At the tender age of seven, Shang Fulin barely survived a fire that scarred his face and deformed his hands despite eight major operations, including skin transplants and face-lifts.
But Shang has built up a pleasant and outgoing personality and learned to face up to all his pains in life, physical and mental, over the past six years, thanks to the help he has received from a local scout association for boys and girls whose childhood was overshadowed by mishaps ranging from illness and poverty to loss of parents.
The scout group was founded in 1997 in Hexi District, northern China's Tianjin Municipality, 120 kilometers from the nation's capital Beijing, as China's first non-governmental organization to foster the mental well-being of these disadvantaged children.
Despite all the pains he had to endure, Shang has learned to swim, paint and play chess from the scouts, and encouraged his peers to be as strong and optimistic toward life.
The scouts are a necessary supplement to school education, said sources with the local education authority.
"These children need special care and support from the society, but above all, they need to be strong," said an official.
"We're strong and full of sunshine," the children would sing each time they gather for gymnastics, summer and winter camps and voluntary services at communities.
To date, the scout association has set up 40 branches in Tianjin and opened a hotline to provide psychological counseling for children. It has received several hundred thousand yuan in donation from corporate and individual donors.
Of its 4,000 members, 2,520 have got financial aid and 2,000 have received special training on a wide range of cultural and sport avocations.
Two percent of the 50,000 odd primary school students in Hexi District are from single-parent families, and the figure even tops nine percent at some schools, according to a recent survey by the local education authority.
Besides, a considerable portion of young children are suffering from varied diseases or poverty.
"These children are often timid, unsociable and extremely sensitive," said a primary school teacher in Tianjin. "They are considered by many to be 'problem kids' and may suffer from more severe mental problems if not guided properly."
Sources with the scout group say they are ready to enroll children from well-off families as well, as they have found in surveys that these children, often spoiled and dependent on their parents for everything, also need to be stronger.
(Xinhua News Agency January 28, 2004)