'Helping one child at a time is good enough': Volunteer group uses sailboats to teach kids life values

When Edison Goh was first introduced to sailing some seven years ago, the 14-year-old then was apprehensive about the idea of being out at sea.

He recalled feeling “quite scared” when his teacher at Woodlands Secondary School told him about a sailing camp held at the National Sailing Centre in East Coast Park during the June Holidays.

“To be honest, I was quite bad at swimming… Water sports? What the heck,” Goh recounted to AsiaOne. 

After some persuasion, he decided to just try it out after hearing from his seniors about how interesting the camp was.

“I’m a very sporty person. I play frisbee and basketball, but [as someone] from a neighbourhood school, sailing was never in my mind at all,” said Goh.

Seven years on, Goh, now a full-time national serviceman, has come a long way from his fears of being out at sea.

This 21-year-old shared that sailing has allowed him to “get out of his comfort zone” and he is now looking forward to participating in several local regattas, or sailing races, now that Covid-19 restrictions have been relaxed.

Goh is one out of an estimated 2,000 students who have participated in this sailing and sustainability camp organised under the Big Brother Big Sister (BBBS) programme.

Learn as you play

Founder Jevan Tan told AsiaOne that BBBS was formed in 2014 to give young people a “safe place where everyone can be themselves” through the use of sailboats.

By designing activities to allow participants to “learn as they play” during these camps, Tan said he hopes this will teach them about generosity, responsibility, trust and patience. 

For example, they would give some kids a large amount of ice cream where they know that they would not be able to finish it, Tan described.

“[And we would say] ‘why don’t you share the ice cream with others who played [with you]?'” he explained. “Imagine you are hot and thirsty. And there’s a bunch of kids who won the ice cream and they share it with you, you will be quite happy right?

“This reinforces positive behaviour. The kids start making new friends, and they learn that sharing is good.” 

Initially targeted at students from secondary schools, their over 200-strong volunteer group is currently offering their free programmes to students from polytechnics, Institute of Technical Education (ITE) colleges and universities. 

Tan said: “We started with a very strong conviction among a group of friends that it was valuable to give young people these experiences.

“If we do it the right way, and we craft the activities the right way, helping one child at a time is good enough for us.”

Not just about sailing

Tan, 60, shared that this mentoring programme was born out of his love for the sea where some of his “best” childhood memories were climbing coconut trees and looking for fishes at the beach.

BBBS, which partners with stakeholders such as Outward Bound School, the Republic of Singapore Yacht Club and the Changi Sailing Club to run its programmes, is more than a sailing group, Tan said.

“We just happen to use a sailboat to teach values since this is how most of the older mentors and I grew up,” he explained.


One misconception that some people have about this fully volunteer-based group, Tan shared, is that they are only involved in environmental and sustainability efforts.

Besides the annual sailing and sustainability camp, students under the BBBS programme also receive career guidance in the form of industry visits and internships.

“The questions [that young people usually have] are ‘how am I going to make lots of money?’ and ‘what am I going to do after school?'” he explained.

“What we are doing is [bringing] some of the uncles and aunties who have attained some success – not just in business but also as community leaders – and give young people the chance to ask questions… show them the way.”

Paying it forward

One BBBS participant, Nurul Shahadah, 20, has taken her love for sailing to another level – by representing BBBS in both local and regional regattas.

Before the pandemic, this Republic Polytechnic student can often be found sharpening her seamanship skills at the National Sailing Centre.

Recalling how she was fascinated by how a sailboat works, Shahadah told AsiaOne: “Once, there was no wind at all, and we were just floating in the water. I felt so amazed that the boat works without an engine.

“Looking at how the water flows is just so therapeutic.”


Adding that she is grateful for the opportunity to take part in such an “expensive” sport like sailing in secondary school some five years ago, Shahadah shared that she now volunteers regularly with BBBS to run their sailing and sustainability camps as a “Big Sis” mentor.

“Back then, I was a bit immature, I didn’t know what I want [to do in life]. But after attending the mentoring sessions, I learnt about values [through] sailing. It’s like killing two birds with one stone,” she said.

Helping one child at a time through sailing 

BBBS’s last sailing camp was in 2019 just before the Covid-19 pandemic. That camp involved nearly 200 students from 19 schools, said Tan.

With Covid-19 restrictions easing, he shared that they are looking to restart their programmes to cater to students from local universities, polytechnics and ITE colleges.

While they are still unable to involve secondary school students for now, their goal remains – to “help one child at a time” by equipping them with life values through a sailboat.

On his volunteer work with BBBS, Tan said:  “[This] adds so much value in my life. The joy when I see that I’ve impacted a young person, and they come over and tell you stories about their lives.

“Rather than I’m always working, always looking at [myself], it gives me a sense of purpose… a fulfilling life.”


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