In Becky’s small apartment, I met with her and the current crop of student leaders who organize the activities for the Sunshine Project. They told me about some of their feelings and experiences being involved.
Huang Xin Yi who uses the name Amelia with her English-speaking friends, has been volunteering with the group for three years. She is now the President of the 4-H club, which works actively with the Sunshine Project to keep it going. Of the students they help, she noted, “They are really lovely, and caring. When the deaf children visit Nanjing University, you cannot speak with them, but you learn a lot from them.” Xin Yi will be graduating in 2012 and will be starting a graduate program in translation and interpretation in the fall at Wuhan University.
Cheng Hui, who uses the English name Laura, is an English major who has been volunteering with the Sunshine Project for several years. She will start her Masters program in Education at Harvard in the fall of 2012. Hui has built a relationship with a young boy who is intellectually challenged and who now thinks of her like a sister. He some times calls her just to ask one question, “When will you come back?” It saddened her to have to explain to him that she was leaving and he would have a new sister. She is proud, however, that she has been a part of an ongoing volunteer effort, noting that one-time volunteer projects are far more common in China, but offer far less benefit to both the volunteers and those they help.
Fu Cong, or Smile, has been volunteering with the Sunshine Project since 2009. She is also an English major; she will continue her study at Nanjing University next year in the Masters program in Religion. She says, “I love to play with the children. I don’t just observe them, I play with them.” Cong organized a campaign to provide stuffed animals for all of the children at the school for Christmas in 2011. She notes her appreciation for the leadership opportunities she’s had with her involvement in the Sunshine Project.
Liu Yan Hua, or Ida, is a PhD candidate in Information Sciences who got involved when she was an undergraduate student studying with Hua Wei Na. She remembers her first visit to the school, playing with young children ages four to seven and they “didn’t want us to leave.”
Chai Xiang Nan, or Aki, who is in the first year of his Masters program in Sociology, observed during his visits that there really is no need for boundaries among people who are differently abled, “we are all united.” He rejects the labels assigned to “normal” and intellectually challenged students, noting, “We are all one society.”
Cao Shu Fen, Penny, who is in the first year of her Masters in Finance program, was touched by her experience with a young boy who had difficulty with his right arm. She wanted to help him with his coat, but he insisted on doing it himself. She notes, “they are strong and they inspire us.”
Wang Zai Yu, John, who is now in graduate school studying Atmospheric Sciences and will enroll at George Mason University for his PhD this fall, has been volunteering with the Sunshine Project for three years, commented on the value of the experience to him, suggesting that it has changed his life as much or more than the students they help. “The whole process is so pure,” he says.
Over dinner with Becky, I met with two of the four women who have been the guiding force for the Sunshine Project over the last ten years.
Hua Wei Na, from the Information Science department, has served as the liaison with the school since she first identified it as a candidate back in the early weeks of 2003. She has also involved her daughter, now in college, but who got involved as a middle-schooler with some of her friends. Wei Na noted that the experience has been formative for her as well.
Jin Jian, or Jane, is a law professor specializing in housing law. She, too, has been involved since Christmas Eve in 2002. She has served very effectively as the treasurer and accountant for the Sunshine Project, in addition to providing leadership continuity and passion for the project. Independent of the Sunshine Project, Jian has also sponsored two students who couldn’t afford to attend the school on their own. Jian noted that she learned a lot from the teachers at the Gao Chuan school, who demonstrate genuine love for their students. Jian has learned to love her students and they love her in return. That is a real change for a Chinese teacher who likely never had a teacher who loved her.
Gao Feng Hua and Jing Hong are the last of the “awesome foursome” as Becky calls them. Gao Feng Hua teaches Taiji Quan in the Physical Education Department. Jing Hong teaches Geology and Earth Sciences. Both are internationally recognized for their work.
Together, these four women, coordinating with Becky wherever she may be in the world, have provided the leadership and continuity to keep the Sunshine Project going for ten years, blessing hundreds of children and countless volunteers along the way.
One of the most exciting things to come from the Sunshine Project is the inspiration it provides others to create their own service projects.
He Wen Jun, or Hermione (named for the character in the Harry Potter books), recognized that in her grandparents’ hometown, a small village called He Zhuang in the Gansu Province (about 24 hours by train from Nanjing), the school there would have very few resources and a great need for help. In the summer of 2011, she volunteered as a teacher there and observed that things were even worse than she had expected.
The school building itself was dangerous, featuring large cracks resulting from a 2003 earthquake. The playground consisted of an uneven dirt field with two basketball standards, one of which was broken, resting on its side where the kids would play, throwing their flat basketball through the vertical hoop. The teachers themselves had only a middle-school education.
When school started, Wen Jun got involved with the Sunshine Project and participated in the “Fun Field Day.” She was inspired. She recognized that she could organize her friends from her hometown—now scattered around the country in college—who understood the plight of the school to work to make things better for the students there.
“Miss Becky,” as her students call her, pledged her support and together they began fund raising, having both Halloween and Christmas parties to raise money for the new “Rainbow Project.”
Wen Jun also worked with her father to get the project officially registered with the government. She then made a visit in November of 2011 to begin organizing things for the project visit during the Chinese New Year holiday break (about six to eight weeks out of school for university students). On this visit, she met with Education Department of the local government to ask them to do something about the terrible conditions at the school.
She reported that their initial response was negative, indicating that there are countless schools in the region in equally bad shape.