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TAKING HEART

Manulife US Reit staff bring cheer to the elderly

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Manulife US Reit's Ms Smith (back row, third from left) with some of her employees at Dignity Kitchen.

Singapore

IT is a Wednesday morning, and Dignity Kitchen is bustling. Glass mugs clink against the metal table at the drink stall as tea is brewed, coffee is mixed and drinks are hurriedly turned out.

Other staff survey the tables that have been laid out, fingertips still stained with flour and hair still left in their caps. They have a busy day ahead of them.

A buffet spread has been set up in the room. Staff take up their places, uncovering steaming tureens of fragrant coconut rice, fresh vegetables and crispy fried chicken.

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Near the windows, a karaoke booth has been set up and some staff are even singing some songs to test it out.

But these workers are not Dignity Kitchen's regular employees. They are from Manulife US Real Estate Investment Trust, a Reit established in Singapore and listed on the Singapore Exchange since May 2016.

The staff are here to cook and serve lunch to elderly patrons of Methodist Welfare Services (MSW) as part of the Reit's corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme.

"Manulife, as a group in Asia, have been focusing on older people, and that's been a theme for us here in Singapore. This group is particularly dear to our hearts," says Manulife US Reit CEO Jill Smith.

Project Dignity is a social enterprise established in 2010. It was set up to train individuals with mental and physical disabilities as the founder, Seng Choon, found that just five out of 100 individuals with disabilities here are employed.

The organisation provides hawker training and runs its own food court, Dignity Kitchen, which is staffed by the disabled individuals. This is the second time Manulife US Reit has worked with Dignity Kitchen.

Ms Smith says she had originally heard of Dignity Kitchen through word of mouth.

The company had previously organised other events with hospices and hospitals.

Last year, together with Dignity Kitchen, US Manulife Reit organised a session to give haircuts to the elderly beneficiaries. The company chose to target the elderly as many of its target audience are in the older age brackets.

But why is doing good important to a company that mostly dabbles in numbers?

"First of all, obviously, we want to give back to society. And we want to make sure our staff have that caring spirit in their DNA," explains Ms Smith. "This is a theme we brought out in our sustainability report last year. It's a 'living through giving' theme, because giving is not just about money, but it can also be about activity."

Yeo Hiok Keat, the general manager of Dignity Kitchen, agrees. He says he chose to partner with Manulife to show them how the "other side" of society lives.

"This helps to build the business as well as educate people about empathy, and understanding that it does not need a lot to help others in need. We are all part of this society and how we can integrate everyone."

According to Ms Smith, sometimes, her staff members surprise her with their different talents. "This is what I find so riveting. I found that one of them has the most beautiful voice when singing karaoke," Ms Smith notes, referring to a colleague of hers who was testing the karaoke system and ended up giving a mini concert.

She points out that these are not skills you see everyday in an office environment, where the staff are busy at work in front of their computers the whole day.

During a recent hospital visit, for example, she discovered the artistic talent in some of her employees that she wouldn't have otherwise known about. She also says that these events allow her staff to form deeper bonds with one another, be it by preparing meals, organising games or putting on entertainment for the elderly.

CSR might be viewed these days as just another item on the list to check off, but Ms Smith begs to differ.

"We have a legal requirement to have CSR, but it's much more than that. Everybody around the world realises that society needs a helping hand and we are all a part of society. We must give back what we can because we are all very lucky and privileged in our business."