Empowering Women

Even without any prior experience in running a charity, housewife Uma Balji knew that she wanted to do more to help. With some friends, she raised nearly $100,000 for a women’s programme, which was then discontinued. However, that prompted her to start Project Smile, a charity to uplift and empower women from all walks of life.

Uma Balji started Project Smile, a charity to uplift and empower women from all walks of life

Housewife Uma Balji had wanted to help and do her part for charity for many years. When her children were grown, and she found herself in the position to help, she did — for 10 years, she helped out at the Down Syndrome Association Singapore.

However, she felt compelled to do more for women, and quite by chance, she had watched a TV programme where the producers of the show were also associated with a charity that helped underprivileged families. With a few friends, she raised $100,000 for this programme in 2010; but when she went to donate the funds to the programme, she was told it was discontinued.

With this sum in her hands, Uma then decided to place the money with the Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association, or Lisha. At the time, she did not quite know what she would do with the money, but felt that the best was to still use that sum to help women and families who needed it.

In 2011, she formed a small committee with Lisha, and began to give out financial aid to families that needed it.

“However, six months in, I didn’t feel that giving out financial aid was going to leave a lasting impact. So we felt we should start [teaching] skills, in order to empower the women. Giving handouts was not going to help. With my friend Suchitra Bhaskaran (now the vice chairperson of Smile), I asked if she knew anyone who could volunteer to teach our beneficiaries some skills,” says Uma.

Thus, Project Smile began. With a small team and a few volunteers, Project Smile began running classes in art, sewing, and even cooking in order to provide women with life skills and help them earn an income.

However, it was rough going at first. “Soon, we realised that our beneficiaries came from backgrounds of abuse and hardship. They carried a lot of emotional baggage. And they could not concentrate on the classes. We realised that we needed to provide them with emotional support, too, to bring out their joy and creativity,” says Uma. “And there were a lot of mistakes, at first. Many of the women had never even held a paintbrush before. But we never gave up on them, and more importantly, they never gave up on themselves.”

Some of the beneficiaries also had difficulty getting to the classes, so Project Smile provided transportation allowance as well.

Over time, these women flourished, says Uma. “Many of them have become wonderful artists, and even become trainers for other beneficiaries,” she adds. These women were also encouraged to use their new found skills to earn an income, either through selling their artwork via Project Smile or even on their own.

“the hand that serves is better than lips that pray.”

“Our vision was always to help women start their own small business; to help them learn how to sell, the art of bargaining and all that. One of our beneficiaries have even started her own business online, she had a lot of medical issues. She didn’t realise she could even draw, but today she’s doing exemplary work with her art,” she says.

But beyond just helping the women gain an income, says Uma, many of the women have such emotional turmoil within them. “That is really a core part of our work, and hats off to the Befrienders for doing such a marvellous job of helping our beneficiaries cope with their issues.”

Many of the women who come through the doors of Project Smile are victims of abuse, or have financial and medical difficulties. “When they come to class sometimes, we know that they have gone through some difficulties and we are always there for them. We reach out to them and check in on them.

“Some of them have no money, no food for their children, husbands are not working, and on top of that they have medical issues. It’s just too much for one woman to handle it all,” says Uma, and she tears up. “Some of them feel suicidal and they simply cannot cope with their problems and pain.”

What keeps Uma going is remembering that “the hand that serves, is better than lips that pray.”

As a child, she watched her father do his part in helping the poor and underserved. “It’s always been in me. It’s the beneficiaries who keep me going. At one point in the past I did want to give up — I thought, “Enough.” My energy was so low. I couldn’t sleep at night, their problems don’t seem to end, so how do we solve it? We could only do so much.”

But seeing the women flourish and grow, kept her spirits up, and encouraged by the committee and volunteers, Uma kept it up. Today, the charity has now helped support and empower close to 100 women and their families, who benefit from their services such as emotional support, empowerment and training, financial assistance, social integration, referrals and informational support.

It has been an incredibly rewarding experience for Uma, and although she has stepped down from her role as chairperson, it’s evident that at the end of it, putting a smile on the faces of these women will keep her going