When Mrs Nirmala Gopiendran was a young girl, her mother would often tell her about her volunteer work at the juvenile court, helping the young who stole and ran away from home as they lacked guidance.
These stories left a deep impression on the young girl, who thought of becoming a social worker.
Later, she would volunteer for a year at the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (Minds), known then as the Singapore Association of Retarded Children. The stint made her decide to go into social work.
Today, at the age of 70, Mrs Gopi is still on the front line, devoting herself to her special calling. "Social work is my passion," said the social worker of about 40 years.
Asked why she has not retired, Mrs Gopi laughed, then said: "Actually I didn't realise I was in this sector for so long! But whenever you see a parent who is able to see the success in his or her child, that makes you think you can really make a difference in their lives."
She did try to retire after 21 years at Rainbow Centre Margaret Drive School. In 2011, she left the special school for multiple disabilities and autism intending to retire, but got back to social work the following year after a call from the Cerebral Palsy Alliance of Singapore (CPAS).
Mrs Gopi has been at the CPAS since then, starting as a senior social worker and now heading the social work department there.
"Of course, my grandkids want me to (retire). They will ask me, when am I going to see them," she said.
Mrs Gopi, who is married to a vet, is a mother of two and has two grandsons who live in Australia with her elder son, 40, and his wife.
When she goes to Australia to visit them during the school holidays, she would often visit social service providers there, too, just to see how they run things.
CPAS executive director Cynthia Wong called Mrs Gopi an "iconic and dedicated social worker".
"We have not only benefited from her rich experience but seen her dedication in improving the support group services for our clients such as holding workshops for fathers and siblings of our clients and setting up a very well-equipped parents' room to offer respite and serve as a platform for building more connections," said Ms Wong.
Mrs Gopi started her career as a medical social worker in 1974 after completing a post-graduate diploma in social work at the then Nanyang University.
She spent 2½ years with the paediatric unit at Singapore General Hospital before she was rotated to KK Women's and Children's Hospital, where she worked in the obstetrics and gynaecology department.
"I saw teenage pregnancies, unwed mothers, adoption cases."
Once, a mother brought her teenage daughter into the hospital because the girl had missed her period. A urine test found her pregnant and the mother was outraged.
"The mum was very angry with us, angry at the social worker, angry at the hospital. And she just left," she said.
Mrs Gopi took note of the girl's expected due date, and when that came around, visited her home to make sure everything was fine.
Such dedication was also evident later when she was working at the Rainbow Centre. Once, she called a mother up offering her son a spot in the school. The mother accepted but when the school year rolled around, Mrs Gopi did not see the boy in class.
"The mum didn't want people to know that the child was in a special school. I could have easily given up on this because I had a waiting list and I could go to the next child. But something in me told me to pursue this matter," she said.
She convinced the mother to let her autistic son try out Rainbow Centre for two weeks, and see if there were improvements. The mum agreed, the boy stayed on at Rainbow. Later, the boy entered a mainstream primary school. Mrs Gopi helped his teachers understand how to manage him. He has since graduated from a polytechnic and joined the workforce.
"You persevere, you believe in the human potential," she said.
Today, things have changed.
"Singapore is moving in the direction of an inclusive society. Parents now are more receptive, the public is more accepting," said Mrs Gopi.
In fact, when she started out in social work in the 1970s, she used to have to explain to bewildered parents referred to her by hospitals what their child's special needs mean. Today, parents are well read and come armed with questions and social workers have to keep up by going for training.
"We've so many special schools now," she said. "There were special schools run by Rainbow Centre, Minds, Association for Persons with Special Needs. But there weren't purpose-built schools. We just took primary schools that were available and converted them into special schools."
She said she hoped social workers can get more recognition with clear career paths and better pay packages. And that Singapore will go beyond the compulsory special needs education - which will kick in by 2019 - to continually engage those with special needs after they are done with school at 18.
While the work can be rewarding, there are times when she feels tired.
She said: "There are times when you really burn out, dealing with human problems, human issues. Then I take a time-out, take a break, go on holiday, go away from all these." Or she would have a good cry with the parents of the special needs children she works with. "Sometimes I cry. I cry with them," she said.
But she has no regrets about a career in social work - if she could relive her youth, she said she would still "go for social work".
The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.