Philanthropy was always in Margaret Kogilavani’s mind but it was a chance sighting of two very small destitute children and tracking them to their slum dwelling that actually made her seriously go into community service full-time.
That was almost a decade ago when the successful career-cum-businesswoman decided to leave her job to convert one of the houses in that very slum into a halfway home providing food and shelter for its needy members. Today, the wooden house in Kampung Pandan serves about 55 people, which includes children and a dozen senior citizens.
When news of her service reached Malaysian Care, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), they decided to rope her in to expand her repertoire. “I learnt so much about community development from them,” begins Margaret. With Malaysian Care’s support Margaret’s foray into social service expanded as she also began to learn more about the extent of urban poverty in Malaysia.
“The situation is very sad really. It’s especially heart-breaking to see the number of children not attending school or dropping out very early owing to poverty. The more the stories I was hearing, the clearer it became that it all boils down to the issue of human hunger,” says Margaret, whose early days in Kampung Pandan started by cooking meals for the poor that walked into the home that she had set up.
“I didn’t have any major plans. Just wanted to do what I could. The elderly people were mainly abandoned and alone and needed support and care. The children, well, many did not attend school and were loitering aimlessly, so apart from feeding, I also began to teach them reading, writing and Mathematics because otherwise I couldn’t imagine how their futures were going to be,” explains the single mother of two children, still in school and college.
With the support of friends giving their time and a dedicated funder contributing food items, the Kampung Pandan home began functioning independently and Margaret’s attention was diverted to another place in dire need of similar service.
In the topmost floor of a middle-cost flat in Puchong, is a small 3-bed flat easily identifiable by the mound of footwear outside its wide-open doors. The flat opens to a small living area converted to a classroom – with a white board mounted on one wall. There’s a small kitchen and a little table with a large container of fried rice. There are two more small rooms filled with children playing carom with four boards, watched by two young minders. Everything about the place is small, but for the service taking place there.
This is another ‘centre’ under the care of Margaret who owns the unit. It is open from 9am-9pm every day except on Sundays, to give ‘Mama’ as Margaret is fondly known to her charges aged 6-14, a well-deserved break. The break is not so much for her body as it is for her mind and heart.
“When I first came to survey this place about eight years ago after hearing about how bad the situation was here, I spent time just observing the activities of the young boys and girls of all these blocks – of which there were many, who did not attend school owing to either poverty or simply disinterest. Slowly, I came to know of their desperation and heart-wrenching stories. It was all sadly very familiar…”.
The urban poor malaise is an open secret and as a seasoned social service worker Margaret was not shocked. By that time, she had already weaned herself out of an abusive marriage and gone into community service full time, with mentoring and financial support from the man she calls her guide, Timothy Loh of the NGO, Community at Heart, and the full backing of her two children who were very young then.
“The stories were similar as the slum folk of my centre in Kampung Pandan but the volume and scale are much bigger here. Extreme poverty, broken families, too many mouths to feed, exposure to violence and dangerous elements all mean one thing – the children are the biggest victims. Many children drop out of schools early, some have never even stepped into schools and they become easy picks for exploiters. I’ve seen and heard many a child tell me they willingly offer sexual services or ply drugs for easy money so they don’t go hungry. Often they have to wander around until their mothers return in the night after long hours of work, to have their one meal a day.”
Margaret started her project in Pangsapuri Enggang in Puchong the same way as she did in Kampung Pandan. Her daughter Phoebe and son Jyotham are very much a part of their mother’s journey in social service and Margaret cannot be grateful enough considering she regularly took in strange, helpless children to bunk with them.
In fact, she began raising one of these children, a boy called Sridaar from the age of 13. “It was like a story out of a gangster movie. He quite literally was being pursued by a gang of boys bent on killing him. I still remember how he ran up and crouched behind me when I was facing his angry attacker wielding a cleaver. To cut a long story short, he had been abandoned by his family who could not handle his ‘roughness’ and was left to fend for himself, with no education and no roof over his head.”
Today, Joseph Sridaar is almost 21 and continues to live with Margaret and has become her right-hand man, driving her around, assisting with the daily manning of the two centres and even acting as big brother to the little ones.
“Nothing gives me more satisfaction than being with these children. In my own way I help to nurture, educate, counsel and train them in courses such as baking so they can escape the fate of many of their parents.” As she speaks, a young Malay girl walks over to ‘salam’ Mama’s hand. Margaret sighs, “Another school dropout and she’s only 12. Her sister is 15 and also stays at home because their single mother cannot afford their bus fare.”
Margaret’s allowance from the NGO will stop in a few months and she’s not sure how she would go on with her charity work in Puchong but she’s a strong believer in faith. “Well, God’s brought me this far and knows how much I enjoy doing this so I’m sure help will come from somewhere. All I need actually is provisions as I can manage the rest. Help will come. I’m sure.”
Margaret speaks with a gentle smile, adding that more than food it is volunteers that are hard to come by. But that again is no problem for her as some of the older children who have journeyed with her over the years come back to help, some on a regular basis, like Vaishnavi, her other assistant in Puchong.
When asked what words of advice she has for readers, Margaret hits the nail on the head. “Urban poverty is all around you. Just open your eyes and start doing your part.” It’s as simple as that really. We can’t afford to ignore or ‘leave it to the others’ as the problem is massive, very real and very close to us.
If you wish to help Margaret in any way, she can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or call +6016-337 8607.