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Special Report  

On a Mission for Homeless Children

By staff reporter XIANG HONG

I had a loveless childhood. I didn't have loving parents. I didn't know how to care about others and I didn't even really know what love was. I always complained, thinking everyone owed me something, and I blamed life for not giving me what other children had. Not until I came to the Guang'ai Family did I truly discover love, thanks to my teachers and classmates. The teachers' patience guided me out of the shadows of hatred, and now I see life as a rising sun and no longer give myself up as hopeless."

The above is an extract from an essay by Yu Deshui, a 19-year-old student in the Guang'ai Family (Family of Sunshine and Love), which is a boarding school for homeless children.

Yu has polio and has been unable to walk since infancy. He was brought up by his ailing grandmother, who passed away when he was 13 years old, and afterwards by his father and stepmother, the latter of whom abused him. "Thirteen was the beginning of loneliness and misery," says Yu. In 2006, unable to bear his stepmother's maltreatment any longer, Yu crawled away from home.

After two years of wandering, in 2008 Yu ended up at the Guang'ai Family. "Out on the streets, I felt there was no meaning to my life. I was waiting for death's release."

Yu Deshui is one of the many children who have been given a second lease of life by the Guang'ai Family. The organization was established by Shi Qinghua in 2004 to provide shelter for 103 homeless and disabled children. Since then, it has expanded to provide schooling and a family environment for its children, in addition to shelter. More than 300 children have graduated from the school and entered society as happy, educated and productive citizens.

The Guang'ai Family has not only taken good care of Yu, but also bolstered his confidence, getting him engaged in the world and ridding him of despair. These days, Yu takes to life head-on. In addition to playing computer games, he enjoys writing, and the Guang'ai Family submitted some of his essays for a book on love and gratefulness. Yu is learning computer skills, and the school plans to put him in charge of computer maintenance. Shi says that running his big family has been hard, but seeing people like Yu get the most out of life makes his work extremely worthwhile.

Reciprocal Love

Shi recalls the bitter event from his past that led him to set up the school for homeless children.

He used to work in foreign trade, and his wife ran a garment shop. The couple and their son led a happy life in Anhui Province. In 1997 a fire left his wife and son with major burns and Shi himself with serious injuries. To get better treatment, Shi took his family to Beijing, but they soon ran out of money. Shi and his family were forced to beg for food on the streets of the capital.

On seeing their severely burnt faces, no passersby were willing to approach them, let alone respond to their pleas for food and funds. Just as the situation seemed hopeless, some homeless children who were also living rough shared their food with the Shis. Shi and his family forged a lasting emotional bond with the homeless children.

Fortunately, Shi and his family got help from Yan Mingfu, then president of the China Charity Federation in 1999. Yan helped Shi in calling for public donations and media attention to the plight of the Shi family. Shi was also greatly influenced by Yan Mingfu's wisdom and benevolence. Yan's father Yan Baohang was a senior advisor to General Chang Hsueh-liang and adopted homeless children during wartime. His philanthropy inspired Shi Qinghua to do something for destitute children once his health improved.

With help from charity organizations and numerous compassionate people, Shi and his family got the treatment and the surgeries they needed. Shi later started a retail business and settled down. "As society had shown me warmth, I decided to continue the spirit of selfless love shown to me," Shi said. He began to take in homeless children, and his adopted family soon swelled to over 100 members.

Education Is a Permanent Solution

At first, Shi just intended to offer a safe environment to street children. He housed them, cooked for them and made sure they had adequate clothing. But he gradually found that many of the children were deeply entrenched in their wandering lifestyles, and for them, old habits died hard. They lacked discipline, were ill-humored, fought every day and even picked pockets. Some were friendless and suffered from serious psychological problems.

In Shi Qinghua's opinion, though charity organizations provide adequate financial aid to these teenage children, they neglect to raise their spirits or teach professional skills through which they can forge independent lives.

Following the maxim that "homeless children must receive an education," Shi Qinghua established the Guang'ai Family, a non-profit and non-governmental free boarding school for homeless children, many of them disabled.

"I had never been involved in education before," Shi said. "But I have a deep affection for these children and was willing to learn the most appropriate teaching methods."

Homeless children have little interest in study and can hardly concentrate in class. The school adopts the life education theory created by renowned Chinese educator Tao Xingzhi, in tandem with Harvard University's multi-intelligence approach that integrates education into daily life. Children thus have the desire to learn and develop their study habits step by step.

Regular models of education do not really suit Shi's students. If they were to institute a standard curriculum, most children would be over 30 years old by college graduation. Shi hence decided to take a professional approach to education. His children are encouraged to gain basic knowledge across a broad range of fields before specializing in professions or skills in line with their interests. The school pays more attention to teaching children how to work and, more importantly, how to enjoy their work. According to Shi, the teenagers have plenty of chances to study even after they join the workforce. Night schools and self-study examinations offer good routes to self-improvement.

The 80 students currently studying at the Guang'ai Family are divided into eight classes in six grades in accordance with their interests rather than age. Chinese, mathematics and English classes aside, they have the choice of a great variety of subjects including music, sports, art, dance, IT, cooking, horticulture and hairdressing.

Ten professional teachers now work there and take turns in supervising the boarding house. This way, there is a teacher at the school 24 hours a day should children need someone to turn to. Increasing numbers of people are volunteering there on a regular basis. Professors from the Central Conservatory of Music teach violin, Zheng Yuanjie, China's "Fairy Tale King," gives writing lessons, and dance teachers are on hand from the Beijing Contemporary Music Academy.

Apart from teaching knowledge and professional skills, Shi instills in students the school motto, "learn to become a real man (or woman) and give love to others." He often tells the children about the "principle of personhood," the importance of being honest, diligent and kind-hearted and the ideal of doing good deeds. Shi Qinghua believes that endurance is the most difficult thing to come to terms with in one's lifetime. He also holds that it doesn't matter how minor your efforts are in repaying society – continuity is the key.

Some of Shi's students have entered regular schools to prepare for the National College Entrance Examination, others have become professional baseball players, and still others have found jobs in electronics factories and auto repair plants. "Our students work at in various careers and enjoy their work and life," Shi said proudly.

Hope Lies in Persistence

Shi Qinghua experienced a really tough time in life, but no matter what the circumstances, has always had faith in the ideal that love and persistence will win in the end.

His faith supported him in doing all he could to seek medical treatment for his wife and son. Disfigured by the explosion, Shi's wife contracted schizophrenia and continually worried that Shi would abandon her. To allay her concerns, Shi comforts her by cradling her head in his arms every night, a routine he has kept up for years.

Taking responsibility for raising 100-plus abandoned children on his own has been financially taxing on Shi. During the most difficult time he was only able to give the children cabbage and rice to eat for 15 days in a row. The children dubbed him "Father Cabbage." Sometimes Shi was unable to afford rent, so the family was forced to move. They moved four times within one year.

In the end, Shi's determination touched society. The school was offered help from charity organizations and compassionate people, and donations continue to flood in from everywhere. Some pharmaceutical companies have sponsored the school by inviting Shi to appear in commercials. The school has joined the China Social Welfare Foundation in soliciting public donations toward school expenses. Cooperative initiatives are also in place with the China Foundation of Culture and Arts for Children and the China Children and Teenagers' Fund.

"We have earned a good reputation, so other organizations are willing to help us," Shi says. "We invite the foundations to supervise finances while a management committee operates the school. Our transparent management wins social recognition."

To the students and teachers who have moved eight times in eight years, a permanent venue is what they long for. Shi has recently rented a piece of land on the outskirts of Beijing, and is now raising money to build a comprehensive school.

Shi Qinghua hopes the school will set an example for the nation's project of alleviating poverty through education. According to him, around 1.5 million children in China need this kind of school, and the problem cannot be solved by just a few people. More need to catch onto the idea of reducing poverty through education. "We have seen that through education, homeless children are able to successfully integrate into families, schools, workplaces and society. We want to set an example for future philanthropists."

VOL.59 NO.12 December 2010 Advertise on Site Contact Us