Upon completion of their studies in the US in the 1990s, Reverend Elisha Satvinder and Petrina Shee Shiang Fei returned to Kuala Lumpur to start a church. While searching for an affordable space to rent, the spouses took a wrong turn that led them to the perfect venue in Sentul.
However, an encounter with two young children spurred a whole other undertaking as well. “It all started when my friend and I saw these kids carrying two buckets of water each. The buckets were so heavy , they would carry, then stop, carry, then stop, so we offered to help them. We saw their home, which had zero furniture. Their single mum had five children and some of the kids were not going to school,” explains Shee.
After getting roti canai for their dinner as their pantry was bare, Shee was determined to help and returned every weekend.
The couple met many more of the urban poor in the area, including those aged 10 and 11 who could not read or write. In 1998, they set up the Dignity for Children Foundation. The early days saw them knocking on doors to collect used clothes, rice, condensed milk and other necessities for those in need.
Elisha says there was a sense of learned helplessness (a state that occurs after a person experiences stressful situations repeatedly). “The parents dropped out of school and may say they want their kids to go to school. But they can’t read what’s in the report card. They can’t read what the teacher is saying. It’s a downward spiral.
“Preschools are not cheap, and those for the poor have 50 or 60 kids crammed into one classroom. In the end, the kids are not prepared for Standard One. If you go to a squatter community or low-cost flats, they’ve got a brood of kids and they can’t manage, so the older one drops out of school to manage the little ones. It’s a vicious cycle,” he says.
Convinced that education can break the cycle of poverty, Shee kicked off a tuition programme for the children. “We had about 40 kids sign up for the class, but that number soon dwindled to six who came in every week,” she recalls.
To entice the students back, a reward system dubbed “the little shop” was put in place. “Basically, we arranged things like pencils and notebooks on a table. If you came for tuition, you’d get five points for attendance. If you participated in a class, you’d get three. At the end, if you got 10 points, you could redeem an item from ‘the little shop’. But if you came back for another class, you’d get even more points. If they collected enough, they could redeem a school bag or a canggih (sophisticated) pencil box at the end of the month.”
This worked for a couple of weeks before the students again began to miss classes. Shee was stumped. Her profound “Aha!” moment came from a book titled The Discovery of the Child by Maria Montessori.
“Reading the first few pages, I was like, no way. She was saying if you want to do education right, you have to do away with reward and punishment. She said you have to give children choice. And then she gave the most bizarre idea — the whole class can have only one material. What that means is instead of buying 30 books for 30 kids, the Montessori Method [suggests] for a whole class, there would only be one book A, one book B, and so on. You are creating this community of active learners. If I want a book, I have to wait and I’m learning how to be patient. And if I cannot wait, I need to learn social skills to ask you for it.”
The Montessori course Shee wanted to take was very expensive, but with help from her brother and husband, she managed to go for it. And then World Vision International came onto the scene, offering Dignity RM30,000.
“It was like the stars aligned. We had the opportunity to really try out the Montessori Method. I failed at the tuition centre and my shop, so what else did we have to lose?” says Shee.
The generous donation was spent entirely on Montessori apparatus — from shelves and tables to mats and toys — creating the full experience for the children. There was a most surprising reaction from the Dignity students when they first saw this newly decked out classroom. Instead of running riot, they huddled together in the centre of the room. Intimidated, they took a long time to warm up. Four-year-old Kavithira picked up an activity where one has to transfer beans from one bowl to another with a spoon. “She was doing it. She did one, two and then she stopped. At the time, I thought that’s RM30,000 down the drain, it’s not working. She sat there only for a while but it felt like an eternity to me. So many things rushed through my mind.
“She then came to me and put something in my hand: a half-broken bean. All the beans were complete, except one. She went back there and continued to spoon. Happy, she finished it and put the bowl back. In a way, she was telling me, ‘Teacher, you are not doing a good job. Do you not know that this bowl of bean is not in order? Next time, make it more in order.’ What the children were saying to us was that they have innate ability and the desire to want the world [to be] in order but, constantly, they were being robbed of that.” The Montessori Method was a success.
In the early years, Dignity faced many challenges and naysayers.
“One of the things that we were reprimanded for was, ‘Why do you need to do something like this for the poor?’ You do not know how many times I’ve heard that and how it frustrates me. It’s demeaning. We mistreat people. We actually don’t treat the poor well, and I think that’s so wrong. We want to communicate that Dignity is a transformational place,” says Elisha.
Primary to secondary
The next challenge was dealing with youth. Growing up in Kelantan, Shee would mind her mother’s shop, bargaining with customers and counting change. “I learnt the most: I learnt responsibility, maths and social skills as I grew up,” she says. This inspired the plan for the young adults of Dignity.
“You’re sitting in one of our classrooms actually. Education out of the box,” Elisha says.
Our interview is at eat X dignity, a modern café run by Dignity youth that serves coffee as well as savoury and sweet treats. The students learn hospitality skills, bookkeeping and management. “This started at my office — 40% was my office and 60% the café. I used to pull the kids out of the cyber cafés for this. You learn science and maths through baking and cooking,” Elisha explains.
The current spacious corner lot has big open windows that face another enterprise, grow X dignity, an urban garden in which students can learn to germinate, tend and harvest various crops, which are then used in the café.
Other transformational enterprises include cut X dignity (a hair salon) and sew X dignity (sale of high-quality sewn goods), art X dignity (creative space for students and the community), and wellness X dignity (mental healthcare unit). It is important to note that they are not vocational classes, but rather, an immersive experience of the real world, which includes using real money and dealing with real customers.
Nearly 25 years on, Dignity has grown from 20 students to 1,650, educating a whole generation of the underprivileged in Malaysia.
“Head, heart and hands: they are all connected. We want kids to focus on brains, brains, brains, but their hands do all kinds of nonsense and their hearts are far from what is right. So, Dignity is a place where we have tried to shape the three together, hence the extensive expression of education. Dignity is unique in that it’s not just academics for the sake of academics, intervention for the sake of intervention; it is beyond that,” explains Elisha.
The husband-and-wife team has certainly adopted a very hands-on approach. Keeping busy, they have fostered over 50 children through the years.
“We have two biological daughters but we still adopt and foster. Right now, we are fostering about 18. It is not an orphanage, please, I hate that word. It’s our home. We are parents, they are our children. We raise them as our own, love them, educate them, shape them, and we want them to flourish and be the best they can,” Elisha states.
As Dignity has grown a great deal, Shee and Elisha’s roles in the NGO have also developed.
“I feel like our role is more defined as a mentorship. We spend one-third of our time to mentoring, one-third anchoring sustainability goals, and one-third meeting with staff and ironing out operations,” says Shee, who is the CEO.
“I very intentionally stepped down as chair a couple of years ago. We got James [Ling Wan Chye], who is 15 years younger than me. At the time, he said ‘I can’t, I can’t’. But I said, ‘Look, you guys have the brains and energy. We can use amazing people like you,’” says Elisha.
“I often say the seminary educated my mind. The poor educated my heart, the poor actually were my professors. They taught me something about life that I cannot find in books or a classroom. It came from walking into their homes, sitting down with them, walking in the streets and engaging with them, working with them, taking them home, dealing with their parents, dealing with issues. After 25 years, we would say we are richer.”
Into the future
There have been many highlights over the past 24 years for the pair: starting the first International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) programme for poor youth in 2014; hosting the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama; being awarded the Sharjah International Award for Refugee Advocacy and Support 2018 by The Big Heart Foundation; receiving the United Nations Malaysia Award 2019 for contributions to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development under the “Leaving No One Behind” category; as well as the 3G Children Welfare Award 2021 and 3G Advocacy Award by the Global Good Governance 3G Awards organised by Cambridge IFA.
Dignity also began the Faisal Cup, a football tournament that allows students to play the sport safely and learn important values from it. Even during the Movement Control Orders, the team worked tirelessly to feed many households, ensure that people were not kicked out of their homes, help students keep up with their studies and more. Recently, it began offering A-levels tuition and last month, its first batch of students scored straight As.
One of Dignity’s biggest ongoing projects is the Dignity Farm Academy in Bentong, Pahang, where students are able to develop vocational skills like sustainable farming, while appreciating the benefits of self-sufficient living. This is also part of Dignity’s vision for a sustainable future.
“Unless we are willing to encourage our children to reconnect with nature, we cannot expect them to care. Education must address the current crisis we are going through. The same way a shop can be a school, the farm is also a school,” adds Shee.
In addition to farming and composting — not to mention raising free-roaming geese and ducks — the site also features Malaysia’s first granite skate park built in partnership with Vans, as well as bamboo huts by SEAD Build, both of which are open to the public. Dignity is also looking towards having a forest school in the future.
In the remaining months of 2022, it will be taking part in or organising a few events — the Volkswagen Festival on Oct 15 and 16; a football league at end October; and the Standard Chartered KL Marathon on Nov 12 and 13, where it will be one of the beneficiaries under the Run For A Reason programme.
Next year, Dignity will celebrate its 25th anniversary, an impressive milestone indeed. “We are thankful for friends, partners and all the people who have played a role these 25 years. I really want to recognise, remember and rejoice. We are celebrating, but let’s make the next 25 amazing too,” says Elisha.
This article first appeared on Oct 10, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.