How much does it cost to spread happiness? Two dollars. That's what Hey, You Got Mail! founders 3rd Sergeant (3SG) (NS) Triston Tan and 3SG (NS) Advait Bharat Deshpande believe.
Bringing more joy than bubble tea
The plan is simple: for less than the price of a cup of bubble tea, you can send a handwritten card to a loved one to say a safety-distanced "Hi!", and Hey, You Got Mail! will send a card to a senior living in a nursing home.
The idea first came about in April 2020, when the Circuit Breaker period was announced.
3SG (NS) Tan and 3SG (NS) Advait – together with their Victoria Junior College schoolmates Joanne Yep, Tan Wei Lin and Park Jiwon, as well as Jaslyn Muk (whom they met playing computer games) – felt they wanted to do something for the community.
Noticing that a lot had already been done for migrant workers and frontline workers, the six founders, all 20, decided that they wanted to help an often-forgotten group in society – senior citizens living on their own or in nursing homes.
"Isolation among seniors had worsened because of COVID-19. If people like us were already so bored being stuck at home, even with Netflix and food delivery, what more seniors with no access to these services?" 3SG (NS) Tan explained.
"We came up with Hey, You Got Mail! as a way to reach out to them and tell them, 'Hey, someone is thinking about you during this time.'"
Perseverance and innovation
Launched on 23 Jun last year, the non-profit group now works with 13 beneficiaries, which include nursing homes and Senior Citizens' Corners. It sends out about 300 cards to one to two homes every month.
But the team remembers the early days, when they had to work hard to gain the trust of their partners. 3SG (NS) Tan, who serves as the initiative's Director of Liaison and Outreach, recalled months of cold-emailing homes and waiting anxiously for replies.
In those trying times, it was his training as an infantryman during National Service (NS), where he was a Section Commander in 3rd Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment, that helped him push ahead.
He said: "Some people dread becoming infantrymen (because the training is very tough) and choose to be miserable about it. But the most important thing I learnt is that a good mindset and a positive outlook will bring you further.
"It was the same with Hey, You Got Mail! – when people didn't reply, I would tell myself to persist and continue doing what I do, and not get discouraged by small setbacks."
Having a lean team in Hey, You Got Mail! also meant they had to be creative in maximising manpower. To do this, 3SG (NS) Advait taught himself web design to get the initiative's webpage off the ground. He also wrote programs to help speed up administrative work for the team.
"As the Director of Innovation, I find ways to make our lives easier and more efficient. For instance, I developed a Telegram bot to keep track of our finances and logistics, such as the materials for making the cards. This replaces the need for a secretary," he said.
Finally, the first home, Ling Kwang Home for Senior Citizens, responded, and in July 2020, the first batch of greeting cards was delivered to their awaiting recipients.
Achieving the impossible
Today, Hey, You Got Mail! can count on a pool of 161 volunteers who take turns coming together every other weekend to make the cards and distribute them.
The initiative has also been given a space at Temasek Shophouse to carry out its activities, and is a recipient of the oscar@sg fund. The fund, given by Temasek Trust, supports ground-up initiatives that contribute to helping Singaporeans in need because of the pandemic.
3SG (NS) Tan and 3SG (NS) Advait have not forgotten how far they've come.
"I remember sitting on the floor to make the cards, thinking it was very laborious. But it all finally came together when I saw a photo of an old lady smiling at the card she received. It made me realise that we were on to something good," said 3SG (NS) Advait.
Meeting people of all kinds from different backgrounds as a Section Trainer at the Basic Military Training Centre (BMTC) has helped him to become more empathetic to those in the community who are struggling.
"Some recruits (under my charge) were considered youth-at-risk and I had to look out for them. It was difficult for me to relate to them at first. But the experience has taught me to understand them better and be more open. It's broadened my mindset to how I view society and the kinds of issues people are facing."
As for 3SG (NS) Tan, it's celebrating every achievement with the team: "It started with 'Look, a nursing home finally replied!' And then we saw bigger milestones like our first article in the news, and when we got a space at Temasek Shophouse.
"We never thought we would progress to this stage. I really appreciate the little celebrations we had after hitting each milestone; it's one of things that kept us going.
"We want to (push the limits of) what we can do, and to see what the six of us can achieve together – something we never thought possible."
To find out more about Hey, You Got Mail!, or to send a card to a friend or loved one, visit heyyougotmail.com.