What Do Elevators And Poverty Have In Common?

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Have you ever been trapped in an elevator before? 

My first ever experience of being trapped was on the way up an elevator at a public low-cost housing area (Program Perumahan Rakyat - PPR) together with 9 student volunteers. 

Before panic broke out, I took a deep breath and gave myself a quick pep talk: 
"Alright, look, listen, and think, Kai Shen.  You can do it and you have to do it".

After a quick safety check on my volunteers to ensure that no one had any distress reaction, I did my best to help everyone remain calm and assure them that everything was under control.  

40 minutes feels like eternity when trapped in a heated metal enclosure with diminishing oxygen with each breath.  Anxiety creeps in quickly when people around you become more restless as time passes.  I can't remember the last time I've felt so helpless, being unable to do anything but wait for help to come our way.  

Imagine 10 people trapped in this elevator for 40 minutes

This experience, I've come to realise, is like a metaphor for people living in poverty.  People living in poverty are like us being trapped in an elevator; they want to improve their life (just like how much we long for a breath of fresh air) but there are so many barriers to break through.  Sadly, they are often perceived as lazy and unwilling to work.  

This couldn't be further from the truth.  

As part of the Family Services team at GG, I work closely with families in urban poor communities that are going through challenging circumstances.  I help them improve their family well-being, address issues such as unemployment, access to education, and financial management so that they can be resilient in the long-term.   

My elevator experience reminds me of one family in particular.    

One of the families under my care is a young widow and mother of two young children (a newborn baby & a 5 year-old child), whose husband recently passed away due to heart failure.
While still grieving the loss of her husband, her home was broken into and all her furniture, appliances and clothes, stolen; leaving it completely bare.  She also faced a debt close to RM 1,500 due to stolen and illegal usage of electricity from her home by other residents.  
With a donated stove from a nearby mosque, she cooked their family's daily meals on the floor because there was no table left.  I cannot imagine having to cook and eat on the floor every day.  

"Tiap-tiap hari, kami hanya makan ikan bilis, telur dan roti saja" she told me.  They could only eat non-perishable food items because they had no fridge to store proper food.  

Despite these odds, she remained strong, never once giving up on doing all she could to  improve her family well-being.  What I had imagined only happening in movies was cold, hard, reality right in front of me. 

Finding out her cooking stove remains on the floor while helping her to install a new fridge

Helping her earn income to sustain her family's livelihood was our first priority.  For her to leave home for a full-time or part-time job was impossible because she has to take care of her two young children. 

For starters we arranged for some basic furniture for her including an installation of a fridge so that she could feed her family properly and a cabinet to store her remaining clothes.

This was what her family was left with after they were robbed.  All her remaining belongings on the floor. 

With the fridge, she managed to make some kuih and sell it daily to earn income.  While this has helped her to earn some income, it wasn't the most ideal because the elevator in her housing area doesn't always function.

When I visit the families I work with, my colleague and I have to climb 20 floors just to get to their units when the elevators break down.  I cannot imagine how much more difficult it would be for this single mother who suffers from a hyperthyroid condition having to walk up and down 20 floors to sell her kuih.  She's still struggling to earn stable income to sustain the family.

Children, adults and the elderly have to walk up 20 floors whenever the elevator is not working

How else can this mother to be empowered to take care of her own family?

The conventional way to get her a job is not practical.  We need more platforms for flexible employment opportunities that enable especially stay-at-home single mothers to continue to care for their children while earning an income.  The people in urban poor communities have high motivation to work but confronted with odds that many of us take for granted, like a simple elevator issue.  They have no access to transportation, no access to child care, are vulnerable to crime, have poor living conditions which make it difficult to find and sustain employment.  

GG provides temporary financial aid to help such families meet their basic needs so that they can focus on regaining financial stability.  Needs like helping this single mother buy milk powder for her baby girl.  We provide this financial aid while helping them to secure a job or while waiting for approval from other welfare agencies.  Areas of financial support includes food allowance, rental allowance, school related fees and transport cost.   

Handouts are quick fixes and quick fixes are not sustainable.

We believe in a "hand-up" approach because we want to also reduce the long-term dependence on social welfare system in fighting poverty.  Aside from the financial aid, we are helping her develop a more sustainable way to generate income.  After finding out that she had basic sewing skills, we provided her a sewing machine as another avenue for her be financially self-sufficient. 

After a few months of journeying with her, we are now glad to see that she is now earning income through sewing jobs.  She can work and care for her two young children at the same time.

It warms my heart to see how much she's changed since we first began working with her.  From someone who was in deep despair she's grown in confidence to take care of her family and is empowered to continue to love and provide the best for her children. 

That's our vision for Family Services.  To empower families so that they are self-sufficient to care for their children’s wellbeing.
After 40 minutes of being trapped in that elevator, my volunteers & I have never been so grateful for breath of fresh air.  

Being trapped in a poverty cycle, unfortunately, is not that simple.  I'm glad that I'm part of a team that helps families break it. If you would like to play a part in helping more families like this single mother, you can, by giving

Or if you are a company that can offer flexible skills-based employment (like tailoring, packaging, administrative/data entry) do get in touch with us at info@gengemilang.org
You can enable such single mothers to continue caring for their children while earning a living.  To us, every little bit counts and we want to help as many as we can.  

It's only fitting that I conclude the way I began.  With some elevator trivia.  


What should you do if you ever get trapped in an elevator?

I leave you some fun facts. 

Never attempt to force the doors open and climb out of the elevator because it may be in between floor levels.  I'll spare you the gory details should you find yourself climbing out half way and the elevator suddenly moves again.  That is a life threatening situation.  Being trapped in an elevator, althought it may feel like it, is not.

If you’re worried about the elevator falling, don’t be. It’s a common myth that elevators are held up by only one rope.  In truth, elevators are held by multiple steel cables, each of which are up to supporting a full elevator car.   Again, don’t leave the elevator, being inside is the safest place you can be.

Kai Shen
Family Service