Paper bags of love

WITH a single-minded focus on the task before her, her fingers move deftly over the piece of newspaper, folding the corners in, then folding the flaps inwards so one flap slightly overlays the other. Making a newspaper carrier bag is routine work. But it brings much joy to 88-year-old Mdm Chung Len Neo who is slightly hard of hearing.

Not only is she kept occupied, she gets to donate the money she earns from the bags to the day care centre where she is a regular visitor. Each bag sells for 15 cents so 100 bags a week gives her 15 dollars in donation money.

Says the widow who lives alone: “Different people, different preferences. Some may want to earn the money but I want to donate it.”

It is this desire to have more seniors be engaged and feel useful as contributing members of society that has led 38-year-old Eugene Goh to start SilverForce, a social enterprise that aims to bring work to the doorstep of seniors.

“Such activities do not just get seniors out of the house and into social spaces, it helps them learn problem-solving skills and lets them earn some pocket money. On the other hand, businesses can have a local source of labour at competitive rates and reduce the need for outsourcing,” Eugene explains.

A former civil servant at the Ministry of Transport and consultant with the Boston Consulting Group, Eugene says SilverForce was started partly from seeing his mother ageing and trying to find ways to spend her time meaningfully. That got him thinking about other seniors who may be in her shoes.

Knowing that SMEs were also struggling to overcome restrictions in foreign labour, he tried matching firms with seniors and managed to convince Bollywood Veggies, a farm in Kranji, to buy paper bags made by the seniors at NTUC Health’s SilverAce Senior Activity Centre.

“Getting the old newspapers to make the bags is easy, but for cardboard pieces of the right size, I go to this factory to get their unused materials. It is challenging to find customers keen to engage seniors, and hence, to find the materials needed to serve these customers.”

Convincing other companies to partner SilverForce has not been easy either. Some say they have not thought about what it is they can outsource while others may not see the benefit of such informal work.

Newspaper carrier bags are just a start. Eugene is also exploring ways for seniors to make gifts, pack wedding novelties or hand label items. His long-term target is to promote micro employment for about 2,500 seniors.

She never thought she’d still be working past 50. But at 61, Ms Dolly Yeo has finally found her calling in life.

Click here to find out how she did it.

Article published on: 1/3/2016