Since 2017, Mark Yuen and his Team MDI have provided more than 10,000 free haircuts to seniors and lower-incomes families in Singapore. The name “Team MDI” is inspired by the hair salon where Mark first started his apprenticeship in hairdressing, which was called Mirror D’ International. Hear how he went from climbing the corporate ladder to initiating this meaningful cause.
Leaving a job in the finance industry to be a volunteer is a bold move. What prompted you to do so?
Before I started Team MDI, I was in the wealth management industry, managing a team providing legacy and retirement planning services for my clients. You could say that my interactions with my clients over the years caused me to think more about palliative care and the needs of elderly folks during the evening years of their life. In 2012, I made the decision to leave the corporate sector to be a volunteer in palliative care services. I began to look for courses to upskill myself as I had always wanted to contribute back to our society through volunteering.
There are many other ways to give back. Why did you choose hairdressing?
I have been a grassroots volunteer over the past two decades and noticed that we tend to neglect the emotional needs of the vulnerable groups – their feelings of loneliness and anxiety. I wanted to create a platform where we could provide psychological support for the less privileged and I saw hairdressing as a means of doing so. A good haircut is not just about personal hygiene but can also lift spirits. Many of our beneficiaries consider our volunteer hairdressers as their friends and often share their troubles and concerns with us during a haircut session. That was when I felt there was a need to make hairdressing services more accessible to the vulnerable groups in the community.
(Mark giving a senior a haircut during a session at Pasir Ris. / Photo by Mark Yuen)
Can you share with us what you did to prepare for this transition?
One day, I chanced upon a basic hairdressing course at one of the hair salons in Chinatown. Even though I was already 60 years old then, I wanted to pick up a new skill that I could use to help others. With the support of my family, I embarked on a SkillsFuture course and subsequently became professionally certified as a hairdresser.
What motivated you to initiate Team MDI?
When I was still a trainee at the hair salon, there was an occasion where I provided free hairdressing service for a bedridden elderly as part of a community event. After the haircut, she looked into the mirror and gave me a smile. This incident left a deep impression on me, and I told my instructor of my plans to provide free haircuts for the less fortunate. He supported my idea and that’s how I started Team MDI.
(Photo by PLUS Collaboratives)
Tell us more about Team MDI and the people who volunteer as part of the team.
Over the years, our team has grown exponentially. Currently, we have 40 to 50 active volunteers, with the oldest being 80 years old! They come from all walks of life – we have some salon owners, lawyers, teachers and even medical personnel. Our team has collaborated with several social service agencies, residential homes and NGOs in order to bring our free hairdressing services to more people in need.
(Mark with Team MDI's oldest hairdresser volunteer, Jenny. / Photo by Mark Yuen)
What are some of the challenges you faced when you first started Team MDI?
It was challenging at the start as we had to put in a lot of effort to recruit volunteers. We didn’t have any social media platforms to publicise our outreach efforts, and therefore not many people were aware of our volunteering work. But eventually, we had a breakthrough when we participated in several events as part of SG Cares Giving Week. Those events gave us the chance to find volunteers from different social service agencies.
(Photo by PLUS Collaboratives)
You often encourage your volunteers to upgrade their skills whenever they can. What inspires you to keep on learning even at this age?
To me, hairdressing is like handcraft; the more you learn, the better you get. Now, I am learning how to use different tools to cut different styles. This spirit of learning is what I hope to pass to the other volunteers on the team. When we improve at our handcraft, we can be of better service to those in need and hopefully get more smiles at the end of every haircut!
What words of encouragement do you have for people who are pursuing their aspirations and learning new skills?
For those who are learning new skills, be open-minded and have faith in what you want to pursue. Practice your craft at all times. If you are interested to volunteer, you may not need to create a new platform. Perhaps you can join an existing group and meet like-minded people. This will help to grow the group of volunteers in the community.
- Mark Yuen, 67, founder of Team MDI