WHEN Madam Annie Lee went on a local portal to recruit volunteers for the Kreta Ayer Volunteers’ Service Group (KAVSG), which befriends needy elderly in Chinatown, she was expecting Singaporeans to respond.

So she was pleasantly surprised when Hangzhou native Frank Ma showed up unannounced at one of the group’s home visit sessions on a Saturday afternoon. At the end of the session, he asked to join the group.

“I was quite puzzled because it was the first time we encountered a Chinese national who wanted to volunteer with us,” says Madam Lee, one of the six zone leaders at KAVSG.

Mr Ma, a senior developer at a global insurance broker firm, had actually responded to Madam Lee’s recruitment post via e-mail several weeks ago.

Thinking that his application had gotten lost, Mr Ma made his way to the centre to pursue his passion to serve.

After that first meeting, Madam Lee asked Mr Ma to fill up the volunteer application form. Three years on, the pair has been working closely with eight other volunteers to take care of about 30 elderly residents living in two blocks of flats in Chinatown.

For three hours every Saturday afternoon, they visit the elderly people to ensure that they take their medication, remind them of their medical appointments, and help them with simple tasks like changing light bulbs or reading their letters.

Mr Ma, who is fluent in English and Mandarin, has also picked up some basic Cantonese. He could bond quickly with the residents, who speak mainly Cantonese,

notes Madam Lee, 48, a volunteer management executive at the Singapore Sports Council.

Similarly, the volunteers warmed up to him quickly. “Frank is very cheerful and friendly. He’s always eager to help others — not just the elderly, but the volunteers too,” adds Madam Lee. “When we take the elderly people on outings, he’ll be the first to help carry those folks on wheelchairs up the bus.”

He has also adapted to the local culture. She says: “When he first joined us for the home visits, he was dressed quite formally. Now, he is in T-shirts, bermudas and sandals, like the rest of us!”

“I see us as being the same, and I treat him as a friend. There are no barriers between us,” she adds.

Ties that bind

Mr Ma, likewise, says Madam Lee has been more than a mentor to him.

The two have forged a close friendship through their many visits. She has guided him in his volunteer role, teaching him how to communicate with the elderly people and organise events, as well as acting as an interpreter when they speak to him in dialect.

Madam Lee has also welcomed him into her social circle. Outside their volunteer work, they often meet for meals and movies with other volunteers.

Mr Ma, 35, says: “I’m glad that I have made good friends here. I don’t feel like I’m treated differently or as a foreigner.”

Indeed, when Mr Ma first decided to volunteer, all he wanted to do was to contribute something back to the society that has welcomed him. He was posted to Singapore to work by his former employer in 2009.

But he has gained much more from volunteering than he has expected: It has deepened his understanding of Singapore and Singaporeans, and helped him build a wider social circle to include more Singaporeans.

Besides his fellow volunteers, he has also developed strong ties with the elderly residents he serves. “Some of them recognise me as zhong guo zai (man from China), but I don’t mind,” he says, laughing.

“The fact that I’m from China actually drew me closer to some of the elderly people, who were born in China. They will talk to me about their lives back in China and share customs that I don’t even know of… They treat me like a grandson,” he says.

His positive experiences while being deeply involved in the community helped him decide to settle in Singapore in the long term.

“Initially, I thought I would work here for only one or two years. But after getting to know the place, culture, and making new friends, I feel the time is ripe for me to settle down here,” he says.

Madam Lee, for one, is happy that Mr Ma wants to stay. “We share the same mindset and goal to improve the lives of the elderly people and make them happy,” she says.

She also appreciates his contribution and commitment to help the community. Last year, she tapped his expertise to design their group’s website.

She hopes more immigrants living here will follow Mr Ma’s footsteps to volunteer. She says: “We must be open. We shouldn’t put a barrier between foreigners and us. Give them a chance to be a part of Singapore.”