This month our volunteer work crew began helping us open a new Children’s Centre in Changsha/Hunan Province and started a daily blog about their efforts. Changsha, a model centre that will serve as a training facility for the entire province, is Half the Sky’s 50th Children’s Centre.
What an inspiring day at Changsha Social Welfare Institute #1. After a very warm welcome for Half the Sky by the director and staff, the team took a tour of the facility and was introduced to the children, many of whom have special needs.
I was happy to see that the children are so well cared for. The infants had nannies tucking them in, and the older children were having fun in a movement class. In the hallway between the infants and the dance class, I was lucky enough to be befriended by two three year olds, a boy and a girl, who held my hand and led me down the hall.
As I painted my last few tables for the day, I watched the children play with the Radio Flyer wagons and bikes we had assembled earlier in the day. Talk about instant gratification for the volunteers. I was grateful to have been a small part of their joy.
What an incredible day. When we arrived at the orphanage, we, of course, were given the usual Chinese honored guest formal greeting.
As we sat at the conference room table, the Director told us that there are 500 children in his care. This one simple statement brought tears to my eyes. We had visited my daughter’s SWI two years ago and there were less than 50 children left. I was under the impression that due to a number of factors, there were fewer children in need. This brought tears to my eyes and my daughter asked, as she always does in these situations, “Mom, why do you always cry when you hear things like this?”
After the greeting, we were given a tour. Each time we saw a room full of children, my sadness deepened. But each time we saw a HTS training group it was heartwarming to see the dedication of the trainers and the rapt attention of the trainees. It gave me hope to know that there are so many who care and so many who will make an impact on so many children.
Then it was down to work. I put together six bicycles. When a group of children passed down the hall to go to their playroom, they saw the bikes and were on them in no time. It was so satisfying to see the fruits of our labor so quickly. Soon the teens on the build began giving wagon rides with the wagons they had put together in the morning. It was beautiful chaos!
As I sat working on another bike, some children came over to “help” me. As you know, children’s help isn’t always that fruitful, but there was one little girl who seemed to have a special knack for it. I had been carefully reading the directions all morning, but she seemed to instinctively know where things went and what tool to use. She actually tightened some bolts on the pedals. I was so proud of her!
We are a group of about 15 volunteers, coming to Changsha from both coasts of the United States and in between. Kids, ranging from 16 to 5 years of age, comprise about half of our group. There are two token males, one dad with his daughter and my 16-year-old son. Each individual has his or her own reasons for being here, but we all share a desire to help improve the lives children in orphanages in whatever small way we can. The passion of the Half the Sky staff is infectious, and we can’t wait to get started.
After a quick bus ride we arrive at the orphanage, technically a Social Welfare Institute, which means it serves the elderly as well as the young. It seems the two groups are separated, and other than a few glimpses, we will not see the elderly folks. The building is quite different from most Chinese orphanages. It is a 23-story high rise with lots of small rooms and long corridors, but not much open space indoors or out. This poses some challenges for Half the Sky in transforming spaces for nurture and play, but the staff is undaunted. They are charging full-speed ahead into the process that will completely transform the physical space, as well as the care-giving, to make this a world-class child care institution.
Following a warm welcome by the orphanage director, and a quick cup of tea, we are given a tour. As we walk into a toddler room, I feel my arm being pulled out into the hall by a surprisingly strong little boy. Unsure about the rules, I wait for a staff member to come to the rescue. Later, I learn that this behavior is concerning. Toddlers are naturally fearful of strangers, except when they haven’t had the opportunity to form strong attachments. These toddlers will soon have that opportunity, as Half the Sky’s trained caregivers will provide the individualized attention they need.
We then move into a room filled with infants, one to a crib. The babies are surprisingly quiet. When one baby in a crib next to me starts to cry, I instinctively touch her with my hand and she stops. I feel tears welling in my eyes, watching these lonely little babies in their cribs. Our Half the Sky leader speaks soothingly to one of the babies, saying that things will soon be much better. Of course, the baby doesn’t understand that, but we know it is true.
Moving along on our tour, we walk into a few rooms where nannies and preschool teachers are being trained by Half the Sky staff. I don’t need to understand the words to observe that the trainers are passionate about children. In one classroom, they are engaged in an exercise that is like the game of hot potato, using a baby doll. The trainer plays a tape of a crying baby while the trainees pass the baby around. Whoever has the baby when the tape stopped has to demonstrate and explain something about (we presume) why the baby might be crying and what to do.
Finally, our tour ends and it’s time to get down to work. We spend the rest of the day assembling bikes and wagons, and painting tiny tables and chairs. We learn that Half the Sky uses color schemes, mostly pastels, based on research about how colors affect babies and young children.
As we prepare to leave for the day, there is suddenly a cacophony of little voices in the hallway. Seeming to come out of nowhere, kids are jumping onto the bikes and climbing into wagons with squeals of delight. I can’t imagine a better reward for our first day’s work.
This week, I got my first opportunity to join Half the Sky for one of their on-site builds, here in Hunan province. In addition to the HTS staff on hand (which includes my wife, Ivy Yu), there are 15 volunteers.
Our main work area is a large open-air classroom, but the small desks and chairs are stacked to one side at the moment. For the time being, the space has become something of a factory operation. Everyone is in high spirits, and hard at work.
In one corner, there’s an entire fleet of shiny new tricycles and Radio Flyer wagons—freshly assembled and just waiting for riders. A couple of dedicated workers spend the morning tightening bolts and getting the last few vehicles ready for their tiny drivers.
Since the vehicle assembly line is almost at an end, most of us are assigned to painting a knee-high forest of new preschool chairs and tables. The sticky enamel paint takes a few coats to set, so we rotate through several rounds of painting and sanding.
Between coats of paint, I briefly sit in on classroom training for caregivers for Half the Sky’s Little Sisters programme. They are an energetic bunch, eager to put their lessons to practical use with kids from the facility. It’s hard not to smile when the lesson ends and they get that chance; the children are immediately engaged, and the enthusiasm in the room proves quite infectious.
By mid-afternoon, our volunteer crew stands back to admire an impressive and colorful collection of chairs… but today’s painting isn’t done yet. The team moves into the bunk bedrooms and play rooms that line the hallways, which are taped off and awaiting their own coats of paint. Painters with rollers and brushes get to work, and before long these rooms have a lot more color on the walls.
Hard to believe, but the day has already run out and the bus is waiting to take us back to the hotel. The volunteers are all covered in a bright confetti of paint drippings, and everyone is quite ready for dinner and bed. There’s plenty of painting to finish tomorrow, along with new tasks to take on (I’ve heard rumors about toy assembly).
We are resting our feet, now, and looking forward to what the rest of the week will bring.