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The gift of a brighter future
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On Saturday Pudong's Da Bie Shan Primary School for migrant workers' children will enjoy a Christmas party quite unlike anything the kids have ever seen. More than 500 students, each with a parent, and some 60 teachers and volunteer helpers will enjoy a bountiful spread and a whole heap of festive fun.

Santa Claus will be present but, don't tell the kids, Santa will actually be Robert Epstone, chairman of the Shanghai Leeds University Alumni and one of the key people behind the event.

"It's going to be an amazing party, there will be a magician, clowns, face painting and we've even managed to get two enormous Christmas trees," says Epstone, a clothing and fashion guru who has lived in Shanghai for seven years.

The alumni group, which officially formed in March, started to get involved with the migrants' school in the summer.

"Back then the school was in an appalling state, it was really run down," says the charismatic Northerner and head of the SLUA which has a powerful network of 350 Chinese and 30 Western alumni. "Now Da Bie Shan really isn't the same place at all."

What began as volunteer English teaching at the school quickly developed into a full refurbishment project with alumni donating money, equipment and time that have literally transformed the previously decrepit school.

"It just goes to show what can be done," says Epstone. "I love going there, I always come away with a big smile on my face, this whole experience has been intensely gratifying."

The parents of the pupils at Da Bie Shan Primary School are low paid migrant workers, the teachers at the school are also low paid, and educational standards are accordingly not the highest. Classes of 50 are the norm. Through the efforts of Epstone and the SLUA, the school now has a computer suite, a fully functioning modern science lab, much improved furniture, curtains and even just properly painted classrooms.

Ye Binghui, the school's head teacher, is very much looking forward to the party. "This will be the first Christmas experience for these children. They have a lot more difficulties than other children so they need more love and support from society. This party will provide them with a sweet memory."

Lilly Shi studied International Communications at Leeds and she has been coordinating the 26 volunteer teachers who go out to Da Bie Shan every Saturday morning.

"The kids are very keen to learn, they always raise their hands. They are very happy to get the chance to study English. They understand that their future prospects will be hugely improved by being able to speak English," says Shi who now works for a British consulting company. "These kids are among the most vulnerable in society, they deserve the right to a good education and to enjoy their childhood. It's worth the early start just to see the kids' smiles. I'm glad we are able to help but we could do with more volunteers."

Sponsors of Saturday's party include Gusto Fine Foods, Sherpas, Element Fresh, Paul, the Portman Ritz-Carlton, the Shanghai Pie Company and T8. Cooking the lunch will be T8's very own executive chef Patrick Dang.

Gusto Fine Foods' dynamic young Managing Director James Westwood, another Leeds' alumni, is supplying much of the raw materials for the meal, he says: "We're going to be serving good, healthy and hearty food. We figured it'd be silly to serve the kids our idea of a Christmas meal so we'll be cooking a paired down simple version that's been specially designed so the kids will really enjoy it. We've got 200 baguettes and 1,000 sweets from Paul, 600 pies from the Shanghai Pie Company and Element Fresh are providing 60 staff and loads of useful stuff like napkins."

Vice Chairman of the SLUA, James Shen, studied at Leeds in the late 1980s. Originally from a poor farming community in neighboring Jiangsu Province, Shen now works for a US biotech company. He understands better than most the value of education.

"Without a proper education these already disadvantaged kids are further disadvantaged. Through our efforts we hope that these migrant kids can compete from the same starting line with kids from Shanghai," he says. "These kids are smart, they don't have any problem with math and Chinese."

In the future the SLUA hopes to improve the school playground, provide more books, computers, art supplies, music facilities and teacher office facilities.

Those interested in helping should contact Kung Si Wei at

(Shanghai Daily December 19, 2007)

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