Genevieve Antono went on a three-week volunteer trip to rural communities in the Chinese provinces of Hebei, Henan and Gansu when she was studying at HKU. Led by a Canadian charity called Free the Children (FTC), Genevieve and 25 other youths were involved in community development projects such as school building and teaching English to children at the existing FTC primary schools, as well as conducting needs-and-assets assessments in villages where FTC plans to build schools. Driven by the belief that education is the key to self-empowerment and breaking the cycle of poverty, FTC has been actively building and furnishing schools in impoverished villages in China since 2002. This volunteer trip enabled Genevieve, now a graduate of Government and Laws, to gain valuable insights on how the organisation operates at the local level, as well giving her as a better understanding of the lives, hopes and concerns of the children and community leaders she met.
We started our trip in Beijing, which appeared no less than a glowing model of modernity and affluence in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics. Beijing embodied the side of China that the world was most familiar with - a rising economic superpower - and it stood in stark contrast to the impoverished communities we delved into.
This disparity between 'rich China' and 'poor China' was particularly evident when we visited Wujiazhuang, the village in Hebei where FTC built its first primary school seven years ago. Together with students from a local secondary school in Zhangjiakou, a rapidly developing city just outside Beijing, we replastered and repainted the entire front of the school in two days.
What struck me most, however, was that the Chinese teenagers from Zhangjiakou seemed to be experiencing as much of a 'culture shock' as we were, although they only lived half an hour from the village we were visiting. Most of them did not even know that such a poor community existed so close to where they lived, and were just as stunned when they realised that some villagers lived in mud huts that collapsed when it rained, and did not have access to clean water.
We visited and volunteered at four other villages over the next three weeks, and one of the most vivid memories I have is of the 'tent-school' we visited at the Qishan Community in Gansu. Located close to the boarder with Sichuan, this village was also hit hard by the May 2008 earthquake but, being in 'another province', did not receive much aid or attention from the media in the immediate aftermath.
Since a large section of the only primary school in the village had collapsed, and any structures that remained standing were deemed unstable, the children had to have classes in outdoor tents where they were exposed to the elements. I had visited their community during the extremely hot and dry summer, but I couldn't help but wonder how they would be able to even conduct classes during winter, when temperatures often drop below zero.
Despite the hardships that they faced, however, many of the young students I encountered continued to demonstrate a striking 'survivor' attitude. A common theme that emerged from my conversations with my students - who were between the ages of nine and 13 - was a keen awareness of the importance of an education and an intense desire to continue going to school. Wang Wenhui, a boy in my Primary Five class who I recall to be particularly enthusiastic and outspoken, was forthright in telling me that all he dreamed of was going to university and becoming a math teacher! He told me that both his parents were farmers and that they did not have much money, but that he knew that he would be able to have a better future if he worked hard.
"For me, it was exchanges with local children like this that convinced me that education is the key to stopping the widening gap between the rich and the poor, especially in China. Going on this trip reminded me that there is a face, a story and a dream to every child living in poverty, and strengthened my commitment to promoting the cause of child rights and education. To this end, I dream of becoming a motivational speaker for FTC, and to spread the message that I learned so clearly from this trip - that change is possible."