“Paddles up!”

Twenty oars raise into the air in unison.

“And go!”

Paddles dip into the water, as the dragon boat cuts through the Kallang River in quick, synchronised strokes. But the athletes powering through the water aren’t your ordinary dragon boaters. They’re foreign domestic workers (FDWs), whom most of us call “maids” or “domestic helpers”, who have chosen to spend their precious day off on Sundays under the blazing sun – and sometimes even pouring rain – to train.

The group of around 30 mostly-Filipino FDWs are part of Race2Share (R2S), a non-profit group which organises the training sessions and empowers FDWs through sports such as dragon-boating, triathlons and marathons. When we met them in November, the team had been training hard for the 35th Singapore River Regatta, our island’s biggest and most famous dragon boat race.

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Helming the R2S “boat” are Filipino expats Jen Macapagal, 29, and Marian Seva, 32, who founded the organisation two years ago to raise funds for charities here and in the Philippines, while promoting social inclusivity through sports (read more about them at the end of this post).

“Through sports, we can create a nurturing and inclusive environment for members to grow and establish new relationships regardless of one’s economic background,” Jen shares.

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Sporting For Change

Although they’re far from home, these FDWs have found community and purpose here beyond the call of duty. The team shirts that are donned for every training session and race bear the tagline “Paying It Forward Through Sports”, a reminder these women aren’t just racing for personal glory.

“My passion is to help others through running, so I joined R2S because their vision is also my vision,” says Jannah Pascua, 43, who has worked in Singapore for 12 years.

Besides dragon boating, she also regularly runs marathons for charity, such as the Great Eastern Women’s Run, and is part of sports volunteer group Team Nila, where she has helped out at various sporting events. Earlier this year, she partnered with Jen to run 42 km to raise $1,200 for a special needs school in the Philippines.

Jannah shares, “I’d rather do good and meaningful things on my Sundays, rather than sitting around doing nothing. It makes me happy to help others and I want to do it for as long as I can.”

Having left their family and friends behind, being part of the R2S community also helps the women overcome loneliness and homesickness, while building strength and self-esteem.

“I miss my family, but in Singapore I’m happy to have found a family in the different volunteer groups. I have so many friends here. I look forward to every dragon boat training, because it’s like seeing your family again,” says Jannah.

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(Glenda Damelario, 45, runs marathons and volunteers on Sundays at the Institute of Mental Health.)

For Glenda Damalerio, who works hard to put her daughter through university in the Philippines, sports and helping others helps her relax. Last July, the 45-year-old ran the Singtel Singapore Cancer Society Race Against Cancer.

“My daughter is almost graduating from university, and I support her by sending money home. But it can be stressful, especially when my income is quite low. But when I run and do sports, I feel free, I don’t think and [have] stress. It’s the same when I help people.”

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Bringing Hope To Others

Beyond sports, the women also channel extra hours into serving the community with the little they have, whether it’s visiting hospitals or taking up social entrepreneurship and nursing aid courses. Glenda, who studied the latter here for six months, has also spent time at Sunlove Home in Buangkok which cares for the intellectually infirmed.

“At Sunlove, I help feed the patients, cut their nails, clean their bedsheets. They’re mostly elderly, some have been bedridden for a long time and some have dementia. I enjoy helping them because I think that when I’m old, I may be like that also. So I want to help [care for] them.”

Some of the women also volunteer with Ladies In the Power of Service (LIPS), devoting a few hours before their Sunday training sessions to patients in the Institute of Mental Health (IMH). “We teach them how to draw, dance and sing,” shares Glenda.

“Some of the patients in IMH are neglected by their own family. For me, I know what it’s like being alone here in Singapore, so I want to make the patients feel there’s someone who is still willing to [care for] them,” says Nelly Las Pinas, 35, who has worked in Singapore for almost eight years.

(Nelly Las Pinas, 35, also volunteers at IMH. She has also taken up courses and set up her own social enterprise in the Philippines to help the less fortunate there.)

The intrepid woman has just completed a leadership and social entrepreneurship programme by the Ateneo School of Government, which reaches out to overseas Filipinos. Together with two classmates, Nelly started her own social enterprise back home in the Philippines, called Lakbaon, which supports poor women, out-of-school youth and local farmers and fishermen.

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“They produce traditional Filipino delicacies and we help to market their products,” she says. “As a woman myself, I know the power we [hold] and I want to give [the women back home] opportunity to bring out their power within through the livelihood Lakbaon can offer them.”

Jannah, who is enrolled in the same programme, also hopes to start a social enterprise of her own in future. “I want to help people who don’t have money. I know the feeling of having nothing, so I want to help them better their lives.”

Changing Lives Through Sports: Meet the founders of Race2Share

Filipino expats Jen Macapagal and Marian Seva founded Race2Share (R2S) two years ago. Jen is a programme coordinator at financial specialist firm APAC, while Marian is a full-time swimming coach at St Joseph’s Institution, and the two women dedicate their personal time to running R2S. Their beneficiaries include a special needs school in the Philippines, as well as a group of child swimmers who lack access to proper training and swimming gear.

This year, the pair decided to focus on partnering with foreign domestic workers (FDWs) in Singapore and help subsidise their sporting activities.

Jen says, “My hope is for more individuals to realise their own potential through sports, as well as use the sporting environment [in Singapore] to reach out to the community, especially to those who do not have access to it. When I see [them] training on their own on weekdays, I feel grateful how their interest has translated into a lifestyle habit.”

While the pair have been dragon boating for 18 years combined, Marian shares, “I wasn’t happy or fulfilled in my previous team. I felt easily defeated and it was all about competition. But I can’t quit now, because I’m racing for a purpose, and I am being held accountable. As a leader, I want to be a good example, to show the women we won’t quit even though it’s difficult”.

Find out how you can support Race2Share here.

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Text: Elizabeth Liew  / Photos: Nicky Loh