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December 2, 2009

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Stepping Stones to English

AROUND 300 native English speakers are helping migrant children learn English and gain self-confidence. They regularly visit far-flung districts in the Stepping Stones program. Esther Young reports.

It started almost by accident in 2006. Corinne Hua was volunteering for a non-governmental organization Stepping Stones and happened to ask what schools for migrants' kids needed.

"English teaching," was the answer.

Before long, three volunteers made a commitment to drive an hour outside of downtown Shanghai every week to teach English, hoping to improve language skills and give students confidence.

Today Stepping Stones still maintains its passion for helping disadvantaged children learn English, but the scale is much bigger.

There are more than 300 volunteers who work in 20 schools. Native English speakers are continually being trained in classroom management and lesson planning. Even now, there are new projects and new locations on the horizon.

"It's been quite amazing," says founder Hua. "I couldn't have imagined what Stepping Stones would become."

Stepping Stones seems to have tapped into a deep desire to help others through volunteering, especially in Shanghai. In addition, Stepping Stones is a direct link between volunteers and quality education.

Education for migrant children has historically faced problems. Because scarcely any migrants and their children have Shanghai hukou (or permanent residency that confers benefits, like public schooling), it's difficult for them to be enrolled in local public schools.

However, there are signs of improvement: migrant children are slowly matriculating into local school systems, and in addition, more and more companies are offering schooling as a direct service to their workers.

The problems are far from solved, however, Stepping Stone continues its commitment.

Volunteers are crucial. They not only teach but also drive regularly to schools in Putuo and Minhang districts, despite their busy schedules.

"I couldn't have asked for a better core of volunteers," says Hua.

Volunteers may be expat women with children of their own, women with their own careers, men in business - all seeking meaningful experiences in Shanghai.

"It was difficult at first," says volunteer Olivia Hardie, who started teaching in March, "but in the end, it's all about the children. When they recognize you, when you see how happy they are to see you, it makes it all worth it."

The benefits of service are mutual. While volunteers fulfill a need for English education, they also benefit from involvement.

It provides connections, hence the name Stepping Stones: the teaching bridges the gap among populations that may not otherwise meet. In this case, it is the migrant community, Shanghainese and expats coming together for a common good.

Stepping Stones is continuing its work of connecting. It's still looking for dedicated native English speakers to act as teachers, and also program coordinators.

Thanks to Stepping Stones, the future of some lucky migrant children seems a tad brighter.

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