After a month travelling around China I decided to spend my last three weeks volunteering. It felt like a nice way to end my trip and a chance to get to spend some more time with locals and to experience ‘real’ life a bit more. The first place I went to was Starfish Foster Home in Xian, which cares for children with disabilities. It was set up by an amazing lady called Amanda (you can read more of her story at www.thestarfishfosterhome.org) and funds life-changing operations for the children before they are adopted.
I was lucky to do my placement at the same time as an amazing bunch of volunteers from all over the world and there was a real feeling of energy in the home as we each tried to use our individual skills to help out where we could. During my time there I was keen to try and increase the amount of activities the older children (aged three to five) do during their play time. One of my earliest memories is my library corner at nursery and if you’ve met my dad you’ve probably heard the story about him coming to pick me up and finding me sat in my little red shoes (even then it was all about the shoes) with my legs dangling off the end of a big chair and my head in a book. So setting up a library corner was one of my first missions and I loved reading to the children who pointed things out to me and babbled away, even though we didn’t speak the same language. I also spent time doing arts and crafts with the children and I’m not sure who had more fun making animal masks, me or them.
Welcome to Creative Corner.
“Now this requires a great deal of concentration.”
My other project was to reorganise the laundry room which, with clothes for more than 30 children, could become a bit chaotic at times. Now anyone who knows me will know that tidying and organising are not necessarily my strongest points, as those of you who have lived with me will testify. However I managed to get the place in pretty good shape and also became an expert at loading and unloading the washers and dryers with the never ending stream of dirty clothes and bedding, so if nothing else turns up a job in a laundrette is always a possibility now. (If EastEnders is anything to go by at least I’ll always be first with the gossip.)
It seems that I have found my calling in life.
Over the years I’ve done a fair bit of work with children: I’ve changed stinky nappies and experienced temper tantrums in Costa Rica; attempted to teach English to students (and their pet monkeys) in Peru and dealt with teenage angst at summer camp in America. What I have never been asked to do though is potty train a child. In a different language. Never one to turn down a challenge I decided to give it a go. After all, how hard can it be? I know all of my mum friends are laughing their heads off now because it turns out it’s pretty hard. Luckily I was paired up with an adorable little boy called Isaac who put up with my constant questioning about whether he needed a pee pee. We had a few triumphs along the way, as well as one or two accidents, but hopefully with the help of new volunteers he is now well on his way to being potty trained.
“Stop asking me if I need the toilet while I’m trying to impress the girls.”
It’s the second time I have volunteered in an orphanage and the range of emotions you go through are always strange. On one hand you have so much fun with the children and I laughed so much every day as their little personalities shone through. It always amazed me that despite the language difference they were able to make themselves understood very well (although there were obviously times when some of the older ones would pretend not to understand what we were telling them!) But, of course, there are also lots of heartbreaking moments like when someone else’s child calls you “mama” and you wonder how anyone could possibly give up such smart, funny, beautiful children. The injustices of a country like China also come to light when you discover that while some babies are given up because of their disabilities which are not as acceptable in a society where everyone strives to be “perfect”, you learn that others are given away simply because their parents cannot afford to pay their medical bills.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that being given up for adoption may not be the best start in life I have absolutely no doubt that Starfish is an incredible place which is above and beyond many other orphanages in the country. I know that the children there are cared for in a happy and safe environment and go on to be adopted by loving families. And I know that during their time at Starfish they are loved: by the staff, by the other children and by us, the volunteers. I know in the future that they will have many difficult questions to ask their families about why and how they were given away. But I hope that they will be told about how special they have always been and how much they were loved by everyone who met them, even those of us who met them for such a short time will never forget them.
#25 with baby Noah, who almost came home with me.
The second place I volunteered in was quite different to Starfish. Ya Ge School for the Deaf is based in a city called Kaifeng, which is kind of off the tourist track so sees less international visitors passing through. I was one of the first volunteers to visit the school and at first I’m not sure they really knew what to do with me. It took me a while to get them to stop buying things for me, as Chinese hospitality is second to none and every day someone would turn up with a present for me or try to take me out for lunch (my favourite was a fully cooked chicken – complete with head). Nobody spoke English except the headteacher’s son Tim so I was lucky that he came to the school with me every day and acted as my translator. He picked me up every morning on his little electric bike and then we flew through the rush hour traffic while I kept my eyes down and tried to pretend the beeping horns and screeching brakes weren’t anything to do with us.
My main aim at the school was to try to help them with their PR and advertising, especially internationally. Most of the 70 children at the school come from poor families. More than half of them board there as they live too far away to travel every day. The monthly fees per child should be 138 pounds, most families can’t even afford to pay half. And yet headteacher Zhang Hong and her staff carry on tirelessly. The teachers are all young and enthusiastic, even though they struggle with the frighteningly low wages.
The lovely Zhang Hong.
The school is run entirely from donations and I worked with Zhang Hong and Tim to try to think of ways of raising money for things they desperately need – items as simple as tables for the dining room and wood to burn in winter to keep the children warm. I saw that every day was a struggle for the staff and it broke my heart to meet some of the families of the children who live in just one or two rooms and earn tiny amounts of money by selling fruit or collecting rubbish from the streets.
And yet, despite all of this, there are so many happy times at the school. The teachers are lovely and the children are always smiling and laughing. Many of the children couldn’t even speak when they arrived at the school and it’s amazing to see the change in them now and to know what a difference being able to hear (thanks to hearing aids) will make to their lives. My favourite part of the day was watching them in a morning singing their songs and doing their exercises and whenever I crossed the playground it always caused a commotion as the children ran to wave to me and give me high fives.
The day begins with morning exercises.
Before heading to the classroom for creative time.
The funniest part of my week at the school was when the local press came to do a story about some computers which were being donated to the school by a company. Everyone was so excited and the children had been practising their songs all morning to sing to their special guests. After the presentation I was surprised when the journalist asked whether he could write a story about me. He seemed very surprised that I was at the school and couldn’t seem to understand why someone would come from another country to volunteer in China. He also insisted on taking lots and lots of photos of me, which was pretty embarrassing seeing as I’d turned up to school that day with no make up on and my hair a mess and, of course, wearing the much favoured poo pants.
The poo pants now have international fame.
My experience at the school led me to write my Birthday Wish postand thanks to a donation from my family I was able to buy 12 desks and chairs for the computers which had been donated by a local company the week before. Seeing how happy it made them was honestly the best way to end my trip. Being poor in a country like China which is striving to move ahead so quickly is difficult. While the new rich are embracing their wealth and the changes it has brought to them the poor are being left further and further behind. But it gives me hope when I meet people like Zhang Hong, who keep going no matter how many things there are against them and I’ve made a commitment to help the school in the future.