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Benefactor builds schools in rural areas

WHEN former South Pasadena Mayor Paul Zee left the city council in 2001, he had a dream to help students from poor families in China get a better education.

Shanghai-born Zee, 59, has been working on this dream ever since 2005, providing scholarships for 375 students and helping build four elementary schools in China every year.

Scholarships go to needy talented students with leadership potential, not just good grades.

After two terms on the council in Southern California, Zee made the decision in 2001 to sell his business, the US Safety and Supply Corp, to a friend and focus on setting up the nonprofit Morning Light Foundation.

In 2005, his foundation was formally established. He raised US$93,500 for the first year and traveled to Beijing to discuss how to help rural areas build more schools and provide scholarships to disadvantaged students.

With support from the Chinese government, Zee decided to help students in Anhui, Jiangxi and Hunan provinces and in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

In 2006, he raised another US$140,200. In 2007, he raised US$272,950.

To date, Morning Light Foundation has raised around US$1 million. Zee has contracted to help build one elementary school in each region every year, and provided scholarships for students to attend two universities from each region.

Helping to build four schools and provide scholarships for 375 students from eight universities each year is daunting. Zee selects each school site himself and screens most applicants for scholarships.

Brightening the life

"Since 2005, I made at least 10 trips to China and visited rural areas to choose construction sites each year," says Zee. "That's quite a job, but I enjoy it."

Every year, the Morning Light Foundation provides 800,000 yuan (US$118,000) to build four elementary schools in the rural areas and another 800,000 yuan to support 375 university students.

Zee named his foundation Morning Light because he believes that students are the future of China and his help will be that morning light that brightens and colors the lives of students.

Zee divides his time between China and the United States. He raises money in the United States and decides how to use the donations wisely in China.

No one finances his travels to China. Each year Zee himself donates US$20,000 to the foundation and spend US$30,000 on his trips to China.

"When I decided to sell my business to devote myself to the nonprofit organization, I had a plan to spend US$50,000 a year of my own money to help the Chinese students," says Zee.

"If I could work on the project for 20 years, I would spend US$1 million. I have saved US$1 million for the project and I'll work hard to achieve that goal," he says.

Zee was born in Shanghai in 1950 and was taken to Hong Kong with his parents when he was one year old.

At 19, he went to the United States and immigrated there when he was 27.

"The United States gives me the opportunity to be a successful businessman and a city council member. But China is where I was born. I feel I have the obligation to do something for China," says Zee. "People live in this world to take and give. I have taken so much before and now it is my turn to give."

Zee just returned from Shexian County, Anhui Province, in East China. In November, the elementary school he helped build will be open.

"People think it's easy to donate money, but I find it very difficult because I have to solve so many problems to make sure donated funds will actually be used on construction and will not be wasted or abused," he says.

He enjoys visiting poor and rural areas, however.

"When the students grow up, they will benefit from better education with better schools," he says.

Zee's scholarship system is special. Money only goes to needy kids who have shown talent in leadership, not just academic excellence.

He hopes they will become leaders who are dedicated to helping people.

All scholarship recipients are required to spend time in community services, such as volunteer teaching in rural areas.

Zee sums it up. "I want them to show love to others."


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