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By Alex Y. Vergara
Image by Noel Pabalate

Tony Tay

Tony Tay

As depicted in the book Crazy Rich Asians and its two follow-up novels, Singapore is awash with more cash than certain members of its high society can quickly and creatively spend. But the city-state, you’d be surprised, is also no stranger to poverty. It may not be readily visible as you drive down its wide, tree-lined boulevards, but 10 percent of the country’s nearly six million people are reportedly living in dire straits.

Believe it or not, author Kevin Kwan’s crazy rich world notwithstanding, there are marginalized people in Singapore like the elderly, persons with sickness and disabilities, children of single-parent households as well as low-income families, and migrant workers who barely have enough money to buy food.

It’s for these people that Willing Hearts, a non-profit organization founded in 2003 by Singaporean Tony Tay, exists. Tay, now in his early 70s and around 300 volunteers, cook and pack 6,000 hot meals every single day to be distributed to the country’s poorest of the poor.Volunteers are a good mix of young people, housewives, and retirees like Tay with big hearts and time to share with the needy. His wife is also actively involved in the organization.

“This is full-time work for me, seven days a week. Holidays for me are short breaks from the kitchen. Holidays are also when I go out to meet people during the day and when I watch TV in the evenings. You don’t have to travel outside the country for holidays. When you reach my age, all you need is exercise,” says Tay, whose day begins as early as 4 a.m.

Willing Hearts volunteers

Willing Hearts volunteers

He and a number of volunteers start cooking early in the morning raw ingredients sourced and chopped by other volunteers the day before. Their work for the day, including distribution and sourcing, is done by 3:30 p.m.

What makes the effort more inspiring is Tay’s “God will provide” view of running his “one hot meal revolution,” as everything he and his fellow volunteers cook are sourced mainly from donations from kind citizens like store owners with excess vegetables, for instance, or concerned families who donate anything edible, including canned goods and other foodstuff.

“We don’t go around asking for donations,” says Tay. “All of us come together as part of Willing Hearts. When you see how involved and dedicated our volunteers are, you yourself will start raising donations for us.”

Every kind act each member does is voluntary, Tay adds. He isn’t the least bit worried that they won’t get enough volunteers and donations. Those in this kind of work will always have enough.

“If you can’t have rice, you can cook bihon,” he says with a shrug. “If you don’t have bihon, you have something else to cook. There will always be substitutes from the food donated. Don’t be choosy. When you start to choose, that is the time you won’t have enough to cook.”

Tay’s volunteers extend to runners like taxi drivers and ordinary citizens who deliver the food packs to certain intended beneficiaries, especially those who are too sick to leave their homes, during their off hours. Apart from a main kitchen in Tay’s home, Willing Hearts has 15 distribution centers all over the island.

Beneficiaries, who are entitled to one hot meal a day either during breakfast or lunchtime, are usually recommended by social workers or friends of Tay and his volunteers to Willing Hearts.

Tay, a devout Catholic, is also careful of the religious sensibilities of some of his beneficiaries. They don’t as a rule accept pork as donation. They also have separate facilities manned by volunteers tasked to prepare meals meant for Muslims.

“We do everything one day at a time,” says Tay, who was partly raised in a Catholic orphanage after his father abandoned him and his siblings when he was five. “Willing Hearts is a non-sectarian organization. We are non-political and non-religious. But everybody, including politicians, is welcome to volunteer in a private capacity. Instead of talking about politics and religion, we talk about love for other people and how to cook enough so we could share.”

Willing Hearts is a secular, non-affiliated charity wholly run by volunteers, apart from a handful of staff. It operates a soup kitchen that prepares, cooks, and distributes about 6,000 daily meals to over 40 locations island-wide

Willing Hearts is a secular, non-affiliated charity wholly run by volunteers, apart from a handful of staff. It operates a soup kitchen that prepares, cooks, and distributes about 6,000 daily meals to over 40 locations island-wide

For his efforts, which may be considered basic (“even animals,” he says, “need to eat”), but at the same time revolutionary when viewed against the backdrop of a very affluent society, Tay, a former businessman who’s no stranger to poverty himself during his childhood, has been awarded the Ramon Magsaysay award a few months ago in Manila.

“This award means a lot to the volunteers because they’re the ones who really work hard,” says the soft-spoken Tay. “It would bring them immense joy because without them, there would be no Willing Hearts. There would be no award. I dedicate this honor to Singapore and to all the volunteers in our organization.”

How did a man who was fairly successful in raising himself up from his own humble beginnings and reinventing himself to provide a fairly decent life for his family get involved in all this?

In the Singaporean ethos of self-reliance, according to a brief provided by the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation, he could have easily put the past behind him. And he did until Tay was 57 years old and taking care of his mother’s funeral.

His departed mother, also a devout Catholic who found her identity as well as drew her strength during her own dark days from the church headquartered in Rome, didn’t lack for friends from all walks of life who came to pay their respects during her wake. It turned out that despite his mother’s own difficulties, she devoted part of her life to charity work with the Canossian Sisters.

Such an outpouring of love and respect for his mother so moved Tay that, in due time, he and his wife started doing charity work themselves. It all began when they started collecting unsold bread and vegetables from the market and bringing these to the Canossian convent to be given away to the needy. Enlisting the help of other family members and friends, the couple began to cook what they had gathered in their home kitchen, delivering packed meals to the poor and elderly. Word soon spread about their work, and before long it evolved into Willing Hearts.

“Converting other people to a certain religion is not our job,” says Tay. “Feeding those who don’t have enough is. If all people follow what’s taught in their respective religions, then we would all be all right. And what do all religions teach? Love, care, and respect for others. We’re all the same in God’s eyes. Let God decide. We are his servants. He plans. We follow.”

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