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June 28, 2011

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Motto: 'I serve, therefore I am'

AMERICAN Sheila Seiler fulfills her passion to help others by teaching at an international school and running the charity BEAN. She tells Nie Xin that she sees more and more people in Shanghai reaching out to help others.

When she arrived in Shanghai five years ago Shelia Seiler only found a few nongovernmental organizations doing charity work and relatively few volunteers, but today she finds that a culture of giving is growing.

Much of that spirit she attributes to the outpouring of charity to help victims of the Sichuan earthquake in May 2008.

Seiler, 32, teaches year six at Yew Chung International School of Shanghai and is president of BEAN, a community outreach organization that sends volunteers around the city every weekend to work with orphanages, schools for migrant children and centers for people with disabilities and senior citizens.

They also partner with a range of environmental protection charities and help with animal rescue.

In 2009 and 2010, BEAN was honored as Shanghai's Best Charity by That's Shanghai magazine.

Last Saturday, volunteers gathered to groom and play with around 130 abandoned dogs and cats at a shelter in Jing'an District.

On the same day in Zhangjiang High-tech Zone in Pudong New Area, other volunteers played with orphaned infants and toddlers in a pre- and post-surgical care center for tots with correctable deformities, such as cleft lip and palate.

They also helped with basic maintenance, including heavy lifting, cleaning other dirty chores.

This coming Saturday, BEAN will help the facility, Shanghai Healing Home, move to a new location.

"We're going to do this in one day so that we disrupt the babies as little as possible," says Seiler. A notice about the activity has been posted on the BEAN website.

BEAN, an international charity founded in 2003 in Seattle, Washington (US), started a branch in Shanghai in late 2008.

The aim was to provide partnering charities with volunteers for their events.

It was founded by Aimee Haynes and Seiler became president when Haynes left.

"Haynes was frustrated by the lack of easy ways to get involved in helping others in Shanghai, so she decided to create those opportunities herself," says Seiler, "I am very lucky to have two passions and two outlets through which I can serve others - teaching and BEAN."

Seiler says the goal is to offer as many easy ways to get involved in helping others as possible.

"I'm inspired by the BEAN leaders and top volunteers who come out every weekend to get their hands dirty, give lessons, plan events and do their part to make the city a better place," she says.

"I was and am still in love with the opportunities that Shanghai provides, with its openness toward others, and with the city's vibrancy and ability to change and evolve on an almost daily basis," she says.

To her, "Shanghai is the future."

Compared with the scant volunteerism five years ago, "today everyone is looking to get involved and there's urgency to the charity scene," she says.

She also sees corporations putting on charity events and programs, as well as integrating CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) into their day-to-day operations.

When BEAN started in Shanghai, there were just five friends; it grew to 300 people in six months. Today there are more than 2,100 members, about 600 of them active in a given month.

"There wasn't much of a culture of giving and sharing in China until the Sichuan earthquake," she says. "What changed in China and in Shanghai since then is that people overall feel more responsibility and obligation to others, and they see how their contributions can affect others' lives."

To be a successful leader in a charity, as in other fields, Seiler says it's important to be a good listener, focus on the needs of the people who need help, hear "what they are really saying" and empathize.

Then use that knowledge and empathy to either help solve their problems or teach them how to do so.

"Charity work can be a great way to break out of the expat mold and see something new in the city. Through working side by side with others, you can make friends you never thought you'd connect with, see a side of Chinese culture you never thought you would, and be welcomed into the homes and hearts of those you help," she says.

BEAN is open to everyone who can volunteer their time as they please.

For more information, visit

Shelia Seiler

Nationality: the United States

Age: 32

Profession: Charity leader and teacher



I don't like to hog the spotlight - I'd rather work behind the scenes in helping others.

Favorite place: Cotton's Bar

Strangest sight: Nothing surprises me anymore.

Worst experience: Saying goodbye all the time to departing friends.

Motto for life: "I serve, therefore I am."

How to improve Shanghai: Get involved in helping others, even if you only have limited time or money.

Advice to newcomers: Live your passion and this will help make Shanghai your home.


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