Bridging the Distance: Forging Friendships Through Video Calls

Apr 23, 2021   |   Alycia Lee

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Volunteers Rishi and Kay-En with their buddy, Thimajit.

Life as we know it has been different ever since the COVID-19 pandemic hit our shores last year. With safe management measures in place, many physical activities have been restricted, including volunteerism.

Unfazed by the disruption, our Heartware Network volunteers have instead adapted to new and creative ways of giving back even while social distancing.

One such revised programme is the Cerebral Palsy Alliance Singapore (CPAS) Befriending Programme, which was part of the Beyond Boundaries Club initiative started in 2019 by the National Council of Social Services (NCSS). This initiative aims to enhance the quality of life of persons with moderate to severe disabilities by reducing social isolation and integrate them into the community. In 2020, Heartware Network volunteers were to conduct home visits to bring activities to homebound CPAS alumni members.

However, since such visits were not possible last year, an alternative idea was born – CPAS Alumni and Heartware volunteers would engage in Zoom befriending sessions instead.

We spoke to 17-year-old Rishi Rayapati, a regular Heartware volunteer, to find out more about his (virtual) experience getting to know his CPAS buddy.

Hours of work in preparation

Over the course of 6 months, Rishi and the other volunteers engaged the CPAS Alumni and their caregivers in hour-long activity sessions via Zoom, where they played games and learnt new skills together.

Prior to the commencement of the actual programme, our Heartware volunteers had also attended a training session where they learnt how to communicate effectively with people who had intellectual disabilities.

Equipped with this new-found knowledge, Rishi and his partner, Kay En, set out to create activity plans according to the needs and skill level of their beneficiary, Mikaail, who was visually impaired. Having discovered that he loved to go outdoors and listen to music, they then planned a series of online activities revolving around his hobbies.

Rishi also shared that it was a pity they could not meet up physically with Mikaail, as this made it more difficult to bond with him since they had to put in more effort to “break the barrier and create a friendly environment online”.

Learning along the way

Nevertheless, even though the journey was rather smooth-sailing, it was definitely not always a bed of roses. In fact, during one of the first few sessions, Rishi and Kay En faced their first challenge when they tried to plan a virtual trip to the mall.

“Engaging Mikaail [without relying on visual aids] was one of our biggest struggles. The things we initially planned were very heavily visual, but we realised that we could not go ahead with these ideas. Instead, we had to use sounds to depict the mall,” said Rishi.

He confessed that he would occasionally slip up while talking with the beneficiary too. “We wanted to pretend that we were stuck in a traffic jam, and we had to describe the sounds, such as the honking of cars. I then accidentally said [to Mikaail], ‘Did you see the red car pass by?’… and I immediately realised that I shouldn’t have said that, because Mikaail may not be able to envision what a car looks like.”

Rishi also went on to share his reflections: while it was instinctive to use such descriptive language in typical conversation, he had to make a conscious effort to adapt when speaking with the beneficiaries. Nevertheless, he noted that it was still a good learning point, having raised the importance of sensitivity and empathy.

Adapting to unforeseen situations

After the first 4 sessions, Rishi and Kay En were informed that Mikaail had pulled out of the programme. Hence, for the last 2 months, they were matched with a new CPAS beneficiary, Thimajit Singh, who was previously on the programme’s waiting list.

“This threw our plans off-track, because this time, our new buddy was not visually impaired and could actually speak quite well too. Since we had initially tailored our plans to our first beneficiary, we had to change it completely [to fit our second beneficiary better]. For example instead of playing music, we switched it up to teach more life skills, such as learning how to calculate change at the supermarket,” explained Rishi.

In the end, their efforts paid off: despite only having had 2 brief sessions with Thimajit, the group still hit it off and even ended on a good note with a successful virtual karaoke session!

A sense of fulfilment and accomplishment

For Rishi, the most memorable part of the programme was actually during one of the first few sessions, when they organised a mini concert for Mikaail.

Rishi, Kay-En and Mikaail singing this iconic song during their singalong session.

He said, “We had a whole session dedicated to music, where we played the song ‘Girls Like You’ by Maroon 5. And when we were about to move on to the next song, he actually gestured to his caregiver to signal that he wanted to listen to the full song again. We understood immediately that this was his way of sharing his opinion, that this was him making an effort… he even got out his drumsticks and started tapping along to the beat of the music!”

It was truly a heartwarming moment for the group –a small milestone of sorts– as this was the first time that Mikaail had taken the initiative to express his emotions without the aid of his caregiver.

With a smile on his face, Rishi continued, “It showed that he really listened to us and enjoyed himself, and to me, that really highlighted the true meaning of the Befriending programme.”


Looking forward

As a passionate volunteer who is always looking for opportunities to give back to the community, Rishi hopes to encourage more volunteerism amongst youths of his age as well.

When asked if he had any words of advice, he shared, “It’s normal to feel hesitant [when first joining such programmes], but all you need to remember is the reason why you want to participate. You really just need to take the first step and then you’ll realise how much you actually love it.”