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April 8, 2011

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Mothering angels

CHEN Jie could have savored an ordinary and peaceful life, earning an acceptable salary at a British company and enjoying a warm family life. But a chance encounter with an autistic child changed her life.

After seeing the helpless child and family, Chen quite her job in 2004 and established the Qing Cong Quan Autism Center, a non-profit organization based in Shanghai that provides professional tutoring and health training for autistic children.

Chen, now in her 30s, overcame problems such as shortage of funding, lack of knowledge about autism and lack of professional teachers and care givers. What began as one classroom with two teachers is today six classrooms with around 12 teachers. Each month, around 35 autistic children and families receive help.

"Doing charity has kicked off another phase of my life," says Chen who also has a daughter and family to attend to.

"If autistic children are like stars, we are like people on cold nights who run to catch falling stars. We face loneliness and disappointments because our goal is hard to reach. But we will never stop running for children and for their parents."

Chen is not fighting alone. Many local mothers aged from 35 to 45 are dedicating themselves to charity in Shanghai. They are well educated and make a career of helping others who are underprivileged - the mentally and physically challenged, minors and senior citizens.

Xie Qian, 38, from Chongqing Municipality has moved from being a "freelance" community volunteer to a professional social worker. She is busy with a travel project to enhance the lives of people with disabilities. It is a program of the Pudong Social Workers' Association.

"Traveling is demanding and a dream for most mentally and physically challenged people," Xie says.

"Having little income and suffering problems in moving, hearing or seeing, they can seldom get close to nature, but travel can help ease their spirit and improve their quality of life."

Tianmushan Mountain in Zhejiang Province is the latest destination planned by Xie, and she is looking for volunteers to ensure the safety of the travelers with disabilities.

"My idea is to let one disadvantaged group help the other. Thus, each group can feel they are needed," she says, adding that she is looking for young people who lack jobs to serve as volunteers.

Xie first became a volunteer when she was in school in Sichuan Province. She taught English at Sichuan International Studies University, later pursued a master's degree in linguistics and taught in Beijing and Guangzhou cities. During this time she visited orphanages once a week to work with children with developmental disabilities. A call in her heart grew louder and she knew she had to change her life.

In 2003 she pursued a master's degree in social work offered jointly by the University of Hong Kong and Fudan University.

"I thought it would be a short cut for me if I made helping others my job," she says.

She took a three-month internship at a hospital in the United States to help elderly people and realized that her mission would be to cultivate professional, well-educated social workers. She then taught at Shanghai Normal University in 2007, educating future social workers.

After the Sichuan earthquake in May 2008, she went to Dujiangyan to help in reconstruction.

"My brother lived in Chengdu and I took my 3-year-old daughter with me at that time, hoping she could feel the pain and the love," Xie recalls.

In 2009, Xie joined the Pudong Social Workers' Association as a full-time professional helping people with disabilities and seeking funding for programs.

She spends long hours with people with disabilities. "I treat them as normal people," she says. "No pity, no mocking. I want everyone to feel respected. I want to help them integrate in society."

Ordinary things that most people take for granted can be extraordinary for people with disabilities, such as withdrawing cash from an ATM and buying groceries.

With this in mind, Xie and other social workers organized a competitive activity for mentally challenged children at Sunshine Home in Shanghai's Pudong New Area.

The quickest child took 60 minutes to withdraw 100 yuan (US$15.30) from an ATM - it was a great step forward.

Xie is so busy helping other people that she often doesn't have enough time to spend with her own daughter.

She remembers her daughter's birthday wish when she was age 4: "I hope mama won't write anything at night," referring to all her paperwork and e-mails.

For 40-year-old Tang Tao, the mission in life is to help the physically challenged to find a job and live a life of dignity. She founded Zhiliao Charity Culture Communication Center, a non-profit organization based in Shanghai that helps people start their own businesses and find jobs.

Tang herself is proof that physically challenged people can lead rich, full and successful lives. When she was an infant, she developed a problem with one leg that became useless. Being one of three children in a family settled in the remote Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, she suffered from a lack of medical services.

She didn't give up.

"I left my family and found my first job when I was 14 years old," Tang says. "All by myself. I found a place to live, I worked hard and finally became a Chinese major in college."

Tang has a beautiful voice that enabled her to be a freelance radio DJ and event host at the beginning of her career. Joining the China Disabled Persons' Federation in 1997, she moved from being someone who needed help to one who offered help to others.

Tang says her latest project is helping more than 1,000 people to work for a pizza chain restaurant's telephone ordering service.

Tang is married to a policeman and has a daughter in grade seven. "My daughter doesn't think I'm disabled," says Tang. "She has a healthy and positive attitude."


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