Like every mother, Madam Fong Wai Kheng insists she has no favourite among the 20 children she has looked after.
Two of her children are her own - a son, 33, and a 32-year-old daughter - but the 64-year-old housewife has been a mother to 18 foster children as well.
"I love them like my own kids. I am a mother to all of them," said Madam Fong, who was born in 1955 and is a member of the Merdeka Generation.
Many of the children she looked after were from troubled families, and some were victims of neglect or even abuse.
Being a foster parent is not without challenges, said Madam Fong, but even after 19 years, she has no plans to stop. She said she is lucky because when her own children were younger, they helped with work around the home so that she could focus on the foster children. They remain supportive of her.
Madam Fong, whose husband died in 2006, lives with her daughter in a three-room flat in Ang Mo Kio.
She believes her nurturing nature was shaped by her childhood. Madam Fong came from a humble family that lived on a farm in Jurong, rearing pigs and ducks. To supplement their income, her father also worked in a jewellery shop so that his wife could focus on Madam Fong and her four sisters.
"We did not have much. But we had each other. We were happy with what we had," she said. "My parents provided a loving environment for us to live in. I wanted to share this joy of family with other children."
After completing her O levels, she picked up sewing and book-keeping and, at the age of 20, joined the workforce. She first worked as a clerk and three years later, handled the financial accounts for a company.
She got married when she was 24 years old and moved into a flat in Bendemeer. Soon after, she stopped working to care for her two children.
Her interest in fostering was sparked by her mother-in-law, who was once a foster parent also. "I saw how she cared for the children. And I made up my mind that it was something I wanted to do eventually," she said, adding that her husband supported her interest too.
Her first foster child was a one-year-old boy, and it was an experience that changed her life.
"When he first came to my home, he cried every day," said Madam Fong. "He wanted to be hugged and carried all the time. I spent a lot of time with him. I hugged him to make him feel secure. I played with him the whole day. Over time, he became happier," she said.
After about six months, the child was returned to his family. "Even though I spent only about half a year with him, when he returned to his family, I cried. I really missed him."
Sad as it was, the experience encouraged her to continue fostering.
The longest a child has been with her is about 10 years.
Madam Fong said fostering has made her aware that, while she cares deeply for the children, she must be ready to let them go when the time comes. "I miss them. But I am happy for them when they are reunited with their families," she said. "It is a bittersweet moment."
She keeps minimal contact with her foster children who have returned home. "They should be given the space to bond with their families," she said. "I want these children to know that there are people out there who do love and care for them, and want them to feel that they are not alone at any point in their lives."
Fostering can be tough. She recalled caring for a teenage boy who had mood swings and did not know how to control his emotions. "With some patience and love, he blossomed into a respectful and resilient young man," said Madam Fong, adding that the child eventually received awards for good character.
She has also had her fair share of teenager issues. "When I advise the older ones, sometimes they will ask why I keep repeating myself," laughed Madam Fong. "If they talk back, I will be patient. But if I am upset, I will go and do some gardening outside my home."
"I really love children, and find them endearing.
"When it gets tough, I think about the deep bond I have forged with my children over the years and that motivates me to push on and not give up," said Madam Fong.
"I also feel proud when my foster children grow into fine young men and women."
One of the children she looked after is now studying in a university. "I feel that by caring for them, I have empowered them to carve out their own paths," she added.
Madam Fong has been recognised by the Ministry of Social and Family Development for her fostering duties. In 2016, she received the Outstanding Volunteer Award.
The ministry holds regular roadshows to promote fostering, with one taking place at Causeway Point from Friday to Sunday.
Madam Fong is now looking after a 17-year-old boy, and has no plans to stop working as a foster parent.
"There are many children out there who are struggling and living in difficult families. Many of them lack safe homes to live in," she said.
"I encourage parents to step forward to provide these children with a safe and warm home."
Correction note: This article has been edited for clarity.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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