Alesia Koh

Diving
into Volunteerism

Life is full of ironies – and Alesia Koh is someone who can attest to this. Once, she had a fear of water. Today, she is a dive instructor.

In 2016, Koh chanced upon a video about the Society of People Support People (PSP) Malaysia on Our Better World (OBW) – SIF's digital initiative that highlights stories of people doing good in Asia. PSP is a non-profit organisation which conducts dives for people with disabilities. Watching the video, Koh was inspired by the divers with disabilities who braved the open sea. She got in touch with PSP, and went to Kuala Lumpur to help conduct pool training sessions before joining them as an instructor on a five-day dive in Sipadan, off the east coast of Sabah.

Koh had already been contemplating the idea of starting her own organisation where people with disabilities could be trained to participate in scuba diving activities. That experience with PSP encouraged Koh to set up DWB in Singapore in October last year. "I want to encourage diving for persons with disabilities (PWDs). After all, if they can do other sports, there's no reason for them not to enjoy the benefits of diving."

DWB, Koh's own non-profit, non-governmental organisation (NGO), is the occupational therapist's way of promoting inclusion, enabling PWDs to enjoy the excitement and social interaction that scuba diving brings. "Occupational therapy is about improving people's quality of life and maximising their performance and ability to participate in occupations or activities," says the 29-year-old. "I feel it's related to scuba diving, because I've seen how beneficial diving is for someone with a physical impairment and how liberating it feels to be underwater."

Taking down barriers and making friends

Says Francine Sim, president of PSP: "Throughout the pool sessions, Alesia was very patient, willing to listen to what the people with disabilities needed, and looking for the best solutions. She guided and supported the diver very well. She knew that someone's life was in her hands, and you could see her patience and care."

Sim has also learnt a lot of new diving skills from Koh, whom she says is "incredible". "Her endurance and determination left a big impact on the team."

Likewise, Koh is inspired and encouraged by PSP, and clearly admires their can-do spirit.

"These people make things work despite not having what we have," she points out. "It gave me a more global perspective, because some things we do in Singapore may not be relevant elsewhere."

Her work with PSP has also resulted in new friendships. She has kept in touch with the divers with disabilities and volunteers who both come from various countries around the region.

"I met people who have a real passion for what they do and don't expect anything in return. They played a big role in helping me decide what I wanted to do and achieve today."

As for DWB, Koh received $1,000 of seed funding from Awesome Foundation, and was able to fund its first event in November last year, where two participants with cerebral palsy were given a chance to try a pool dive.

But challenges remain. Koh says: "I'm really stoked that this has been a possibility. This has not been an easy journey, because it really takes us great effort to obtain the pool and to have a venue that would allow us accessible usage. I hope that more pool operators and people who rent diving equipment will join in the efforts to facilitate diving for PWDs."

According to Koh, hydrotherapy increases the body's range of movements and decreases pain. She believes that diving, which is totally immersive, would bring far greater benefits. Besides, diving is an equaliser because everyone experiences the same sense of weightlessness underwater. She also believes that it has the power to bring both able-bodied and PWDs together to learn more about each other, as human beings.

"People are simply put off by the unknown. When I take a person with disabilities to dive, both of us feel empowered and more confident. It reminds me of my own experience taking up diving to overcome my fear of water and how uplifting it was when I broke that barrier, thinking ‘now I can do anything'. Their physical disabilities shouldn't limit them from something so empowering. We need to increase people's awareness and insight."

No stranger to volunteerism

Volunteerism is not new to Koh, as she has always been involved in different kinds of volunteer work – from turtle-tagging to helping out at a refugee camp in Western Australia.

Koh' journey with the SIF began in 2012, when she went to Medan, Indonesia, as a specialist education volunteer team leader. She went back again to volunteer in 2013 and 2014. As the specialist volunteer for that collaboration between SIF and the Singapore Association of Occupational Therapists, Koh's team trained teachers at a school-and-orphanage for Indonesian children with special needs, sharing their expertise on how modifying the curriculum could suit the children's needs better.

She adds: "It was also about getting them to involve the kids in vocational activities, showing them that the children have the potential to achieve – even if not academically – as they can do things like farming, candle-making or cleaning."

Learning – a two-way street

"We are opening people's eyes to what those with disabilities can do. It's the same with diving. Even though it's a small event, it will impact Singaporeans. Some strangers have come forward and are keen to volunteer or do something similar."

Koh feels that people must learn from one another. On one of her overseas stints, she discovered how independent special needs children can be. In Medan, these children live on school grounds where they share household chores, are given the freedom to take positive risks and experience life through their own process of trial and error.

She adds: "I have learnt to be more sensitive to others, not pity them or promote my own values, because it's really about seeing potential in, and learning from one another. Volunteering is never a one-way street."

Koh wants to continue giving back for as long as she can.

"It's the sense of satisfaction you get from realising you made a difference in someone's life or perspective, no matter how small. In turn, that can spark them to do something more, such as volunteering. It's that snowball effect."