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Volunteers reach out to migrant kids and pull them back from the margins

MANY migrants' children exist at the margins of this showcase city and do not share in its benefits. But for eight years one man and his volunteers have been enriching their lives and giving them something to sing about.

The Jiuqian (Hand-in-Hand) Volunteer Center has organized 20-30 children of migrants into a choir that will perform Sunday at the Children's Palace of the China Welfare Institute.

The chorus - in which disadvantaged children raise their voices in joyful songs - is one of the many activities of the Jiuqian center that aims to provide better educational opportunities to the children of the city's 5 million migrant workers.

The program of extracurricular enrichment and life-skills building was started eight years ago by Zhang Yichao, a graduate in philosophy from Fudan University.

The center itself - with one branch in Pudong and the other in Puxi - opened in 2006.

The situation of migrants' children, especially their education, is cause for concern. Few attend public schools because of the hukou or resident permit, but enter privately run schools that leave much to be desired in terms of education, resources and facilities.

They provide the most basic skills, none of the add-ons that Shanghai parents insist on for their kids - Chinese literature, music, English, martial arts, computer skills and so on.

Though mostly born in Shanghai, these children have no roots and often suffer from insecurity and low self-esteem. Boys smoke at an early age and hang out; girls wear earrings and nail polish young and lack proper etiquette.

Zhang has dedicated the past eight years to improving the education and life-outlook for migrants' children. He is joined today by around 20 other volunteers.

In 2001 Zhang launched the "Hand in Hand" volunteer project to give these children enrichment courses and activities to build their self-esteem, self-confidence and help them believe that their lives have many possibilities.

All classes after school and on weekends are free. The children, from 10 years old to 16, can choose among 20 classes, such as playing a musical instrument, dance, art, Chinese language, logic, martial arts, computer science and so on. There are sports and field trips as well.

The Jiuqian Volunteer Center is a nonprofit educational organization with about 20 regular volunteers, Chinese and expats. They come from all walks of life, from university students to professionals.

It attracts several hundred migrants' children each year, about 100 of them take regular classes all year.

"The literal meaning of jiuqian is 'hand-in-hand for a long time'," which expresses my understanding of philanthropy," says 32-year-old Zhang. "It should be a lifelong career and commitment to help people in need."

The center has been widely publicized and is the subject of a documentary titled "Hand in Hand" made by Shanghai's Documentary Channel.

In 2001 Zhang became interested in these children when he and his postgraduate classmates in philosophy were conducting a survey about migrants' children.

"I was shocked by the under-funded and poorly equipped private schools for these children," Zhang recalls. "The classrooms didn't have adequate lighting or even a full piece of chalk. After school the kids went home to shabby housing near a deserted airstrip. They played in rubble while their parents worked from dawn to dusk."

In addition to classes, the center offers regular sports activities, summer camp and simple social investigations the children themselves can undertake.

These include looking into the conditions of senior citizens in their areas; they also visit suburban villages and look at issues like health care and education. These activities broaden their knowledge, encourage their curiosity and increase their awareness of important social issues.

All the activities supplement the basic, exam-oriented educational system, which, Zhang says, falls short in developing a child's creativity and all-round abilities.

"Compared with local children whose families can afford to enrich their lives through books, music, travel and extra classes, migrants' kids are usually restricted by the rigid educational system," Zhang explains.

To build up their confidence, Zhang encourages them to take part in public performances. In January this year, they presented a new year's concert at the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum.

And on this coming Sunday at 2pm, they will sing, dance and stage a performance at the Children's Palace.

The center is mostly funded by donations, notably from Haha TV's Charity Foundation, Narada Foundation and a charity auction of young pop idol, 2005 Super Girl Zhou Bichang's personal items.

The children's parents perform numerous menial tasks, such as street vendor, bicycle repairman, construction worker, ayi, etc. The children, however, are sensitive to their low social status and call their parents "businessmen."

"It's a big challenge for us to relate to and get along with these children who have sensitive and tender hearts," Zhang says. "They have a strong sense of insecurity and are likely to feel lonely, isolated, restless, and they have a hard time controlling their mood and behavior."

Some children consider themselves neither Shanghainese nor migrants.

"Some people just simply give alms, cash," says Zhang. "But in addition to financial aid, what these children really need is trust, social recognition and space just to be themselves."

Gradually, he says, children who take part in special classes and activities become more outgoing, confident and hopeful about the future.

Yang Liping, a 11-year-old girl from Sichuan Province, has been taking classes in computer science, English and table tennis for half a year.

"The teachers there are very nice and patient," she says. "I love to spend time with them and my new classmates. We have a very good time."

Yang's mother, Yang Zhengmei, an ayi, says her daughter has improved in her ability to communicate and in teamwork skills.

"She is starting to enjoy learning, and from the volunteers she learns something else important for her growth - knowing that other people care about her and are dedicating to helping," says the mother.

Heartwarming scenes of smiling children may remind people of the acclaimed 2004 French film "Les Choristes" ("The Choir Boys"), in which a dedicated music teacher changes the lives of troubled children at a correctional boarding school by introducing them to choral singing.

The work of Zhang and his team is much more complicated than the film suggests.

"I feel that I am happily 'growing up' together with the children," Zhang says with a grin. "Every day is different, with challenges, fun and satisfaction. That gives us strength to move forward."

Volunteer Xu Huidan, a bioscience major at Fudan University, says it's rewarding to work with the children and calls rather ordinary-looking Zhang "a man of charisma."

"I find I'm lacking in education skills, so I'm thinking of taking some education courses at Fudan," she says.

Nowadays Zhang teaches part-time at a neighborhood middle school.

But his focus is on enriching the education of migrants' kids, and increasing their confidence and their options in life.

He hopes to build on the success of Jiuqian Volunteer Center and open others across the city for more migrants' children.

Anyone who wants to help can e-mail to or call 5167-8345. A handful of tickets are still available for the children's performance on Sunday.

Migrants' children concert

Date: June 7, 2pm

Venue: China Welfare Institute Children's Palace, 64 Yan'an Rd W.

Tickets still available


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