“I’ll return as your colleague” – The journey of a former client turned social worker

Stroke survivor Lee Yong Jie is a former client at SPD's Transition to Employment Programme. He is now a social worker at SPD. Read on to see how he tapped [...]

A blood vessel rupture in his brain led to a stroke for the then 19-year-old Lee Yong Jie. All of a sudden, Yong Jie found himself having to re-learn basic functions such as eating, standing and walking.  

Being at the prime of his youth, the diagnosis was a hard pill to swallow. But his relentless grit and desire to get better for his loved ones pushed him through the recovery journey at SPD’s Transition to Employment Programme (TTE).  

As one of the pioneer clients at TTE, Yong Jie formed close bonds with fellow clients and his care team. The rehabilitation process was an uphill task, but seeing his peers move on to a different life stage was another painful moment Yong Jie struggled with. What spurred him on was the constant care and encouragement from the SPD professionals, who in turn inspired him to do the same for others.  

“I decided to switch from a career in programming to one that helps others. As I love connecting with people, my care professionals felt that a career in social work will suit me well,” he recalled. 

He took up their advice and enrolled into a social work degree at the National University of Singapore (NUS). He also received the SSI Social Service Award from the National Council of Social Service to support his studies.  

A man and two ladies standing and posing for the camera
Yong Jie with his TTE care team when he first enrolled in NUS reading social work

He said: “When I first got accepted into NUS, I told my TTE care team that I’ll return as their colleague.” True enough, an opening at SPD’s early intervention programme four years later provided him with the opportunity to return to serve others with disabilities.  

Tapping on his experience to empower others 

The 28-year-old now works with a transdisciplinary team consisting of therapists, teachers and psychologists to support children with developmental needs and their families at SPD@Jurong. As the first contact point for new parents to the programme, Yong Jie serves as the bridge linking them to the rest of the team. 

The support for parents does not stop there. When families fall on hard times or face social-emotional difficulties, social workers like Yong Jie will link them to resources to alleviate their challenges. “A common misconception is that social workers only provide financial aid. But financial hardships are often just an entry point for us to get a glimpse of the family’s situation. Our role is to surface the underlying issues and link them to relevant support,” he explained. 

For instance, poor class attendance is one of the challenges that the early intervention team grapples with. “We’ll first reach out to the parents to find out the reason, which may often not be straightforward. We will then help to remove or lower the barriers to help increase the child’s attendance,” he shared. 

A group of men talking
Yong Jie explaining to exchange students about the different disabilities featured in the Inclusive Fest organised by the NUS Enablers 

His voluntary work in university came in useful when working with caregivers. As the former programmes director at student group NUS Enablers, he worked actively with the school’s disability office to support fellow students with disabilities. His volunteering stint at the Neighbourhood Health Service Kids (NHS Kids) also exposed him to the process of engaging caregivers, looking into their caregiver stress and linking them to services in a timely manner.  

Walking alongside caregivers 

Connecting with caregivers from a myriad of background is something Yong Jie enjoys. But the process is not always easy. 

There were times when caregivers would raise their voice or take out their frustrations on the professionals supporting them. But Yong Jie sees this as an opportunity to help caregivers work out the issues troubling them.  “I focus on the fact that if they are telling me their issues, it shows that they trust me with their problems. I see this as an opening to render them the support needed, or simply be a listening ear.” 

He remembers the very first caregiver whom he supported, who approached the centre for financial support. By building rapport with her, Yong Jie discovered that not only does the family have the capacity to resolve their difficulties, there was also an opportunity for them to work on improving their circumstances. He then empowered them to make informed decisions and work towards achieving a better outcome.  

Seeing the positive changes that the mother experienced, Yong Jie encouraged her to share her journey at an orientation for new caregivers. She willingly stepped up despite her initial hesitation, leveraging her own experience to motivate others in similar situations.  

“These caregivers often think that they are just a dad or mum to a child. But they are more than that. Seeing their growth makes me proud, and I hope that I can empower more of them to see the strengths in themselves,” he shared. 

On his return to SPD: “It’s the kampung spirit among the staff” 

It has been slightly over a year since Yong Jie stepped into his new role at SPD. While he finds fulfilment in his work, he admits that the learning curve was steep in the initial months. 

“There are many processes to be familiar with, and I need to understand the strategies that the other professionals use to work with the child so that I can give basic explanation to parents if they have questions. It’s not easy but I pushed myself to be up to speed so that I can value add to the team,” he shared. 

The supervision sessions with his supervisors also provide him with a sounding board as he receives suggestions on managing complex cases. “Our role requires us to help our clients and caregivers to unpack their personal issues, and it can be draining sometimes. It’s important that we also get to process these emotions by talking to our supervisors or others in the team,” he said. 

Yong Jie credits his colleagues for their patience and support in helping him to learn the ropes. He describes the culture of the team as reminiscent of a “kampung spirit”. Amongst other reasons, it is this same “kampung spirit” that he witnessed in his TTE care team that propelled him to return to SPD.  

Coming full circle 

From surviving stroke to transforming his experience to empower others, Yong Jie has fulfilled the promise he made to his TTE care team almost five years ago.  

His own experience of undergoing rehabilitation at a young age made him well placed to understand the caregiver’s viewpoints and pre-empt the emotions that they may experience. “I’ve been through the ups and downs that a service user may experience. And seeing my mum’s loneliness when she was my caregiver probably offered a richer insight into my work with clients and caregivers as well.” 

Not forgetting his former training in programming, he aspires to integrate technology into his social work practice in future.  

“Having been given a second chance at life, I hope to journey with my clients and caregivers in a way that bring about a positive change, just like how my former care team touched my life,” he said.