The Healing Power of Nature
The soothing setting of Ground Up Initiative’s back-to-nature Kampung Kampus proved to be much-needed respite for volunteer Yah Khin Boon in getting through his personal problems.
There is a monotonous drone of construction work in the background, but it is not coming from the upgrading activity characteristic of the city we live in. The sounds are coming from a man hard at work in a woodwork shed in the Kampung Kampus of Ground Up Initiative (GUI). He is Yah Khin Boon, 48, founder and leader of GUI’s craft arm, also known as Touchwood to many.
It’s not the kind of work we would imagine city-dwelling Singaporeans like ourselves doing. From building maintenance and carpentry, to planning craftwork, Khin Boon readily admits he would not have considered joining a place like GUI in his youth, as his priorities would have been different then.
But having been a volunteer at GUI for the past five years, Khin Boon, a former social worker, took the plunge last year and became a full-time staff member.
“GUI has this vision of setting up a ‘Kampung Kampus’,” explains Khin Boon. “There’s not much time for us to make that a reality, so I wanted to be a part of it all… unlike companies and jobs, you can join those any time. But this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“I feel so fortunate that I don’t have to go overseas to experience this sort of nature every day.”
The 5Gs of GUI
Looking at GUI’s space, you might think you’re not even in Singapore. Occupying 2.6 hectares of land in Khatib, this self-described 21st century “School of Life” was built entirely from scratch by volunteers, with the exception of the recently completed HeartQuarters, a net-zero energy building. The space comprises an outdoor communal kitchen area, pockets of farm land with recycled bicycle parts hanging overhead, as well as sprawling camping grounds next to an eco pond.
“You know the 5Cs of Singapore, right? Well, here we try to promote the 5Gs instead – Gracious, Green, Giving, Grounded and Grateful,” explains Koo Hui Ying, who is a “Kampung Connector” at GUI.
With programmes such as Balik Kampung, where volunteers help out with tasks such as farming and housekeeping, and Just One Earth, which teaches children about the value of our planet, the decade-old GUI aims to promote best practices in sustainable living.
Through its programmes, it hopes to inspire people to form an attachment with the Earth and encourage mindfulness in our urban society.
“A Kampung has a lot to offer in an urban society like Singapore,” says Khin Boon, who grew up in a kampung in Lim Chu Kang. He points to a nearby tree and marvels at how at GUI, they can explore freely and without restrictions, including climbing the trees.
With the advent of technology, the idea of “play” for children has become limited to what’s showing on TV, gadget and mobile screens, constraining their imagination and making them less resilient, says Khin Boon.
“I see youths with a lack of a basic connection to people, nature and themselves. They’re quite lost. Here, there is a chance to re-establish that connection and treasure themselves more,” he adds emphatically. “I think GUI is able to provide that by getting people to see beyond their immediate needs.”
Soothing the soul
Indeed, it is not just the people who attend GUI’s programmes whose world views have been transformed – Khin Boon himself has experienced its power to heal.
He first met Tay Lai Hock, the founder of GUI, in 2005, when he was working at the Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises (SCORE) as a social worker. Having heard of Lai Hock’s travels and his work in motivational speaking, Khin Boon engaged Lai Hock to speak to the inmates and ex-offenders he had worked with.
Lai Hock’s speeches left an indelible impact on Khin Boon, and he was so inspired by the talks that the pair continued to keep in touch.
In 2010, when GUI was still in its infancy, Khin Boon was going through a bitter divorce. The financial burden of the legal proceedings was taking its toll and his ex-wife did not allow him to see his children. Where his weekends used to be occupied with spending time with his family, Khin Boon suddenly found himself with a lot of time on his hands.
After hearing about Lai Hock’s work at GUI, Khin Boon decided to spend more time there, volunteering whenever he could. A kampung boy at heart, being close to nature was a soothing balm that revitalised him and made him feel renewed.
Another bright spot in his journey of recovery: He met his current wife Mei at GUI. Like Khin Boon and many other GUI staff, Mei was a volunteer who later joined GUI full-time. These days, the staff teasingly call the lovebirds the “Kampung Couple”.
“The healing power of the space and the people, I have experienced it… this place truly has the power to heal people,”
says Khin Boon.
As for younger Singaporeans who may be unsure of what they can contribute at GUI, Khin Boon has this to say: “You’ll definitely find something because this is a school of life!”
Special thanks to:
Volunteer Writer: Fern Yu (Creative for Causes)
Volunteer Photographer: Muhammad Nazree (Creative for Causes)