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Catching Up with Cheryl

Updated: Dec 11, 2022

An excerpt from the Interview with Cheryl, former champion of the Storytime project in Singapore.


How did you find out about storytime?

It started when I had this restlessness in my soul and found driving capitalism very draining.

I stumbled upon IDEO David Kelley’s Creative Confidence TED Talk. I read his book and decided to try out one of his methods: To do something new.

In August 2015, I signed up for two Novoed’s online courses: Acumen’s Storytelling for Change and IDEO’s Design Kit: Human-Centred Design. I met Noel, Founder of Storytime at Storytelling for Change course. His assignments triggered my chucked aside dream: to give back my design talents to society. For me, it was a dream came true.

So you met the founder through storytelling for change course then how did you get involved?

It was a series of serendipities. One thing led to another. It started when my sister, Alicia, was clearing her books and I thought about Storytime. I shipped 5kg of books to India. It was costly.

But it was IDEO’s human-centred design course that got me fully on board. It presented an opportunity to explore and solve a real-life design challenge. Approached Noel to find out if there was a design challenge to solve in Storytime. The design challenge was: How might we create a sustainable learning commons for children in low-income schools at the lowest cost possible while delivering child-centric design and world-class experience.

You collected more than 150 kg of pre-loved storybooks and board games in Singapore, and the surprising fact is that the bulk of the books came from strangers, how did that happen?

In October 2015, plans were made to visit the Chennai school in Jan 2016, to gain a better insight into the people we were designing for. I thought since I had 30 kg of luggage allowance, I might as well maximise it by bringing books along. We were looking for books aged 5 to 15 years old and most of my friends had given their books away.

I refused to give up. I approached people I crossed paths at work and was encouraged to find like-minded individuals who believed in the power of putting books in the hands of children.

I cold-emailed strangers and some of them responded. Kenny Leck from BooksActually was the first to respond and he donated from his own personal stash. Mei Ling of Supermama donated from her personal stash and even bought some new ones too.

I approached people I crossed paths at work and was encouraged to find like-minded individuals who believed in the power of putting books in the hands of children.

Heajun was this amazing lady who collected more than 100 kg of books through friends. She filled her car to the brim with books when a school was moving out. I was touched by her enthusiastic support.

How are you going to ship them over?

Good question. After we received the massive amount of books from Heajun, we froze collection. We had to figure storage space and shipping options. I was quite optimistic at first thinking that the airlines would be happy to waive excess baggage allowance for a good cause, but they replied saying I had to follow the rules. I wrote to shipping companies to waive shipping costs but none replied.

Another option we were looking were people travelling back to Kerala to carry books so we can save the shipping costs. For several months, we found none. We thought we had to mobilise our last resort to pay for shipping costs when the funds could be better used to build libraries.

On 30 Jan 2016, Daylon donated his personal stash of books, board games and stationery in the morning. In the afternoon, he connected us with Shab who was travelling to Kerala and happy to carry 20kg. It renewed hope that there were like-minded people who could help make book collection in Singapore sustainable.

What were some of the best advice you have received along the way?

In November 2015, I met Stoney who had built a school in Nepal for the past 15 years. She knocked some sense into my head.

  1. I cannot expect people to think like me or follow what I want to do.

  2. Implement what is needed, not what I think is right for the school and learn to manage my expectations.

  3. Be careful about driving materialism and concentrate more on values-based teaching programs etc. A lot of things do not need so much furniture or infrastructure. Keep things simple.

  4. Do halves. Do not spoon feed people, if not they will be too dependent. Just go halfway and ask others to go the other half so there is a fair share of effort.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

In December 2015, I had a cuppa with Jean of Logue. She shared some advice on setting the frameworks and foundations right. She said, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

What was it like to return to your alma mater Nanyang Polytechnic to share about Storytime?

It was my first design talk and the biggest talk I have done – a lecture theatre filled with year one to three Visual Communication students. When I met Ms Lee, my lecturer at an art gallery, she egged me on to share my design experience at poly, uni, work and giving back my talents to society.

I forgot I had stage fright and I was thoroughly enjoying myself.

When you want something so much, you will find the courage to do things you have never done before.

How did you raise funds for the project ?

I contributed some. It came to a point where I realised if I were to take the project to the next level, I needed funds from others to be self-sustainable. I shared with my friends and family about storytime and how they could contribute. There was quite an interesting spectrum of responses: Some ignored, some told me this was a very good cause but no further support, pledges that never came in and generous donations from friends and family members.

In December 2015, I put my love for hosting a great party into a successful high tea fundraiser and invited my friends. Even though only a few could come, my friends were very generous.

What were some lessons you learnt?

  1. You do not wait till you’re retired to give back to society. The time is now. The reason I resonated so much with the founder’s story was because we were both in our twenties. He showed me that ordinary people like you and me can do extraordinary things. Extraordinary things do not necessary need to be big things, they can be simple things and you will be amazed when you give selflessly.

  2. Don’t be afraid to ask strangers for help. I got to witness first hand a Singapore rich in social currency. It was heartening to meet like-minded people along the way.

  3. There is a delicate balance between waiting and doing. There is value in waiting it out when you do not know what to do next. Let things solve naturally. Other times, you just got to make things happen. We gained a lot of momentum and support from people but now we are at this stage when we need to figure how best to maximise the talents of others. We have not figured everything out, but that is okay, we will figure out along the way.

  4. Sometimes, we need to go slow in order to scale faster and better later.

Don’t be afraid to ask strangers for help.

Cheryl (right) in conversation at an IDEO event

What can others do to help?

  1. Help carry books to Kerala, India: If you are in Singapore and happy to help carry books on your trips to Kerala.

  2. Donate: The funds will go into building libraries

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