Ten-year-old Lu Yang is a shy, serious boy who lives a life of severe poverty in remote interior China. His small village, surrounded by eroded hills and only reachable by one treacherous road, is a place that time forgot. Farmers still plough the fields with oxen, and whole families exist on a meagre $120 a year. Every morning after his parents leave to work in the fields, Lu sets off to school along a dirt path past his neighbours' mud-brick houses, often sharing the walk with village pigs and chickens.
Nine thousand kilometres and 12 time zones away, Michaela Chen, a gregarious 15-year-old who is passionate about the environment, lives the life typical of many Canadian teenagers. Her stay-at-home mom, Angela, packs her lunch, buys her clothes and takes her back and forth from their home in Richmond Hill, Ont., to Unionville High School.
Lu and Michaela come from two completely different worlds but they have one important connection: Michaela and her fellow students at Unionville High School raised $3,500 two years ago, enough to build a new school in China's Gansu province, where Lu lives. They raised the money for Free the Children (FTC), a Canadian charity that encourages kids to help finance the building of schools for children in other countries with the belief that an education can change a child's life. Because of the fund-raising efforts of Michaela and other Canadian kids, Lu and his classmates now attend school in a new red-brick building with electricity -- a far cry from their old mud-brick school that was lit with candles and in such disrepair that many parents kept their children home for fear the roof would cave in on them.
The China connection
It was no accident that Michaela and her fellow students chose to direct their donations to China. Most of the 20 members of the FTC chapter that they belong to are Asian in a school that draws from a community where many Asian families have made their home. Many of these second- and third-generation Canadian kids have a special interest in understanding and helping a part of the world from which their parents and grandparents have come.
Last summer Angela suggested that it was time for her daughter to understand the hardship of her grandparents' generation. "My mom suggested I get their stories on videotape," says Michaela. So she visited her dad's parents, who live nearby, and started asking questions with the camera rolling. Her grandfather told her about an older brother in China whose life was forever altered when he was forced into military service and denied an education. It brought home for Michaela the value of helping kids go to school. "It's good that we're helping with education because it can stop other problems that come from poverty," she says. "We know that there is lots of AIDS in rural China and AIDS can be lessened by education."
To raise the funds to build schools in China, Michaela and the rest of the group held a 30-hour fast, securing pledges from other students. Their original goal was to raise $1,200 -- enough for desks and chairs for one classroom -- but when they collected $2,500, they decided to keep fund-raising to reach the $3,500 needed to build a new classroom. They expanded their efforts to include asking local merchants for donations.
With so much in the news about a hot Chinese economy, not all students in the school were convinced at first that their fund-raising efforts should be focused on China. So the group put up posters to explain the gap between rich and poor in the country. "The rural areas are very poor," says Michaela.
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Qi Yuntian, 32, is the director for FTC in China. Originally from a poverty-stricken area in the northeast, he now lives in a high-rise condo in downtown Beijing. Although he has never visited Canada, he has close ties: his parents and sister and her family immigrated several years ago and now live in Markham, Ont., not far from Michaela's family.
Every few weeks Qi takes an 18-hour overnight train ride to Gansu province to meet with school officials, parents and students to plan the building of more FTC schools like the one Lu now attends. So far 15 have been completed. Qi is a welcome visitor to the region. Wherever he goes, people are eager to talk about when their new school might be built. "The parents here see education as their children's hope of a better life," he says. With such a small tax base, local school boards don't have the funds to repair, let alone build, schools, so parents and teachers often work together on their own time to repair the buildings as best as they can. And wherever FTC builds a new safe school, parents respond by sending children they may have been keeping at home.
FTC also encourages parents to send their children to the newly built school by offering a unique incentive: a baby pig. Once grown, the pigs become a source of food and income for the family. The program also has the desired effect of increasing the number of girls who attend class. Often if a family can't afford the school fees for their children, it is a girl who is kept at home, says Qi.
Feng Yao, 22, a first-year teacher at Lu's school and former student at the old school, recalls that her mother wanted her to stay home for safety reasons. Feng shudders at the memory of the dark, windowless building she attended, with a roof in constant danger of collapse. "If there was a heavy rain outside, there was a light rain inside," she says. "My parents always worried."
Feng's face breaks into a broad grin when she talks about the new school, with its sturdy roof, large windows and wall-to-wall blackboards. "I am so glad to come here as a teacher," she says. "Every day when I come to work I have good feelings."
When his school day is done, Lu heads back home along the dirt road to his tiny mud-brick house. He trots through the front courtyard filled with yellow chrysanthemums and enters the dim main room. He drops his book bag and then steps outside again and into the attached kitchen. Inside, a skinned rabbit sits in a pot of water on the dirt floor. Lu kneels to light the coal in the little potbelly stove so it will be hot when his mom gets home to cook the rabbit for dinner. His parents will keep working in the fields until the last light fades. While Lu waits, he uses the remaining daylight to do his homework.
On the other side of the world, Michaela rushes out to the parking lot where her mother waits for her at the end of the school day. While Angela goes to pick up her older sister, Michaela listens to music on her iPod as she chops vegetables for dinner and starts up the electric rice cooker. She gets in an hour of homework before the family sits down for the evening meal.
While their material worlds are far apart, Michaela's and Lu's hopes and dreams aren't all that different. Lu knows his parents want him to do well in school so he can get a good job, maybe even find work in the city. He proudly points to the certificate of school achievement that hangs in the house. He says he's working hard so "maybe I will win another one this year." Michaela gets good marks, too, and talks about "professional" options. "Education opens doors," she says.
Lu is a child of few words, but when asked if he likes school, he nods yes. And does he like his new school? Another nod. And does he know that children in Canada helped to build his new school? He nods his head more emphatically this time. "I know that," he says, smiling.
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