Ma Zhiying was worried because she could not cough up nearly 30,000 yuan (4,400 US dollars) to buy coal to heat the "Schoolgirls' Home" which she set up to support schooling for poor village girls.
More than 60 poor high school girls in Haiyuan County of northwestern Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region is currently supported by Ma, a laid-off worker who took in all these girls as her own daughters.
The girls, whose families could not finance their education, lived in the "Schoolgirls' Home", a three-story building with more than ten rooms, built by an international organization in 2006.
"I'm trying not to bother others, and I don't want to talk about difficulties," Ma told reporters. Fortunately, some volunteers came to help her and national and local women's federations also offered financial support.
Before 2006 when there was no such building for these girls to live, Ma let them live in her own home, a three-room rural bungalow. She then lived in an adjacent poor-built adobe house with her husband and two twin sons.
The 2,000 yuan (294 US dollars) monthly salary earned by Ma'shusband, who was a civil servant in the county government, was the only source of income for Ma's large "family".
The woman, who is physically petite, did not quite match the description of her as "a mother of 180 poor village girls" given by many news reports. The 43-year-old, with dark skin and deep wrinkles around her eyes, was here in the capital to attend, as a delegate, the Tenth National Women's Congress which closed on Friday.
With years of hard-work to run her "home", Ma's weight fell to 40 kg from 73 kg she had a decade ago, and she is also suffering hearing loss.
Ma started to support poor village girls in 1997 when she had just been laid off from a local factory and became a street cleaner.
She was deeply impressed by a girl who stood for a long time by the gate of a county middle school. The girl said her parents could not support her to go to middle school and she came here to see what the school was like.
Ma had similar experience of dropping out of school because of poverty. She believed that without knowledge the situation of her hometown could not change. However, in the backward Ningxia countryside, the schooling of girls could not be guaranteed as old-fashioned ideas discriminating against women prevailed.
Ma then gave the 11-year-old 100 yuan (14.7 US dollars) to cover educational fees. Later, more girls turned to Ma for help. That year, Ma supported five girls to go to school.
She began to support high school girls after the country adopted a free-schooling policy for primary and junior middle school students.
Over the past 11 years, Ma had supported more than 180 schoolgirls, including the disabled, who were at the verge of dropping out of school.
More than 70 of them were later admitted to colleges and found jobs after graduation, which was a great relief for Ma.
The "Schoolgirls' Home" has become well-known nationwide and had drawn many helpful hands from home and abroad. Ma was also honored by the central government as one of China's "Ten Great Mothers".
The "mother" rose as early as 5:00 in the morning to make breakfast for her "daughters" and went to bed after 11:30 when all the girls had fallen asleep.
Ma has spent more than 100,000 yuan (14,700 US dollars) on water, electricity, fuel, medical and educational fees to run the "Schoolgirls' Home".
"I have owed a lot of money," Ma said, refusing to mention the sum.
The local government is helping her look for more organizations willing to donate money and manpower to her "home".
Ma said she would mainly depend on herself and planned to set up an enterprise to "make money and support more daughters'".
(Xinhua News Agency November 1, 2008)