Our B2B Customer Stories: Interview With HCSA Academy | Empowering Ex-Convicts With Culinary Training

Serving as the training arm of HCSA community service Association, HCSA Academy Culinary Training Centre equips and empower vulnerable individuals with professional skills that enable them in securing a job and supporting themselves.

They serve with a simple goal of genuinely wanting to leave a positive impact in the lives of their main group of beneficiaries being the ex-convicts and give them a future and a hope.

In this series of ‘Our B2B Customer Stories’, we have with us Chef Sony Haq, Academic Dean and Head of Training at HCSA Academy.

 1) Hi Sony, thank you for making time for this interview call. Let’s start by having you share about HCSA Academy. How did the HCSA Academy come about? And how does the HCSA academy operate?

HCSA Academy is part of HCSA community services. First, let me introduce HCSA Community Services. HCSA community services started from humble beginnings back in 1991, in the HDB home of Pastor Timothy Das as a place for few ex-convicts to undergo a detox program. It evolved as ‘Highpoint Halfway house’ and in 2004, we moved to our current premises at 1 Lorong 23, Geylang. The newly released ex-convicts entering their new phase of life join us, before integrating into society through services such as counselling & job placement provided by us.

In 2006, a group of ladies under the leadership of the late Madam Alice Heng, came forward to offer support to troubled women. They started off by providing life skill training for these women. Though Madam Alice Heng passed on in 2007 due to cancer, her group of friends who she started this initiative with, continued her great work and honed her inspiring legacy. Moving forward, in 2010, HCSA Community Service went on to launch Singapore’s first small-group residential treatment facility for abused girls. The aim was to provide early intervention for children who have been sexually and physically abused.

In 2018 our group of beneficiaries expanded again. The program, known as ‘HCSA Day Spring SPIN’ empowers single parents and lone caregivers with limited support and struggling hard to manage a family and work.

To zoom in on how HCSA Academy came about, we started conceptualising it in 2016. Ms. Dominique Choy & Mr Tony Lim, then Board Members of HCSA Community Services and culinary enthusiasts, had this vision to provide life skills training to vulnerable individuals and empower them to start a new life and career. Our trainees range from ex-convicts, young boys from boys’ homes, children of single parents, youth at risk etc. . They are referred to us by our various partners such as halfway houses, CRCs, family service centres etc. Our trainees who are mostly fresh ex-convict do not have the money to pay for their uniform or to meet their daily expenses. HCSA Academy is the one providing everything for free to them from daily allowance to graduation jackets.

2) So Sony, how did you start being a chef at HCSA Academy, and what are the challenges you face during the career switch?

In the first place, it was not a career switch, I have been working in culinary education for quite a long time. I came to know about this through my friend, Chef Khoo Wee Bin and joined to design the curriculum structure and manage necessary accreditations. Though the primary goal of all culinary schools is to train culinary skills, here we are dealing with a different group of trainees and hence the course design, structure, training methods and all had to be customised .

The local F&B scene has always been short of competent entry-level cooks with the right skills and attitude. One need not go through a Diploma course to acquire these basic skills to excel in industry. Thus, in HCSA Academy, we curated a 6-weeks culinary course to equip our trainees with foundation skills. This course is best suited for them to get a job and ensure their cash flow to restart life.

There is another reason why we kept the programme as compact as possible. Most of our beneficiaries, upon their release from prison, would rather dive into jobs as cleaners or movers as they do not want to take time to upskill themselves, which they see as delaying their income.

We expanded to serving youth who went on to the distracted route. We got these youths onboard, trained them, and got them jobs. Of course, not all who underwent our program continued with a job in F&B industry. Some decided to go back to school while others went on to pursue higher studies in Culinary Arts.

3) What motivates you to stay with HCSA Academy? How are you helping these beneficiaries/cause? What do you hope to achieve out of pursuing this cause?

It’s all about making a change. And change does not happen overnight. And to change a human, I feel the magic tool is Trust. It was a steep learning curve for trainers like me to realise this. We are not just trainers. We do not just impart skills & knowledge to our group of trainees. It’s more about building confidence in them and guiding them to be responsible human beings to take control of their own life.

The first step is to build a genuine mutual trust to effectively influence them. Because our group of beneficiaries have a trust issue with everything and everyone around them as they see the world as something against them. Our student care specialist, Norie Abdullah, is so passionate about helping our learners and she is always there in the journey of our beneficiaries right from the time they join us.

4) Prior to circuit breaker, what were the normal daily/weekly operational activities of HCSA Academy (e.g how many classes did you conduct per day)? Do you all have a fixed curriculum?

Prior to the circuit breaker, we did have quite a lot of activities going on. We had the 6-weeks course happening 4 days a week. We offer a 1day weekend cooking program for the public where we taught classes such as bread making, Peranakan cooking, 1 pot meal, healthy bento meals and so on. We host private dining events in our beautiful dining room that can hold up to 60 Pax. We also have corporates coming to us and do their corporate team bonding events. HCSA Academy is able to deliver high quality food made by top class chefs though the ambience of our dining space is not comparable with the fine dining places out there.

When the circuit breaker kicked in, we had to stop everything. It was not easy for us as HCSA Academy has a self-sustaining model. We had to stop all operations, including training and at the same time a cohort had just started, and it was 1 week into the programmes.

Our main concern was that our trainees are vulnerable and the possibility of them to relapse is very high. They may have a breaking point at any moment. Ms. Norie, conducted daily calls to check on them, getting in contact with their social workers and made sure that they are doing well.

We thought of the option of conducting online training through videos and online coaching. However, most of our trainees live with no facilities and no materials to practise, thus that option was ruled out. This kind of stressful situation could be a trigger to them. Fortunately, after 2 months, everyone who started the cohort came back to continue the course.

 5) What would you say would be the greatest challenges in trying to keep HCSA Academy going on?

As mentioned earlier, HCSA Academy has a self-sustaining model. We do enrol learners from general public also in our course, who pay for the course and thus support sustainability. However, we focus on the vulnerable group while ensuring that we have sufficient cash flow to sustain the academy.

HCSA as a whole, works with donors and well-wishers who contribute for our beneficiaries, as well as volunteers and staff who ensure that they do their best with assistance. Other than that, we did have online fundraising campaigns as well.

Other than the monetary aspect, another challenge would be the willingness of our trainees. The motivational level of our trainees is low, and this is understandable as they come in the programme with a lot of baggage, social fear, family burden and so on. With a high national average of 50% of relapse, we do have quite a lot of drop out from the event, and it is truly disappointing at times.

To encourage our trainees throughout the programme, we place them in a job with our F&B partners, at a starting pay of at least $1,500. We select F&B organisations, who are aligned to our philosophy of providing a new life for our trainees. Some of our partners include Aston, Supply and demand, ibis styles Singapore and more.

6) Can you recall 1 or 2 cases whereby your student really left an impression on you?

Yes, we do have quite a number of success stories. One of our trainees, Nicholas went on and won a national level culinary competition within one year after graduating from our program. Another trainee of ours, Ahmad who is now working with ibis group achieved employee of the month award. All these keep the team happy and motivated to continue working hard to impact the lives of our trainees.

7) Why did you choose to come onboard to Savour! as a B2B customer, and what do you have to say to B2B customers who have not come onboard Savour!’s platform but are considering whether to do so?

The reason to come onboard Savour! Is simple. ‘Good minds will feel better in the company of good ones’. HCSA Academy and Savour! have an amazing common goal of doing good through food. Also, the fact that Savour! is working towards community engagement through leveraging technology is very encouraging. These 2 main reasons make up the additional bonds that I found with Savour! We align in our mission and we keep the conviction intact.

Together let’s do our part to keep the world moving forward.