, a befriender volunteer visits the prisoner once a month to help her make cards for her child, read books which have already been shared with the child on audio recordings, ending with helping the mother write a story specially dedicated to her child.  All the products produced by the mother are packaged and in the case of the self-authored book by the mother, printed and illustrated, and presented to the child over the course of the programme, to directly link the mother-to-child through the power of words.

Each programme once signed up lasts for an intensive two-year duration and so is a dedicated arrangement designed to help each woman prisoner stay connected to her child/children through this unique literacy programme.

“The length of each programme enables us to provide a depth of help to both the child and the mother, the objective of which cannot be achieved in a shorter span,” said Saleemah Ismail, Executive Director of New Life Stories.

“After working with both the child and her mother for 24 months, we know when we walk away that the child already has the habit to read at home, has grown more self-confident and possess more pro-social skills.  In that time, the child too would have experienced her mother’s care and parenting through the cards, audio recordings and the self-authored book written by the mother, thus further helping the child battling with the usual psychological consequences of rejection by and hatred of the mother.

“For the mother, she would have been given the chance to have quality contact with her child, foster their parent-child bonds and continue her parenting role even while she remains behind bars.  We believe that if a child knows mother love and expresses love back, then the mother will change and stay changed with a lesser chance of recidivism.  We support families to break the cycle of incarceration and to enable mother and child to re-write new stories of their lives.” She said.

Helping a child read is a most precious gift, and the gift is made the more precious when that child with a mother in prison lacks the home and kindergarten support to prepare herself for the tough road ahead in a competitive schooling environment.  Which is why the story of New Life Stories so appeals to me.

What I find even more compelling is the other piece of the jigsaw, that of involving the mother who can still involve herself in her child learning to read by making cards and audio recordings of books and writing a book for her child, while all the time sitting behind bars waiting for her discharge from prison.

The intense nature of the programme for each set of mother-and-child is demanding of the voluntary effort at New Life Stories, which makes it difficult for the charity to recruit long stayers to be the learning friends of these underprivileged children in their all-important formative years.  But the goal of enabling them to have a fairer chance in life is worth it.  Those interested to work with this literacy charity can find out more at and