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My Life My Way Straits Times Series

Humanity is psychologist Carol Balhetchet’s bedfellow

Carol Balhetchet believes life becomes clearer when you have been around for more than half a century.

"You've been there, done that. There have been ups and downs. You've experienced some extremely happy, and sad, moments. You've seen more people die but you've also seen more people celebrate success," she says.

"Humanity becomes your bedfellow. It makes you become more accepting and more confident about who you are."

In her case, she is also surer than she has ever been that her calling is to help children, teenagers and families in need.

It is something that the clinical psychologist has been doing for the last two decades. She is best known for her work with Beyond Parental Control (BPC) cases - children or youngsters under 16 who are in conflict with their schools and parents, or display at-risk behaviour.

In November last year, she left her post as senior director of youth services of Singapore Children's Society where she had worked for 18 years. Still working as a consultant for the charitable organisation, she is mulling over new career options, including teaching and training, to do more for the young and the vulnerable.

One of six children of a building engineer and a housewife, she has always been a firecracker, one who is inclined to speak her mind and follow her heart.

"My father wanted me to be a lawyer," says the school debater at Pasir Panjang Secondary School. "But I just wanted to grow up fast and have my freedom."

Because she was impatient to start earning her own keep, she dropped out of National Junior College after one year and took up a secretarial course instead.

Her first job was to fill in as her father's secretary in his office "deep in the bowels of Hilton Hotel".

"He said, 'Just answer the phone but don't be too smart'," she recalls with a laugh.

Her irrepressible personality, however, made that impossible. Within one year, she was asked to take over the duties of the public relations manager when the latter resigned. She was then barely 18.

Next came a two-year stint as a management trainee with the hotel. The Oberoi Imperial then poached her to be its public relations manager.

She quit not long after when she got married to a British adman and became pregnant with their first child.

By then, she had also decided that public relations was not quite her cup of tea. She wanted a job where she could help people.

Over the next few years, she buckled down and commuted between Singapore and Sydney, and obtained two degrees, one in applied psychology and another in psychotherapy, from the Australian College of Applied Psychology.

But she put her counselling ambitions on hold. On the encouragement of her husband, she set up CS Productions, an events management company. It did not take long before the then twentysomething reeled in an impressive array of clients including the Trade Development Board, the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board, Swarovski and Raffles Hotel.

"I didn't get up for less than $35,000 a project," she jokes.

Among other projects, she organised the launch of the UOB Lady's Card and once led a 103-strong contingent to London to promote Singapore.

The business was so lucrative that she once splurged a high five-figure sum on an antique Chinese chest that captured her fancy.

"I still have that chest. It's significant to me because it showed me that hard work would give you something," she says.

Despite the monetary rewards, a growing conviction that the business world was not for her gnawed away at Dr Balhetchet, who also produced theatre shows for the American Association of Singapore.

One day, she saw a picture of starving Angolian children in a newspaper.

"They had flies over wounds on their heads. I was particularly sensitive because I was pregnant and started crying. My sister, who was with me, asked me to save my tears and put my money where my mouth was," says the mother of three grown-up children. Her elder daughter, Samantha, is a theatre director; the second, Chelsea, is a fashion designer; while her youngest child, Robert, will soon study biotech in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Taking up her sister's dare, Dr Balhetchet closed her company about six years after she started it.

She started by helping out at women's group Aware, where she first manned, and later trained volunteers how to man, the hotline for distressed women with a range of issues, including abusive spouses or boyfriends.

Then came a short stint as a counsellor in a secondary school before she joined the Singapore Children's Society as its first counsellor.

Her starting pay was barely $2,000, a massive cut from the five figures she used to take home running CS Productions.

"If you're after money, you should not go to a voluntary welfare organisation," she quips.

Handling BPC cases - where parents go to court to put their children in homes - was emotionally draining.

"It broke my heart. How could that happen?"

During her 18 years at the organisation, she grew a team of counsellors and introduced a litany of change and reform initiatives for troubled teens, including BeaconWorks, a rehabilitative programme to help BPC children and parents work on their strained relationships.

Dr Balhetchet, who obtained her master's and PhD in psychology from Central Queensland University in the early 2000s, has many moving stories to tell. She once stopped a teenager from jumping out of her kitchen window. Another time, she cried her heart out over a boy who found out his parents had moved house when he was released from a home.

Over the years, the clinical psychologist has received many job offers but was "too loyal, and lazy" to explore them. But the time has come, she says, for her to do even more with troubled children and teens whom she feels are vulnerable and often misunderstood.

It bugs her that while Singapore is a First World country, many programmes to help troubled teens lack creativity and effectiveness.

Although she left the Singapore Children's Society last November, she has been training its staff on how to do clinical intervention instead of just case management since January this year.

"In seven months, I have created 17 training programmes for them," says Dr Balhetchet, who prefers to hold her exact age close to her chest.

A prudent saver who has always planned for a rainy day, she is financially stable enough to have the luxury of charting her next course of action.

She is now writing a book about her work with troubled teens.

Because of her experience and the respect she commands in what she does, organisations have come knocking on her door.

She is also exploring the idea of starting a consultancy to offer training and counselling programmes for field workers.

Dr Balhetchet says: "But I want to feel good about what I choose to do next. I have that choice. I want to make a difference."

This is the first of a six-part series on individuals, aged 55 and above, who lead active and meaningful lives.For more information on the MyWay Programme, click here.

Photo credits to Don Wong