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Seeds of compassion sown where they are most needed
( 2004-01-09 09:07) (China Daily by Raymond Zhou)

Chen Hongwu depends on the kindness of strangers when he finds himself in a desperate situation. He suffered from uraemia when he was six and was almost given up for dead. It was on Chinese Lunar New Year's eve when the hospital staff had left for the holiday "but a doctor stayed behind and spent a whole night snatching him from the jaws of death.

Fourteen years later, Chen was admitted to the Beijing University of Science and Technology. But he could hardly afford it. The tuition alone costs 5,000 yuan a year. His father, the only breadwinner in the family of four, carts fresh produce to the local farmer's market in Zhumadian, Central China's Henan Province, and on a lucky day, earns 10 or 20 yuan.

Then someone offered the 20-year-old freshman 3,000 yuan (US$360) in financial aid. "This was like someone shivering in the cold getting a sudden shipment of coal,"said Chen Hongwu, now a civil-engineering major.

Multiply Chen Hongwu by 3,333 and you get the magnitude of the poor-student aid programme sponsored by China National Offshore Oil Corp (CNOOC).

Behind the tears of gratitude and the smiles of munificence is an organization that hooks up donors with those who need help. Soong Ching Ling Foundation, one of China's best known charities, was the crucial link that made this programme a reality.

What hardship means

"Wei Liucheng, CEO of CNOOC, was poor as a kid and he knows firsthand what hardship means for poor children who want to go to school. So we designed this programme to reflect his and his company's aspirations for philanthropy,"Yu Guilin, vice-chairman of the foundation, says in an interview with China Daily.

Yu explains that the grant will not wipe away all the financial burden of a recipient. "We do not intend to thrust students from poverty into overnight prosperity. That would be psychologically unhealthy,"he says.

Chen Hongwu, for example, has to apply for an annual student loan of 5,000 yuan to make up for the shortfall in tuition and living expenses. He cleans the school library once a week, earning about 50 yuan a month.

This programme is not designed to take care of everything for a few students, but to inject a dose of assistance and confidence, where it is most needed, to the greatest number of people possible, says Yu. "Hardship can crush a person, but it can also make a person stronger and more resilient. We don't want to, out of good intention, corrupt that part of a young person's character."

Statistics show that China has some 7 million poor college students, about 20 per cent of total enrolment. Of them, a third are classified as "extremely indigent."

The CNOOC grant may be a drop in a bucket. But if Yu Guilin has his way, there would be more big business people coming out with big pockets and even bigger hearts. Wang Yali, an officer at the foundation, reveals to China Daily that Yu uses his personal connections and charm to lure would-be philanthropists into his projects and the result speaks for itself.

Kids"education cannot wait

The foundation is named after Madame Soong Ching Ling, wife of Dr Sun Yatsen, whose mantra was: "Some things can wait; but the education of children cannot."It was established in 1982 in commemoration of the first anniversary of her death, when the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping offered to be the honorary chairman. "It was the only post of an NGO (non-governmental organization) that he held till his death,"says Yu Guilin.

Blessed with two great Chinese names of the 20th century, the foundation has come out with all kinds of programmes to take care of the nation's "budding flowers."Children's literature is rewarded; children's science projects are funded; international exchange programmes are designed; mobile libraries in hinterland provinces set out on road. But at the core of the organization is the hand that reaches out to the less fortunate of the nation's younger generation.

"We are totally government funded. So, all the money from a donor would go to the places it's supposed to go. A regular charity would take off a slice of 5-7 per cent as administrative expense, but not us, unless the donor specifically allows it,"says Yu, addressing the concern that many overseas donors have about Chinese charities and their management.

When SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) hit China last year, many healthcare workers fell victim. The upbringing of their children is society's responsibility, says Yu, and we should not shirk it. Therefore, when a Hong Kong philanthropist showed up, Yu helped design a special programme for this purpose. "This is very complicated because each child is different in age and need.

Everything has to be customized,"Yu says.

Well worked-out programme

Doling out money does not seem that hard, but making it go the greatest length is an art. And the Soong Ching Ling Foundation, under Yu's leadership, is the consummate artist. "We always think several steps ahead,"he concedes.

One programme that has been sending girls to school was started in 1986 in inland provinces like Gansu, where girls have been traditionally passed over in education. The fund, which has spent about 20 million yuan (US$2.4 million) in total, encourages these girls to go to special schools where they are trained as teachers. After graduation, most of them go back to where they come from and set up schools for more poor kids.

"Some of them are virtually one-woman operations, where a single person takes up all the functions of a small school,"Yu reveals. This is also the foundation's longest-running programme.

The most ingenious is probably a 6-million-yuan programme, funded by a Taiwan foundation, that helps mentally-handicapped orphans. "We discovered that the best living environment for those with minor degrees of retardation is not a special nursing home, but regular homes with parental love and normal family interaction. So we put them up for adoption to rural families that are not far away from urban centres, such as Yanqing on the outskirts of Beijing. We provide a monthly subsidy of about 300 yuan to each family, but the cost to the family is marginal. Most importantly, these kids now can get the kind of loving care that normal children take for granted,"Yu describes.

Surveys show that China has 51 million handicapped people, of which one-fifth are mentally impeded. Of this number, 5.39 million are children under the age of 14.

"I certainly hope more of these children can benefit from these programmes. But to make that happen, donations should be able to enjoy tax exemption. That would bring the country's charities into much better positions,"Yu suggests.

He continues to tell the story of a trip he made to Yanqing where he visited one of the adoption families. "I held up the kid in my arms and asked him 'Do you want to go with me to Beijing" There's a lot of fun there."He said 'No"and ran back to the embrace of his adopted mum. That's what I would call success for a charity programme."

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