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Ray of Hope for Young Dropouts

When Zhang Shengli was first told that his wife was pregnant, he knew straight away what their child would be called.

"Xi Wang (hope)" was the name that he wanted to give the baby when it was born, after a scheme called "Project Hope."

"Project Hope" is a well-known public welfare project which helps many school dropouts in the country's poverty-stricken rural areas in China. The project began on October 1, 1989.

Zhang Shengli, born in North China's Hebei Province, was lucky enough to be the first child sponsored by "Project Hope," which has been a saviour in his lifetime.

"I could not imagine what my life would have been like if there had not been a 'Project Hope,'" Zhang, 25, recalled. "It is the project that pulled me out of hopelessness at that time."


Born in a poor peasant home with two brothers and one sister, Zhang dared not to wish that he could sit in the classroom with other children when he silently watched them reading books through windows in the Taomugada Primary School, the only school in the Taomugada Village, in Laiyuan County of North China's Hebei Province.

The family were poor, not only because they lived in a remote village but also because his parents' health was not good.

His mother was unable to speak and his father had stomach cancer. To cure his father's illness, the family owed out much money in debt. The crops the family planted could only support them for three months out of the year.

"So 'school' was a luxury and a sensitive word in my family," Zhang recalled.

But his dream of going to school never died. "I want to go to school!" Zhang would plead.

He was finally allowed to go to school but sadly his father got more and more ill.

"School fees for one year cost only 10 yuan (US$1.24) but it was still a heavy burden on the family at that time," Zhang said.

To save enough money for school fees, little Zhang collected hair that was cut by family members which he sold for money.

Little Zhang knew that it was not easy for his family to pay for him to study and he wished to pay them back as soon as he could.

Every day after school, Zhang helped with the housework. He carried water, hacked firewood and fed pigs, he then would go and do his homework.

Unfortunately events would soon change all of this. Zhang's father died and now with the main bread winner gone the family would struggle even more. His mother married another man in another village, leaving Zhang and his brothers and sister orphans.

"We had to beg for food from neighbours since they had both left us. I felt hopeless," Zhang said. Further bad news followed. Because most of the students at the school could not afford the school fees, the school was closed down.

Dream came true

But Zhang didn't give up his dream of going to school.

He bravely wrote a letter to a man he had only heard about - Che Zhizhong, a former government official of Laiyuan County who had visited the village years before and apparently cared much about the problem of school dropouts.

In his letter, Zhang told his miserable story and asked the unknown "grandpa Che" to help him to go back to school.

Months passed without a reply.

"I believed that 'grandpa Che' had got the letter. Maybe he was too busy to reply me," Zhang thought.

But he still waited for a miracle. And the miracle did happen.

Che was deeply moved by his letter and passed on the letter to the Beijing-based China Youth Development Foundation, the initiator of "Project Hope." The foundation at once sent people to visit the village in July.

Taomugada Primary School was then chosen to become the first sponsored school in the project on October 17, 1989.

Zhang was supposed to give a speech which represented all of those in a similar position in his village on the day of the ceremony, but he forgot everything he had prepared, "I am so happy and I am so excited!..." were all that Zhang could manage. A tear of joy rolled down his cheek.

His dream of attending school finally came true.

Back to children

Under "Project Hope," Zhang finished his primary school and middle school education in the county.

In 1995, with the help of the China Youth Development Foundation, he was sent to Shanghai No 1 Normal School for college study.

"The study experience in Shanghai finally opened my eyes," Zhang said. "But later a short experience in the United States was even more fantastic," he added.

In 1996, Zhang and another two girls who were also sponsored by "Project Hope" were invited to join the Torch Relay at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

"When I was running on the road just beside Niagara Falls, and holding the Olympic torch in my hand, the images of shabby classrooms in Taomugada village reflected into my eyes," Zhang recalled, "I could not help but think of one question: What can I do to help improve and upgrade my hometown?"

A 10-day trip to the United States deeply moved him.

When he graduated from college, he gave up opportunities of making plenty of money in large cities and went back to his poor and remote village to be a primary teacher.

"The children in my village need me," Zhang said. "They want to study and it is time for me to help them."

When he went back to his primary school as a headmaster, the situation was not much better than when he had studied there. There were only five students in the school with just a few shabby chairs and desks.

And the only other teacher was the one who had taught Zhang. Zhang Zhi, already in his 40s, supported the school quietly.

The former student and the former teacher united together to rebuild the school step by step.

Zhang wanted to build a bigger and better school which could accommodate more children from nearby villages.

It was again the "Project Hope" that helped him.

New classrooms were built, new chairs, desks and blackboards were made.

Students travelled for miles to visit the school.

"Some parents didn't want their daughters to go to school just because they were girls," Zhang said. "I told them their daughters could study for free under the sponsors of 'Project Hope' and they finally agreed."

Fruit of love

Zhang Shengli never imagined that "Project Hope" would also eventually find him a wife! He married Wang Yaping in the Spring Festival of 1999.

Wang, born in a richer county nearby Laiyuan, owned a small shopping mall in the county town. She was a kind woman and wished to do something for the school.

One day after she read the story of Zhang Shengli in a newspaper, she decided to go to his village to see what was really happening with her own eyes and to see if there were anything she could do to help.

After she had stayed in the village for a week and watched how the children were being taught, she decided to leave home and join them.

"I began to love him when I saw how clumsily he cooked for the children and how he washed their clothes," recalled Wang, smiling. "I could feel his deep love towards the children and I admired him."

The happy couple now live in the school with their students. They take care of the children just like their parents would.

"'Project Hope' saved my life and offered me hope for a brighter future. I want to give the same hope to the children here like others gave to me," said Zhang.

(China Daily December 26, 2001)

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