A camp of warmness and youth empowerment

Amity organized a second summer camp for orphans during July 22-27 in Yongshun County, Hunan. Its aim is to bring young Hong Kong volunteers together with orphans supported by Amity. Games and activities enhance the children’s sense of teamwork, confidence and communication skills. In addition, the experience gives the Hong Kong youth a better understanding of mainland China, increases their own capacity for service and dismantles stereotypes.

An orphan girl beaming with joy after receiving a little-angel soft toy.

The whole issue about orphans in China is very complex. In the background, there is the fast economic development over the last decades that leads to urbanization and labor migration. While young people are leaving the countryside to find work in the fast developing cities, their children are left behind with the old people in the villages. Other societal trends such as separation and divorce, prison sentences or drug abuse of the parents have resulted in many abandoned children. Although these left-behind children are not orphans literally, they are in reality existing as such. Most of them never or very rarely see their parents. They are often living with their reluctant and over-burdened grandparents or other relatives. They are often facing hard living environments and discrimination without proper love and care.

Over the past years, the Chinese authorities paid much more attention to the situation of these children. Various research programs have been launched and intervention strategies implemented. Through sponsorships, orphanages and foster care, the more urgent tangible needs of the orphans were soothed. NGOs like Amity are carrying out various programs in line with this development. Especially in poorer areas where regional governments are lacking funds, the social welfare work of non-governmental organizations remains essential.

Volunteers and orphans experience cooperation and reliance in a playful way.

Through poverty, discrimination and the lack of equal opportunities, orphans suffer the hardship of life too early. They remain one of the most vulnerable and underprivileged groups in China. Besides material needs their emotional wellbeing comes more and more into the focus in alleviation work. A summer camp can take the children’s mind off personal hardship for a time. Amity hopes to encourage them to develop their confidence, self- esteem and hence ready to pursue their dreams. The Summer Camp is also a place where volunteers, mainly from Hong Kong and the local areas, jointly conduct activities as games and excursions with the orphans. This experience is beneficiary the volunteers’ development.

After four days of camp activities, the volunteers accompanied some of the children back to their houses. The volunteers learnt about the living environments and understood the general situation of the orphans in an authentic way. Thereafter Amity organized further site-visits to community development projects like household biogas systems or preservation of local ethnic culture in minorities’ villages. With sponsoring a workshop for traditional weaving arts, Amity is supporting a Tujia community, especially woman to preserve their cultural heritage and improve their self-sufficiency. Clearly, Amity is not only following a holistic approach by improving the orphans’ life directly by relief work and their empowerment; but also cares about an overall society’s sustainable development, as well as encourages people to get involved in volunteering and social engagement.

Since the reunion of Hong Kong with mainland China, anti-mainland resentments are rising in Hong Kong perceptibly. By engaging many Hong Kong youth as volunteers for the camp, Amity also hopes to reduce prejudices and stereotyping.

In the following interview, Amity’s Hong Kong staff member Iris Wong, who organized the Summer Camp, give their observation and viewpoint on the camp.

M: How and when did the idea for hosting an Amity Summer Camp for rural orphans come up?

I: Over the past decades, Amity has been able to provide financial support to over 10,000 orphans in China with the help from our donors. Amity arranges educational activities for Amity’s friends. Through those trips, Amity raises awareness of the needs of the orphans, their families and communities. The idea for a Summer Camp was mainly inspired from some Hong Kong volunteer’s feedback. “We want to visit more children and spend more time with them.” they said after earlier trips to visit orphans in rural areas. The children’s homes are far away from each other and the visitors could only spend 30 minutes at most at one’s home. Therefore, it is almost not possible to communicate with the individual child, who is too shy to talk to the stranger most of the time. “Why don’t we hold a camp as youth groups do in HK? It would be a heart-warming experience for all participants”.  

Amity has been looking for new approaches in its work to provide psychological support to the orphans. The idea finally came up in autumn 2011. Nevertheless, to hold a summer camp is no an easy job. We worked out a project framework, raised fund and invited friends and volunteers to participate. The first Camp was held in summer 2012 in Donghai, Northern Jiangsu.

M: What was the difference in 2013 from the Camp you held the year before?

I:  The place, the number of people and the parties that were involved, I’d say.

This year we went to Yongshun County, which lies in an autonomous prefecture of the Tujia and Miao ethnic minorities. It is a seven hours’ bus ride from the provincial capital of Hunan, Changsha. Amity is currently providing subsidies to 603 orphans, almost half of the total number of orphans in the county. The Tujia are the biggest ethnic group in the region. Four out of five residents are Tujia people. Those who live in the mountainous townships and villages are very poor, with annual income less than RMB 1500 a year. It is not nearly half of that in Donghai, where we hold the camp last year. The infrastructure is also in a bad condition. When we visited orphans’ homes last year, we did not have those bumping, dusty and dangerous country roads into the mountains. With the numbers of 80 orphans and 48 volunteers from Hong Kong, participants almost doubled from last year.

M: It sounds the organization of the camp is also an exhausting and complicated undertaking.

I: While the Camp brings life-affirming experiences for people, it also brings all sorts of challenges to the organizers. For instance, we had to refrain from the merit of all participants living under the same roof by putting our participants into different hotels. There is no local hotel big enough to accommodate all the people at the same time. Our local partner this summer is the Yongshun Overseas Friendship Association (YOFA). They showed great wisdom and solidarity in helping us making all the arrangements.

Which other parties took part in the camp?

I: Besides the YOFA, we experienced great support from local authorities and organizations as for example the police, health authority and media. In contrast to last year, we did not have Hong Kong participants from church congregations. Instead, we invited a youth center, a secondary school and a NGO to recruit participants for the camp. We noticed some of them came from low-income families and were glad that they also had the opportunity to take part. Additionally, we also had a few volunteers from the mainland this year. It is our hope that the Amity Camp could inspire more people to provide support for orphans.

M: It sounds that the camp is also functioning as a role model. Is it a new approach in China running camps for underprivileged people?

Woman of a Tujia ethnic minority community weaving traditional artwork in a workshop supported by Amity.

I: I think there are more camps organized for needy children on the mainland than we could imagine. I guess we are not the first one. We, as Amity Foundation, are trying to implement this camp in a larger context and an approach regarding sustainable and holistic development.  First, the camp is hosted in areas where Amity has other poverty alleviation projects. This development has a positive impact on the orphan’s communities and hence for the orphans. Amity Summer Camp is not a single action but is embedded within a wide scale of engagement. Furthermore, participants of the Camp, like the youth from Hong Kong, can have a better understanding of the different aspects of development issues. Second, Amity Summer Camp has a “user handbook” that contains purposes, guidelines, plans and methods of group activities. This enables easy duplication and further refining and evaluating. As a result, Amity can amplify the camp’s impact. After all, there are over 700,000 orphans on the mainland and the number of orphans one camp could reach is very limited.

M: What are your anticipations for the Camp next year?

I: We see very positive impacts on both, the orphans and the youth from Hong Kong after the Camp. However, as I mentioned, the number of people one camp can reach is very limited. We want to find ways to amplify the impact of the Camp so that more people’s lives can be reached. We have not decided anything firm yet for next year. We have several ideas that still need to be discussed. We could share our knowledge and experience with teachers who are working in schools where the orphans go. We could also engage more mainland or overseas participants in the project. No matter what we will do next year, I hope the Camp serves as an opportunity for young people to share their dreams and reflect on their lives.

M: Is there a particular story you want to tell of the Camp this summer?

Visiting orphans’ homes where they live with their over-burdened grand parents or other relatives.

I: There are many moving stories to tell actually. I was especially moved about the orphan’s joy about some soft toy presents. It is a lovely small doll in red and white color we gave to the orphans before they left the Camp. A young woman from the Anglican Church of Hong Kong designed it. She participated in tours to Amity development project areas several times and became a regular donor and friend of Amity within recent years. Even though she could not attend the Camp this year, she wanted to do something for the orphans. She designed a companion doll called “Little Angel” for them. A group of women from her church heard about her wish to contribute something personal and unique to the orphans and helped with the production. All together, they finally sewed 100 “Little Angels”. The orphan carried the dolls back home; each nicely packed in a colorful gift bag with a written card that reads, “Every time when I help others I am growing up a bit”.

Voices from volunteers:

I would never think I could change someone’s life in a day, a week or a month, especially when I took up this volunteering experience. To fully influence someone’s life you have to be in it for the long term. No one can expect to change anyone’s life in a short period of time but what you can do, and what I wanted to do with this experience, was to give the kids some fun, happy memories, to take their worries away and to let them know that there are adults who care about them.

For volunteers and for orphans the encounter will remain in memory.

I feel like despite their young age they will be my lifelong inspiration and model to learn from, a constant reminder of how I should live my life and face the minimal difficulties in life. I will not forget how they held onto my hand with no doubt despite having known for less than three days. Their faces of purity and joy will be forever imprinted in my heart.

Some may say with the same time and the same amount of money I could have gone to a relaxing trip. But I am glad I was there at the camp and I definitely don’t regret my choice. Upon arrival in Hong Kong after the camp, I couldn’t help but share the experience with my friends and family. They envied my opportunity and wished they were there to experience the moments with me.
In one of the camp’s sessions, I wrote “I love you” to each kid of my group. On the last day of my trip in a large circle and reflection, out of my expectations, the children of my group (even the shyest girl) raised their hands bravely. They looked at me in the eye and said, “I also love you”. Love itself is infectious and highly contagious. These are three simple words that, be honest, I don’t tend to say or write them out normally. But this time I witnessed the magic it would do and just how these children with unfortunate situation and past are lovely, special and beautiful.

Before I bid these kids farewell, I just really wanted them to know- Be a strong kid as most of them already are, I am so proud of them and in fact I admire their persistence and the hardships that they have already endured at such a young age. I really hope that they know they are never alone, never abandoned or unloved despite the end of this camp. There are elder sisters and brothers who love each and everyone of them so dearly and support them despite the distance.

Facts:

Regarding to a report in 2012 of Yongshun civil affair bureau about children’s social welfare development, the amount of orphans in mainland China counts 700.000. In 2012, authorities subsidized 616.000 of these orphans in whole China. 

Orphans crafting and throwing paper gliders during Amity's Summer Camp.

In Yongshun County are 1356 orphans within a population of 540.000 people. 15% of the orphans living in the cities. The vast majority, of 85% is living in villages on the countryside, where high mountains and missing infrastructure make accessibility difficult and thus supporting the orphans. To the category of orphans belong children with deceased parents as well as left-behind children. In Yongshun 312 orphans lost both parents by decease. 463 orphans were abandoned after the father died and the mother remarried. 20% of the remarried mothers took the child along. 198 of the orphans still have the father who occasionally comes for visits, after the mother died. Some of the fathers left and never came back.

After the divorce of the parents, 216 children were abandoned, 79 children became orphans because of the parents being in jail and 88 because their parents disappeared due to gambling depth or drug abuse. 79% of all orphans living with the grandparents. Because of this complexity and the various social, economic and local circumstances and differences the Chinese government is intervening nowadays with decentralized and more individualized measures on this issue. Government authorities acknowledge thereby also the importance of psychic well-being of the children. The government is reacting to the fast changing economic and social changes of present China. In 2010, the government started to create a national security system for orphans. In 2012, the government started to buy social services from private organizations.