Once lending money, now a helping hand

Thomas Wee

Thomas Wee, 73, set up a soup kitchen in Lalakhan, a rural neighbourhood in Santa Maria, a village north of Manila, which feeds the poor and the needy in the village. He also built Willing Hearts Orphanage, which provides shelter and education for orphans, abandoned children and those living on the streets in the province.

Wee had a wild and colourful past.  After completing his secondary education in 1957, he joined the Singapore General Hospital as a mortuary photographer, earning a pittance of$400 a month. He took home a lot more from illegal moneylending to housemen, doctors and other staff at the hospital who loved to play gin rummy and needed cash.

He also earned extra money as a bantamweight boxer, having been trained by British soldiers who were stationed here. Wee got married to a school teacher when he was 30. They have a son, 43, and a daughter, 41; both are lawyers.

After leaving SGH, he became an illegal bookie before starting a gambling syndicate which would make him thousands of dollars during weekends. He also went into the food business. Then the enterprising Mr Wee started to operate budget hotels in Tanjung Pinang in Indonesia knowing that   “People went there for women and alcohol.

Life was good, and he relished his luxury, wearing gold Rolexes and driving flashy Mercedes-Benz cars.

He was more than happy to help his maid, Ms Maria Santa Teresa, when she asked if he could send some old clothes to the poor in her village in 1998. She had been working for him for 12 years by then. He sent a 50kg box of used clothes. It became a monthly practice and, in addition to used clothes, he would also pack tinned food.

Two years later, curious to see who he was helping, he went to Lalakhan with his wife and children and was appalled by the living conditions of the villagers there. “I saw the houses, so different from ours. Nearly 20 people were crammed into one small place. When it rains, the water pours in. I saw bare-bodied children running around with no games to play,” he recalls.

He spent nearly $200,000 to buy a plot of land and build a new home for Ms Santa Teresa and her five sisters. The place doubled as a distribution centre for the goods he sent over. “The house was big and people thought the family was rich and went there looking for food,” he says. So Mr Wee decided to set aside more than $1,000 each month to feed the poor and hungry who showed up on the doorstep, many of whom were abandoned street children. He did not think much of his contributions then. “I was still doing my illegal business so it was easy come, easy go,” he says.

And then about six years ago, his right leg started giving him a lot of pain. His surgeon told him he needed knee replacement surgery. Fearful that he may lose the use of his limb, he started praying. When he recovered without surgery, he saw it as a sign. “God gave me back my right leg and wanted me to do good,” he says. “I decided it was my calling.”

Shortly after, Wee passed Ms Santa Teresa a chunky gold chain to sell. It fetched $9,000 at a jewellery store in Toa Payoh. He raised another $190,000 by trading in his Mercedes for a van and selling one of his hotels in Indonesia, as well as his five-room flat in Potong Pasir. He moved in with his son.

He used the money to buy an adjacent plot of land to build an extension so that he could take in more children. Ms Santa Teresa, 51, had by then left Singapore and was helping him run the place full-time. In 2008, he decided to officially register his project as Willing Hearts Orphanage and hire a social worker so that he could accept more children. The orphanage is now home to 16 children; the community soup kitchen feeds nearly 150 villagers.

But the septuagenarian – who visits Lalakhan every two months – is not resting on his laurels. He plans to build a 483 sq m new wing which can accommodate another 30 children. A good friend donated $40,000 to the project.

To help make what he does sustainable, Wee has started to operate a 740 sq ft thrift store called St Isidor’s Centre at Ang Ko Mio of Singapore, and opened a used goods store in Lalakhan, run by Ms Santa Teresa. The profits are used to help meet Willing Hearts’ operating expenses.

His wares in both shops are mostly donations from members of churches, including the one he attends, St Vincent de Paul. The $3,200 monthly rent for the thrift store and other miscellaneous expenses are footed by his friend, Mr Dave Cher, 47. The former territory manager of an IT firm gave up his job in June to help Mr Wee. “I’ve always wanted to do something to help the needy but never got round to doing it. When you see an old man like him doing what he does, you ask yourself: What are you waiting for?”

Wee has also started operating a homestay at the orphanage in Lalakhan. In the past year, it has been receiving about 10 visitors a month, mostly from schools and church groups in Singapore. The plan is to accommodate 30 visitors a month. “This will help pay for what we do,” says the grandfather of five. “And if they want to help us after seeing and understanding what we do, I’d be very happy. I can just stretch out my hand and ask you to donate money. But there would be no feeling if you don’t actually understand what I do.”

He says he has probably spent more than half a million dollars to build his projects. His family is very supportive of his work. His wife, Madam Alice Seah, 63, says: “I’m very touched by what he is doing. I support it totally because I really believe we have to give back to society.”

The same could not be said of some of his friends. Wee says: “They see that I now drive a van and have sold my house. They started looking down on me and ignoring me. They assumed I was down on my luck. No one even asked me why.”

In Lalakhan, however, the villagers will tell you there is no kinder man. Ms Santa Teresa says: “I never had to ask for anything. He saw how we lived and he would ask me, what more do you need? I would tell him about the homeless children, the hungry people. “Then we would discuss what could be done,” she says. And Wee will do it.

Video: http://www.straitstimes.com/through-the-lens/story/made-heaven

Source: http://www.overseassingaporean.sg/articles/d/from-illegal-bookie-to-orphans-hero /

The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited.

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