So­cial worker ex­traor­di­naire

A shoot­ing star gave hope to a high school­leaver and set her on her life’s jour­ney.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By MAJORIE CHIEW star2@thes­tar.com.my

THERE is a say­ing that when you wish upon a shoot­ing star, your dreams will come true. But Bar­bara Yen Yoke Wah, then 21, took the sight­ing of one as a sign to get out of her rut and left her home­town in Masjid Tanah, Malacca. That was the bold­est move she had made at that point and it changed her life for the bet­ter.

Af­ter high school, Yen could not find a job and gave home tu­ition for two years. Still, she as­pired to ei­ther be a teacher or a writer.

In 1967, Yen was over­joyed to be ac­cepted into the Teacher’s Train­ing Cen­tre in Malacca. But two months into her train­ing, she was “dev­as­tated” to be in­formed that she did not pass her med­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion.

Her his­tory of spinal tu­ber­cu­lo­sis (which she had since she was two) had fi­nally caught up with her, al­most ren­der­ing her im­mo­bile at one point.

That same year, she saw a shoot­ing star and de­cided to “seek her for­tune” else­where.

Fate saw to it that she ended up at the Spas­tic Chil­dren’s As­so­ci­a­tion of Se­lan­gor in Pe­tal­ing Jaya, as a vol­un­teer.

Shortly af­ter, Yen was of­fered a job as a tem­po­rary teacher and took on the pro­fes­sion for five years.

In 1972, she was ac­cepted by the Univer­sity of Sin­ga­pore (now Na­tional Univer­sity of Sin­ga­pore) to pur­sue So­cial Work stud­ies. “It changed my life,” said Yen, who is the mid­dle child of seven sib­lings.

Upon grad­u­a­tion in 1974, she re­turned to work as act­ing head of the spas­tic cen­tre.

In 1975, she joined the Univer­sity of Malaya Med­i­cal Cen­tre (UMMC) in Kuala Lumpur to be­gin her ca­reer as a med­i­cal so­cial worker and served at var­i­ous de­part­ments un­til her re­tire­ment in 2001.

Re­cently, Yen, 67, ful­filled one of her childhood am­bi­tions (to be a writer) when she launched her new book, Mo­ment 2 Mo­ment: Breath­less In Kuala Lumpur!, which took her two years to write.

In the book’s fore­word, Ajahn Brah­mavamso, her spir­i­tual teacher, wrote that her sto­ries are “full of warmth, hu­mour and wis­dom.”

“They will lighten up a gloomy heart and re­mind a per­son who has for­got­ten about kind­ness that it is out there in many places, giv­ing warmth and pur­pose to all our lives,” it read.

Yen said: “I was in­spired to be a so­cial worker to help peo­ple in need. My in­her­i­tance was a huge amount of ex­pe­ri­ence and many great friends.”

But she joked: “Another thing about so­cial work is the risk of get­ting breath­less (work never seems to end)!”

Yen was a paid so­cial worker right up to her re­tire­ment. At the spas­tic cen­tre, she drew the salary of a tem- po­rary teacher and at UMMC, she earned a grad­u­ate’s wage and her job was pen­sion­able.

A hard day’s work

“Life as a so­cial worker is chal­leng­ing. It can be mem­o­rable and some­times not short of drama, ex­cite­ment and risks, too. It can be very emo­tion­ally drain­ing as well,” she en­thused.

Med­i­cal so­cial work­ers, Yen ex­plained, help med­i­cal and nurs­ing stu­dents to see the so­cial im­pli­ca­tions of ill health on pa­tients and their fam­i­lies.

She ex­pe­ri­enced “al­tru­is­tic joy” when things went well with her pa­tients. When the go­ing got tough, she sim­ply “ploughed on”.

Yen (who stud­ied Bud­dhism af­ter re­tire­ment) said Brah­mavamso told

her that “a coun­sel­lor should be like a dust­bin with a hole at the bot­tom. At the end of the day, all its con­tents will be emp­tied”. She added: “If not, one is kept awake all night!”

She re­called her last day at work rather fondly. “I went around the dif­fer­ent units of the hos­pi­tal to say good­bye to the staff I worked with.”

Her first day of re­tire­ment was equally mem­o­rable, as Yen rem­i­nisced: “I was glad that I didn’t have to get up so early to rush to work.”

But such bliss lasted about a month be­fore rest­less­ness set in. “I felt like I had lost my iden­tity,” she said.

“Be­fore re­tire­ment, I could say I was a med­i­cal so­cial worker in UMMC. Af­ter re­tire­ment, I was a no­body.”

Yen strug­gled with what to do next, hav­ing been firmly en­trenched in the grind for so long. “I used to dream that I was still work­ing and had my punch card,” Yen said.

When she told her ex-col­leagues, they burst out laugh­ing and teased her that her dream was “out­dated”.

“Mana ada punch card lagi? (Where are there punch cards any­more?) We use name tags now lah.”

A month af­ter re­tire­ment, Yen took up a job at All Women’s Ac­tion So­ci­ety (Awam) as an ad­min­is­tra­tion man­ager.

In 2003, Yen worked for the Bud­dhist Gem Fel­low­ship (BGF) by help­ing co­or­di­nate train­ing cour­ses for para coun­sel­lors. She stopped work­ing in July this year af­ter 10 years of ser­vice.

“It’s to make way for younger vol­un­teers. How­ever, I am still in the exco of the BGF’s coun­selling unit,” she said, adding that she still con­ducts lec­tures and coun­selling on men­tal health and mar­i­tal mat­ters.

“Th­ese days, I go for med­i­ta­tion re­treats, do a bit of trav­el­ling, meet with friends or have an oc­ca­sional karaoke ses­sion with my sis­ters,” she said. “I hardly have time to read books ex­cept su­tras (apho­risms).”

Yen is fond of read­ing bi­ogra­phies and au­to­bi­ogra­phies, which are her sources of in­spi­ra­tion.

She has also writ­ten a draft of her sec­ond book ti­tled, Mo­ment 2 Mo­ment: One Foot Loose In The World.

“It’s about my childhood and trav­els. The sto­ries are more light­hearted,” she said.

Sto­ries to tell: bar­bara yen with prom­i­nent ac­tivist datin Paduka ma­rina ma­hathir at her book launch. The book, mo­men­t2­mo­ment:breath­less­inKualaLumpur fea­tures her ex­pe­ri­ences as a so­cial worker.

yen (left) gett­ting a grip on the con­cepts of art ther­apy at Univer­sity Hos­pi­tal.

blind cou­ples with re­la­tion­ship con­flicts get a taste of yen’s ten­der lov­ing ways dur­ing a talk.

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