Wu Zaihui never knew her real mother. The 14-year-old grew up with her foster father and grandmother who were never able to give her maternal love despite their efforts to make her happy.
But her life changed greatly five years ago, when Wang Aihua, a procurator in her home city of Zaozhuang, in east China's Shandong Province, offered to act as her mother, finance her schooling and answer all the questions that arise when a girl enters puberty.
Wang, whose own daughter is two years younger than Wu, remembers their traumatic first meeting.
"Her clothes were so messy that I couldn't tell what color they were after I washed them twice. I cooked her some spareribs, but she didn't know how to eat them," she said.
What worried Wang most was the girl's timid, introverted personality. "She rarely said anything, and when she did, her voice was always hushed. She never looked you in the eye."
Wang has since spent many holidays and weekends with the girl, taking her to parks, helping her with her schoolwork and teaching her how to dance and get along with people.
Her efforts have paid off, helping Wu shake off her inferiority complex -- she is now a top student and class rep at her school.
"She's always ready to help her peers, too," said Wang. "My daughter has also learned from me to be frugal, wash her own clothes and care for others."
In Zaozhuang, a city with some 3.6 million people, at least 10,000 orphans have found "acting mothers" under a program run by the local women's federation, said Wang Zonglan, chairwoman of the federation.
The program to keep orphans in school and offer them maternal care operates in other cities, including Jinan, Yantai, Changchun, Shenyang and Anshan, said Wang.
The volunteers are requested to finance the kids through primary and secondary school, visit or write them frequently and stay in touch with their teachers, said Wang, adding that "many acting mothers say these motherless children are ideal partners for their own kids who are often lonely and self-centered as the only child at home.,"
Besides acting mothers, she said the volunteer team had expanded to include acting fathers. "Even some newly-wed couples and college students have signed up to give a helping hand to the needy children."
A survey by All-China Women's Federation showed that 60 percent of China's school dropouts had lost one or both parents before they quit school; 70 percent of them suffered psychological handicaps such as autism, anxiety, apathy or an inferiority complex.
Moreover, they were eight times more likely to commit a crime than those who grew up in a normal family environment.
"Kinship, motherly affection in particular, is essential in keeping these children healthy and away from juvenile delinquency," said Quan Chaolu, a professor of psychology at elite Shandong Normal University.
(Xinhua News Agency May 15, 2006)