On a stormy summer day in 2004, a van full of donated children's books was forced to stop at a dilapidated primary school off a mountain road in Fengyang, southwest China's Yunnan Province.
Teachers there thronged to watch.
"They gazed at the books with longing and begged our volunteer again and again to leave the books for their students," said Li Xun, an administrator of Smiling Library, a Shanghai-based non-governmental organization.
A Shanghai high school class donated the books for a poor primary school some distance farther in the mountain area.
"Beseeched by repeated requests, our volunteer could not help giving in."
Li is one of the first members of the grass-roots charity, which collects and sends books to poorly-equipped schools in remote areas. Like the one in Fengyang, many of them are badly in need of books that students can read after school.
While State-run charity projects which set up schools do allocate money for books, most private schools are left uncared for.
And libraries in some public schools are either not accessible to children or have books too outdated for them to read, said Shen Shaoqing, a Smiling Library volunteer in Guoyang, Anhui Province of east China.
"Because of the severe shortage of teachers and facilities, many schools in those areas teach only material that students taking national college entrance examinations need," Shen said.
"Parents in many remote areas usually regard education simply as school curriculum," he said.
"They never bother to buy their kids books other than those most necessary for class, even if they are not poor."
Li said they once received a letter from a county director in Henan Province asking for a book donation. A search on the Internet found it is one of the wealthiest counties in the country.
The director explained that local residents do not usually buy books.
"They have computers, but not many people know how to use them," Li said.
Shen said: "Children there have little knowledge about the world outside their small village. A senior high school boy with an excellent performance on his examination does not know anywhere outside his village except the big cities where his villagers go to work."
Shen, a graduate of Fudan University and a former electronics engineer in Shanghai, is now the headmaster of a high school in Guoyang. Two years ago, he volunteered to teach there, leaving behind his wife and a 3-year-old son.
As a school co-ordinator, he helps ensure the recipients of donations use the books properly and looks for more schools to support.
Shen said he was considering including another school in a nearby county on the donation list.
"I have to make sure the school is poor enough with little chance to get government funding, that the teachers there want the books and are responsible enough to take care of them and that the students can reach the books," he said.
Li said that a co-ordinator once found some donated books were kept away from kids.
"The teachers explained that the books were so precious that they were afraid the kids would damage them," she said. "But that missed the point of sending them.
"For schools that manage the books well, we will send 10 per cent more books the next year."
Li and Pan Lijin, another volunteer, who are both in their late 20s, are among the city's well-educated and fairly well-paid young people who have a sense of social responsibility and are fortunate enough to have some time to contribute.
Li just quit her job in a financial services company, and Pan works in the sales department of a logistics firm.
"People of this group tend to value education very much, and having an ability to help others brings self-fulfilment," Li said.
She and Pan both like backpacking.
The idea of donating books caught on among posters to an online bulletin board named Smile, for backpacking aficionados.
"Backpackers like to explore where they go more deeply than normal tourists, and getting acquainted with local people, especially kids, is one of the activities," said Pan, who joined the organization in early 2004 and is now responsible for collecting donated books. She always remembers to bring sweets and pencils on every trip to make friends with the children.
"What impressed me most was once when I gave a kid in Miaojiang, Guizhou Province, some candy, she asked for a pencil."
Pan is certainly not alone. Backpackers initiated many of the country's grass-roots charity organizations or projects that have started up in recent years, and they have helped fund education to kids in poor areas.
In mid-2003, Light of Hope, one of the first and largest grass-roots charity organizations to support education in poor areas, appealed for book donations for a school it funds.
Xu Feng, one of the two co-founders, and Li collected twice the number of books needed in a short period of time, and they decided to start a charity organization of their own and called it the Smiling Library.
"After the first half-year, we felt it was necessary to set up a systematic procedure for donors to follow and monitor the whole process," Pan said.
The website, www.smilinglibrary.org, was launched in early 2004.
Intended donors can log their books, new or used, into the website database. But rules establish what books are needed and what are not.
Storybooks, knowledge books, dictionaries and reference books are among the books that are needed.
The administrators of the organization will assign the donated books to the neediest school and then tell the donors the name of the school that received them and its mailing address.
People will know from the website where their books will go and the arrival dates at the schools.
The administrators of the organization even have a blog to tell everybody who cares about the library what it does every day.
"People can also send books to designated places in Shanghai and several other cities including Hangzhou and Ningbo in Zhejiang Province and Suzhou in Jiangsu Province if they are too busy to follow the procedure," Li said. The addresses of those designated places can be found on Smiling Library's website.
"But we hope they would make the donations by themselves, which would get them more involved in the charity business and develop habits to help others voluntarily," she said.
People who do not have the right kind of books for kids or time to choose books can contact the library at email@example.com and donate money to buy books. The response will include a list of books that are purchased with the amount and the invoice.
The choice of books is made carefully.
Lin Xiaoxi, the co-founder of a website, www.hongniba.com.cn, which discusses and sells children's books, has made suggestions for the book list and has provided books to the Smiling Library at a low price.
He set up the website after becoming a father and has been studying children's books since then. Before that, he was a lawyer.
Since 2003, the Smiling Library has helped bring nearly 20,000 books to 37 schools in 11 provinces and regions including Yunnan, Guizhou, Sichuan and Gansu provinces, and Guangxi Zhuang and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous regions, and the number of its administrators and volunteers has grown from the original two to 27.
More than 1,000 individuals and more than 20 enterprises, organizations and schools have donated books or money to buy books through it.
Li said that the organization has been cautious with publicity. But people are getting to know it somehow and are joining it.
"We are often moved by people's trust in us," she said.
Kris Lau, a Hong Kong man in his early 40s, made repeated enquiries by e-mail to offer his help after reading a report on the library.
"Smiling Library has never urged me to make any donation; it was purely voluntary," he said. "I was also impressed by the friendly faces of the organizers."
Lau has donated altogether HK$10,000 (US$1,280) in a short period of time. He said his mother also donates.
Zhang Yan, a 30-year-old professional in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, said that she has donated more than 500 books through the organization since last year.
"I spend one-tenth of my salary almost every month," she said.
"I think good books are more important than beautiful school rooms."
Last year, when the organization was recruiting volunteers to visit the schools it supports in Yunnan and Jiangxi provinces to report how the books are being used and what books they need most, many people applied.
"We were only able to pay for a hard-sleeper train ticket," Li said. "They were responsible for all other costs. But they did a really good job by sending back detailed reports and photos."
(China Daily April 28, 2006)