When I first saw a 13-year-old girl Wenjie dancer, I could almost foresee her developing a legendary career performing on stage. Her movement was so swift and expressive, her eyes twinkled with happiness and hope, and she seemed to be lost in her own world – away from the worries of living in rural China where living condition is basic, education quality is minimum, and her parents are too busy working to make the ends meet that quality family time is a luxury.
To encourage Wenjie to build confidence and connect with her dancing talents, I encouraged her to lead group dancing sessions for the hundreds of students at her school, so that she could build confidence as a star. Wenjie was very shy at first, but eventually agreed to do so on one condition: “Teacher, I will only go on stage if you come with me as my dance partner,” she said, looking at me with hopeful eyes.
This was the dilemma I encountered when I taught a class of rural children at a Visionary Education summer camp.
Growing up, I have always felt a little like an ugly duckling, always falling behind the beat in primary school dance classes, and eventually the dance teacher asked my mom to take me home so that I do not disturb the other children. The experience left vivid memories and I have never tried dancing since.
But facing Wenjie’s request, I could not resist. To support her, I spent the next few lunchtimes diligently learning the dance moves from her, so that I would not embarrass myself too much when I lead the group dancing sessions as Wenjie’s dance partner. Day by day, I felt something magical happened – I started to improve, and even enjoy the dance! After a few days, I went on stage with Wenjie, leading the 300 children every day to rehearse our group dance! I was so surprised by myself and felt that little duckling in me has turned into a swan.
This was just one moving moment of my journey as a volunteer. At Visionary Education, perhaps the most shared sentiment amongst us volunteers are that although we serve our shared purpose selflessly, we are gaining so much more than we give! The way Wenjie has encouraged me to leave behind my ‘ugly duckling’ self-perception is a complete testament of this sentiment. Such epiphany came at the same time as the fulfilment of seeing Wenjie enjoying her star moments – and knowing such precious moments are leading her closer to her dream as a professional dancer.
Having such fulfilling first-hand experiences interacting with Wenjie and other incredibly bright children, I can completely understand why Visionary Education have managed to attract the contribution of more than 250 volunteers over its 13 year history. Founded in 2008 after an earthquake in Sichuan Province killed many young school children, Visionary Education has since grown to shape rural education across the whole of China.
We have provided leadership training to over 200 rural principals and hosted many summer camps for rural children – the two activities combine to impact the lives of tens of thousands of rural children.
Despite the charity’s growth, we have remained an all-volunteer run project – to this date, we have never hired any admin staff. As an volunteer run project, the obvious challenge is the lack of stability and certainty – as our volunteers all either work full time or study, they are absolutely investing 120% of effort and commitment to ensure that they deliver top quality work supporting rural principals and children. What drew us together is the shared sense of responsibility, and fulfilment of seeing children like Wenjie thrive when they are connected with their talents.
In 2021, to celebrate our team of volunteers’ shared journey, we published a new book, A Spark in the Kindle: A Volunteer Team's Journey to Illuminating Rural Education. The book is a collection of stories from many volunteers over the years: Guohui Sun shared his observation of Visionary Education’s growth and impact on rural education for over a decade; Xiaobo Peng wrote about how a little girl she taught in 2010 has since grown up and found her own life path; Ella Monck wrote about how teaching rural children has shaped her first ever experience visiting China; Laragh wrote about her experiences organising an ‘Olympics’ sporting event for rural children in 2012 when the real Olympics were happening in London, her hometown. These are just a few stories that give a flavour of the shared memories that have truly connected the hearts of volunteers over the generations. These shared memories have not only shaped Visionary Education’s history but created a ripple effect for revolutionising China’s rural education landscape.
Here is a summary of the five core learnings from A Spark in the Kindle: A Volunteer Team's Journey to Illuminating Rural Education:
1. The greatest power of the volunteering spirit is a recognition that we are all contributing towards a worthy cause that is larger than our own lives, with impact far beyond our generation. This keeps us going!
2. Shared vision and values unite volunteers and empower us to keep on going in the face of challenges.
3. In serving others, not only do we find fulfilment, but we also reach up to our individual potential – often with lovely surprises!
4. Volunteers are the greatest ambassadors of a non-profit organisation – their passion and experiences can influence and attract more like-minded contributors.
5. In the volunteering world, there is no difference between a significant task and a menial task – all tasks are equally important, and all contributions are greatly appreciated by all members of the team.
2021 is the fourth year I’ve been volunteering for Visionary Education. The incredible spirit of our growing team of young volunteers gives me so much energy, and constantly encourages me to go out of my own comfort zone to deliver more - so that collectively we could all join hands to shape the future of rural education and ensure a better future for many more children!
About the author
Cecily Liu, a Kiwi-Chinese girl living in London. A former journalist, she is passionate about the power of communication to bridge cultures and empower collaboration. Outside of work, she spends most of her free time volunteering for Visionary Education, a project striving to improve China’s
rural education quality.