Holidays, Gabriel Teo laughs, can sometimes be a dangerous thing. So, a day after his final year examination in 1988, he jetted to Kenya, where his brother was a volunteer. That holiday changed his life forever.
“It was a mind-blowing, eye-opening experience for a 22-year-old,” he explains during a Zoom interview with NBS Alumni Affairs team. “I realised how much I had taken for granted of my life back home. In some parts of Kenya, you would have to walk for miles to get water; back home, all I had to do was turn on the tap! In the rural villages, many children couldn’t go to school; in Singapore, every child went to school. So, I began to ask myself, is there anything I can do to help people in Kenya?”
Gabriel is the founder and manager of the Delta Mustard Seed Academy,
a pre-primary and primary school in Idsowe Village with 420 students
After returning home, the accountancy graduate worked as a tax manager with the now-defunct audit firm Arthur Andersen before moving on to oil drilling service company Sedco Forex. While Teo enjoyed his life as a “yuppie” – he was promoted to assistant regional manager and had a strong network of friends – he constantly felt a sense of disquiet. So, in 1993, he quit and packed his bags for Kenya.
But as Teo admits, he took a while to find his feet. “The first 18 months were tough,” he says. “I neither spoke Swahili nor understood the challenges the locals faced. I didn’t know what to do or where to start. I couldn’t make myself useful or contribute to anyone’s life.”
Fortunately, Teo persevered. In 2005, he established the Tana River Life Foundation. The non-profit organisation sponsors education for children and youth, enabling them to escape poverty and fulfil their potential. Besides expanding learning opportunities through bursaries, TRLF also improves educational infrastructure and enhances the teaching environment.
Gabriel with post-secondary students who undergo a two-year formation
programme sponsored at the tertiary level
What qualifies as quality education to me is this – the child you’re trying to educate grows into an adult who strives for personal success, tries to contribute to society and helps pull up others behind him. For that purpose, we need to develop not just academics and competencies but also character and values. So, our education should emphasise both, not one or the other.
At the Delta Mustard Seed Academy, we run the pre-primary and primary school for children with a strong emphasis on character development. In addition, we sponsor more than 60 secondary school students; we teach them how to live together, look out for one another, handle cash honestly, and other practical life skills. Finally, before sponsoring a student at the tertiary level, we ensure that they volunteer with TRLF for two years doing community work while acquiring soft skills and co-potencies before going to college or university.
The TRLF education projects equip students with skills and knowledge and build their character
- Be resilient and do not give up, even if it means starting over from an empty cup to a full one.
- See things from different perspectives, combining ancient local knowledge with modern technology.
- Be an enabler. When I am at the centre of things, everything becomes “my” achievement or, conversely, “my” disappointment. But when you are on the outside, it's easier to understand what’s going on and apply alternative solutions. So, it's more about not being the centre but understanding one’s role as an enabler so others can journey further and surpass expectations.
- Keep the doors of learning open. Everyone can teach you something.
Students in Tana Delta schools enjoy a conducive learning environment with
second-hand furniture being transported to schools with the generous support
of PIL Singapore and Logwin Air + Ocean Singapore