From placing people into jobs to setting up a music school that hires persons with disabilities, one man has turned his passion into action.
Working as a job placement officer, Alvin Yeo saw first-hand how challenging it was for persons with disabilities to find work, and decided to do something about it.
He started a music centre in 2008 – but not just any music centre.
“I have always been into music, but at the same time, I did not want to set up just another music centre,” the 47-year-old told SG Enable in a recent interview.
“I wanted a centre that would be relevant to the vulnerable and marginalised communities in Singapore, especially persons with disabilities.”
Alvin has since been working with his team of dedicated instructors to teach musical skills to persons with disabilities. Many of these persons with disabilities have gone on to form their own live-performing bands, and some have even become full-time music teachers at the centre.
For its dedication to hiring persons with disabilities and giving them the tools they need to express themselves creatively – and earn a living at the same time – Alvin’s company, Faith Music Centre, was awarded the Progressive Employer Award at the 5th Enabling Employers Awards earlier this year.
The biennial awards, organised by SG Enable, recognise those who have shown commitment towards hiring and integrating persons with disabilities into the workforce.
Lifting lives with music
Faith Music Centre is one of the few music centres in Singapore that teach musical skills – from playing the guitar and drums to singing – to persons with disabilities and other vulnerable groups. From having only six trainees in 2010, the centre now has more than 230, many of whom are supported by the SG Enable Training Grant, which helps defray training costs for the centre. These trainees come from all walks of life, and are of all races and ages. The majority have intellectual disability, or hearing and/or visual impairment. The rest have physical disabilities, with a small percentage of trainees with autism.
Of the 25 staff members that the centre employs full-time currently, 15 are persons with disabilities. The centre also manages 13 bands that perform live for clients. These part-time musical members are remunerated for their performances. Many of them walked through the centre’s front doors as shy, awkward individuals, and – with the centre’s love and care – blossomed into confident, fun-loving rock stars on the main stage.
The first band was set up in 2013 and three years later, the centre decided some of the other trainees (who perhaps preferred staying away from the spotlight) were also ready for more. Starting out as assistant teachers, they soon learnt to teach the other trainees on their own, said Melissa Tan, the centre’s Director (Training Unit), who oversaw the training for the new teachers.
One of these new teachers is James Chong, who was hired to be a music teacher in 2018 at the age of 76.
Said Melissa: “Despite his visual disability, James is an inspiration and living testimony that it is never too old to learn and never too late to start.”
Making more than just music
In 2018, the centre began training some members to be Stage Masters. These are people who make sure that all the musical instruments and equipment are working in tip-top condition before a show. Some of the Stage Masters have intellectual and learning disabilities, said Melissa. So the centre has made efforts to organise its musical instruments and equipment using pictures and other visual aids to help its employees with disabilities.
Currently, there are six full-time Stage Masters working at the centre.
This year, Alvin is working with the Association for Persons with Special Needs to teach persons with disabilities how to fly drones to record the centre’s live concerts. The two-year project aims to give participants drone piloting skills so that they can undertake future jobs that require aerial photography and videography. So far, the project has really taken off.
“During the Singing Lotus Concert 2018 at the Enabling Village, our pilots provided wonderful pictures and videos which human photographers and videographers would be unable to take, and where crane cameras would have cost a bomb,” he said.
Learning despite differences
Working with persons with disabilities presents unique challenges as different disabilities require different training methodologies.
With patience and a lot of love, the trainees thrive and are able to do more than they had ever imagined. Sometimes, even the family members themselves are surprised to see the change, said Alvin.
“They never expected their children to be able to learn a musical instrument, much less perform onstage or become teachers here at the centre,” he said.
“We want to be the champions for people with disabilities, so that they can be respected by society through gainful employment.”
Reaching out to families and caregivers
To help families and caregivers become more involved in their dependents’ lives, Faith Music Centre has taken on a new project that teaches caregivers how to play musical instruments and become Stage Masters. This lets them engage their children during music lessons. Some even perform with them onstage during the centre’s live concerts.
The project, titled “A Family that Plays Together, Stays Together”, is funded by the Tote Board Enabling Lives Initiative (TBELI) Grant, which supports projects that have meaningful social impact for persons with disabilities and their caregivers.
The Mamma Mia Band, the first band formed by caregivers under the project, recently held a successful concert at the Enabling Village.
About the Tote Board Enabling Lives Initiative Grant
The $23 million TBELI Grant was established to support projects that bring together the technical and domain expertise of social service agencies, social enterprises, government agencies, companies, schools and innovators to create meaningful social impact. The grant, funded by Tote Board and administered by SG Enable, aims to improve the well-being of persons with disabilities and their caregivers.