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Heartfelt effort helps young lives
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A backyard operation founded five years ago by Australian Christine Cullen has changed the lives of more than 100 young heart surgery patients, writes Jay Jin.

Five years ago Christine Cullen decided to take some toys and play with children who were patients at the Shanghai Thoracic Hospital. This simple gesture of compassion has led her to founding an organization that has made a big difference in the lives of hundreds of families.

"Every organization starts on the kitchen table," Cullen says when describing the fledgling start of the community-based organization she founded, Heart to Heart Shanghai.

When Cullen took those toys to the Thoracic Hospital, it didn't even have a playroom. Five years later and the hospital has a play area staffed by Heart to Heart volunteers and the organization has helped pay for life-saving surgery for 130 children.

Through its fundraising activities, the not-for-profit, non-partisan organization has also funded more than 13 school libraries around China.

Staffed by volunteers, practically all the fundraising proceeds go directly towards helping the children and donating libraries.

The organization's next awareness and fund raising event is "Festival from the Heart," on Saturday at O'Malley's Irish Pub on Taojiang road.

The event will last from 10am until 10pm, with a different Shanghai band playing every hour.

There will also be several children's activities, including a bucking bronco and a bouncy castle.

Admission will be free: "This is primarily an awareness-raising event," explains Cullen.

She says it is often children who become motivated to sponsor a child and sometimes raise the money themselves.

One of the cornerstones of Heart to Heart's fundraising effort is the sale of "heart bears."

Each bear wears a hand-knitted cardigan and a name tag of one of the many children that Heart to Heart has sponsored.

In 2006 Heart to Heart also began raising money to donate libraries to schools at a cost of 15,000 yuan (US$2,187) a library.

With each heart operation costing 25,000 yuan, the heart bears play a vital role in raising enough funds to subsidize these costs.

"However, every family we help has tried to raise the money on their own," Cullen says. Many families pay part of the cost of the operation.

In the Shanghai Thoracic Hospital, Heart to Heart volunteers work six afternoons a week in the play room to speed up recovery and bolster spirits.

"Getting the children mobile is important and you can see the tangible improvements," Cullen says.

The organization's involvement does not just end in the intensive care unit.

The children and their families are brought back to the hospital for a check-up in around six months, and field trips are organized for the sponsors to be reunited with their sponsored child.

Cullen, and her husband, David, moved to Shanghai more than 12 years ago. Cullen works full-time for Heart to Heart and has converted her house into a storage space for donated toys, clothes and books.

She says she never would have imagined that the organization she founded from her kitchen table five years ago could have such a positive effect on so many lives.

The program started out creating a playroom for the children at the hospital, but in 2005 Heart to Heart finally sponsored its first child, Gui Xiping.

The dramatic sense of relief families feel when their child receives surgery was seen in this first sponsored family.

"The operation also affected the mother, she looked 20 years younger," notes Cullen.

Since then Heart to Heart has been able to help many more children around Anhui, Jiangxi and Jiangsu provinces.

It was during subsequent visits to the children's homes that Cullen heard that their schools had no libraries.

Since the first donation in June 2006, Heart to Heart has donated another 13 libraries and is planning to donate another two more this month.

Cullen hopes more locals, along with the expatriate community, will become involved in the organization.

"It's about putting in time, not money," Cullen says.

About 50 volunteers work at the hospital, another 50 help organize and run events and a team knits cardigans for the fundraising bears.

People interested in more information about Heart to Heart Shanghai can visit its Website, www.heart2heartshanghai.net.

(Shanghai Daily July 9, 2008)

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