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November 11, 2009

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Smart cookies take the cake

ORPHANS rise to the occasion in the Shanghai Young Bakers program giving six months' training in baking with help from the French community. The first batch is fresh from the oven. Nancy Zhang and Esther Young take a bite.

Three young student bakers kneaded, rolled and molded dough into delicious French pastries - skills that will be their ticket to jobs in the rising bakery industry in China.

The three Shanghai Young Bakers (SYB) recently demonstrated how to bake goodies before an enthusiastic audience at the Shanghai Cuisine Festival.

Just a year ago student baker Wang Li, 18, from Henan Province, was a lost teenager working in a dead-end job in a toy factory. The girl, who was orphaned, had been making toys since she was 14 and felt confused and direction-less.

Like the other students, all orphaned, she came to SYB through charities working with Chinese orphans. Shanghai Young Bakers gave them fully accredited training in French and Chinese baking, plus mentoring and practical experience at such prestigious partner companies as Paul, Sofitel Hotels and Carrefour.

With this training they can find a job in a bakery all over China.

"I never imagined a chance like this," says Li. "I never imagined the standard of the teachers, the facilities and the life help they have given me."

Shanghai Young Bakers was started by a group of young French expats in the French Junior Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai. They wanted to build a bridge between the French and the Chinese communities through social and artistic projects.

Supported by the French consulate general and the chamber, the six-month program began in February with its first batch of 18 students aged 18. The second program began in September.

The program chooses orphans at the cusp of their adult lives, giving them a chance to enter society as constructive, working members.

All the students are recruited through charities such as Shanghai Sunshine. In two years' time the program will have trained over 70 students.

Quality training

Shanghai Young Bakers has attracted around 30 volunteers from the French community. Volunteer Cecile Cavoizy says the work is challenging but rewarding.

"I like the fact it is a very structured and good-quality training for the students, but that requires a lot of work from the volunteers," says Cavoizy. "We give maybe 20-30 hours a week from our evenings and weekends. But it's worthwhile to see students evolve and create a world for themselves.

"Many are shy and afraid of everything when they first came, but eventually they gain autonomy, learn the right questions to ask, organize themselves and help each other," she adds.

The SYB model of helping orphans through work-based training has successful precedents in Vietnam and India, also supported by the French consulates general and other French organizations there.

But the program faces commercial pressures as organizers strive to keep the quality of training high, while remaining entirely not for profit.

When people hear of the project, many become interested in learning French baking themselves, and many offer to pay to take part in the course, organizers say. There are also opportunities to make money from the bakery products. In Vietnam the bakery-training program has already succumbed to commercial pressures.

In Shanghai the organizers' biggest challenge is maintaining SYB's charitable origins and essence. In two years' time they hope to find an established charity to take over the organization.

Meanwhile they continue to change lives.

"When I was working at the toy factory I thought to myself, 'I can't carry on like this'," says Li. "I didn't want to be a burden to society. Now I have found a goal in life - I feel such satisfaction when people love my breads. I just want to be a very good baker, learn more and do my best."


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