Chinese volunteers making a difference
10 July 2006

"It makes little sense if I come here only to teach them some textbook knowledge. The most important thing I have given them is hope," said Li Yonghuai, a teacher in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in northwest China.

Another teacher in the same province Xu Ningqiang agrees with him. Before he went there, he had not expected to have to persuade his students and parents to work hard for further education instead of making money at production lines.

Zhan Yun, a doctor in Ningxia, is glad to see his patients better aware of the importance of vaccination for their kids.

Li is from the coastal Fujiang Province, Xu from Nanjing city in east China and Zhan from Hunan Province in central China. Their hometowns are more developed parts of China. They went to Ningxia one or two years ago after they finished their college education. They joined in the government sponsored program called the West Plan which encourages and funds graduates to work one or two years in the country's less developed west area.

Since the campaign was launched in June, 2003, more than 40,000 graduates have been to more than 300 poor counties in China's west as volunteers. Over the three years, 1,031 of them have worked in Ningxia. Projects they engaged in involve education, health care, agriculture, science and technology, culture, legal service, etc.

All the three volunteers mentioned above are in Xihaigu area which has been defined by the United Nations as the place unfit for human habitation. Hit by lasting, extreme drought, life there is very hard.

The lack of water makes irrigation very difficult. Potatoes are nearly the only thing that can grow from the land. There is no harvest if there is too little rain in a year. People living there have to store water in cellars and those volunteers have to fetch water with barrels from cellars in a distance.

Before working there, all volunteers are trained to be adapted to life there. One of the most important lessons is to learn to light a stove to heat a room in winter. But still there are real lessons they have to learn in their own life --- sometimes at a cost.

The first winter that Li Yonghuai spent there was miserable. His hands were chapped by the cold after he washed his hands in cold water. Then he was told by local residents that he should have rubbed his hands to warm them before washing them. Chaps in his hands did not healed up until one year later.

A few volunteers gave up and left soon. But most of them stayed. Like Xu Ningqiang, many of them went there to "experience something different". They have fortunately grown up in comfort and are the only children of their parents.

Some of the volunteers are from poor families. Sun Chaowu, Li Yonghuai's colleague who graduated from the same university as Li, is from mountainous areas in Hubei Province. He understands the desire of his students to change their life. Before he began to teach at the school in one of the poorest areas of Ningxia, he was assigned to a government department in Ningxia where there is much better condition. But he refused and required to shift to harsh places.

They are not only experiencing something difference. They are making difference. One of Sun's students won the third place in the top maths competition in Ningxia, which was the best performance that his school ever made in the contest. Another student decided to try again if he failed the entrance exam for high school although that would cost his family a lot of money.

Mr. Ma, headmaster of Sun's school, said the most important change those volunteers have brought was the new ideas. Knowledge builds better life. That is what they have been advocating.

The concept is especially inspiring for girls there who rarely had chance of schooling in the past. A girl in Sun's class said she admired Bill Gates and dreamed of making a lot money and helping more children in her hometown. One of Xu's girl students said she would not give up studying although finding a job can earn money earlier.

Zhan Yun's hospital treat much more patients now. Local people used to take aspirin or pain-killers when they were ill because they wanted to save money and were ignorant of basic health knowledge.

Local people love and respect them not only because of their help, but also the way they treat students or patients. They make friends with their students or patients and show real care for them from the bottom of their heart.

Zhan Yun is even thinking of staying there after the two-year service. "People here need us so much and business start-up get very favorable policies," he said.

In fact, it is one of the purposes of the program to encourage graduates to build their future in China's west to boost the growth of the region to narrow the gap within the fastest-growing economy in the world.

From: China Daily, China

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