Seeds of Change

Personal essay

By Valerie Flynn - Peace Corps Volunteer: China (2007-2009)

"If I could fix any problem in the world, it would be making life better for people with disabilities in China." 
- Nie Jing, a second-year English Education major at Guiyang University, China

When I asked my class, which is made up of university students studying English as a second language, to brainstorm and discuss any problem they would fix to make the world a better place, I never could have dreamed the magnitude of what was to come.

In China, many people with disabilities end up in orphanages. In the province where I live, very little exists in the way of special education, and, regretfully, individuals with special needs are often brushed aside. At the age of 16, orphans must "retire" from orphanages in order to keep numbers maintainable. Having no prior education, training, or independent living programs, those with special needs are sent to a retirement home, where they spend the rest of their lives confined to a single cement ward, lacking stimulation, communication, and encouragement.

When Nie Jing mentioned she had a heart for individuals with special needs, my mind began racing with ideas (which, at the time, seemed farfetched), as I had been, unbeknownst to my students, visiting a group of 20 female "retired" orphans with special needs, ages 16 to over 60, and trying to, albeit unsuccessfully, rehabilitate them single-handedly.

It didn't take any convincing to get Nie Jing to accompany me to the retirement home, and, after one visit, she was hooked. Nie Jing was convinced that her classmates and other Chinese students would be interested in helping with something like this, too, and so, after implementing a needs assessment, brainstorming, and collaborating, Seeds, the first nongovernmental volunteer organization for university students at Guiyang University, took form.

Seeds, co-directed by Nie Jing and myself, is dedicated to promoting volunteerism among Chinese students, specifically females, who generally lack exposure to meaningful volunteer opportunities, and to improving the quality of life for our friends with special needs.

After telling only two of Nie Jing's classmates our plan, within one week, 14 dedicated female students and two female professionals from the community approached us inquiring how to join Seeds, and enthusiastic to make a difference.

Now, three months later, the retirement home is an entirely different place from that which I first stepped into. On a weekly basis, the same team of dedicated, consistent volunteers visits the home, forming relationships with the residents and providing them with much-needed friendship, love, and attention. In addition, our volunteers bring activities to stimulate our friends' diverse needs and interests, while promoting physical, recreational, and occupational therapy.

"I had no idea how much of a difference I could make," said Wang Yu Qin, one dedicated student volunteer.

For Global Youth Volunteer Day, as proposed by Seeds student volunteers, in one short week we raised $614 through the Peace Corps Partnership Program. With the money, we were able to buy a plethora of exciting things for the retirement home: tables and chairs for the residents to eat and work on, instead of their laps; puzzles; exercise and physical therapy equipment; a keyboard and musical instruments; an array of beads and string; paint, sidewalk chalk, and other arts and crafts materials; flower pots, soil, and, of course, seeds.

On Global Youth Day, all eighteen volunteers (including Nie Jing and myself) and our twenty friends at the retirement home gathered together and celebrated our friendship by making jewelry, planting flowers in pots, painting pictures, making music, and just enjoying each others' company. It was a tremendous day, filled with laughter, smiles, creative expression, and companionship. Every resident was able to exhibit and outline, through experimenting with the various projects, their talents, skills, and unique abilities.

At the end of the day, when it was time for us to (reluctantly) leave, one resident, whose hand had been permanently enclosed into a fist, came up and tapped one volunteer on the shoulder. For the past three months we had been trying various physical therapy programs to assist her in being able to open her hand. Now, when we turned to look, she smiled, held her hand up, and independently opened her fingers half-way.

"This is the most meaningful thing I have ever done," Deng Rong, another year two English Education major, stated. "I will do my best to continue this kind of volunteering for the rest of my life."

Our beautiful friends at the retirement home, even on days when we are not able to visit, are now able to explore their individual talents, stimulate themselves on a daily basis, and have since created exceptional jewelry, creative art work, and a few have even used the sidewalk chalk to transform the cement walls of their ward into a picturesque, expressive mural. While we will continue to go and provide friendship and love, our friends at the retirement home (as well as the staff that work with them and the neighbors in the community) are fine-tuning their skills independently, finding meaning in their lives, and beginning to learn of their worth.

As a result of this project--something that wasn't premeditated and began simply by someone stating a phrase in class--seeds of hope have been planted for the ladies at the welfare home, and seeds of inspiration and volunteerism have been sowed in my students. I am confident that, from now on, whether I am here or not, Seeds will continue, new students will continue to join, and others in our community, for years to come, will be able to reap the benefits

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