By Nan Nan Liu
Northwest Asian Weekly
Best friends Jessica Collins and Catherine Foster have a lot in common. They both are of Chinese descent, have younger brothers, and have expressed interest in attending Whitman College next year. However, it was another shared commonality, both having taken a trip to China, that led the two friends to start their own organization.
It began with a trip to China
“I wasn’t interested in learning about China at all,” confessed Foster.
“Our family kept a lot of Chinese traditions,” said Foster’s grandfather, Dick Seto. “[However,] the children may not like it. They did not understand a lot about China.”
Despite her grandparents’ constant urging, Foster had no interest in learning about her family’s background. One year ago, though, when Foster took a trip to China with her family, she had a change of perspective.
While in China, Foster visited a school where the poor conditions — teachers living in schools under leaky roofs and students using plastic buckets as toilets — sparked a desire to help the underdeveloped regions of China.
At the same time, Collins also visited China with her family. After exchanging travel stories, Collins and Foster decided to join efforts to help better conditions for youth in China. Together, they established Yuan for Youth to raise money for children in China.
“[We raised] $2,500 in less than two weeks doing Christmas Giving Tree. We set up a competition to raise money. [We also] did creative pictures, [and raised money] during basketball games,” recalled Collins. “We wrote this universal letter and sent it out to small businesses and families. We received $1,500 or more [from sending those letters.]”
“We also had a carwash,” added Foster. “[Our] goal was $400, but we [raised] over $600.”
“[Over the course of last year,] we were able to raise $5,000,” said Collins.
“I was surprised,” said Seto. “Usually, all teenagers have time for is to fall in love. I did not know [my granddaughter] and her friend took the initiative. They never cared about China. I am very proud of my granddaughter and her friend.”
During this time, Yuan for Youth raised enough money to provide more than 20 elementary schools in rural China with essential school supplies.
How raising money led to building schools
With $5,000 in tow, the question became, “What should they do with all the money?”
Enter Dennis Su, president emeritus of China Tomorrow Education Foundation (CTEF), who was introduced to the girls by family friends.
Since 2000, CTEF has been improving education in rural China by building schools, establishing libraries, supporting the Chinese education system, and promoting public awareness of the education conditions of rural China. Su traveled to remote villages in China each year, and with the help of CTEF volunteers, transformed village schools that were once shambled houses to working facilities with real classrooms, where children can learn under better conditions.
Using existing connections in China, Su directed the funds from Yuan for Youth to the right schools, ensuring that the funds directly benefited the students, instead of passing through the hands of local officials. More than 1,000 elementary school kids received new sports equipment, toys, and supplies.
A second journey to China
Still feeling uneasy about their hard earned money ending up in the wrong hands, Collins and Foster decided to take an extra step and join Su in one of his recent visits to the rural schools in China. Their second trip to China, one which they took together, allowed them to see how their efforts benefited the schools and students in Guangxi, China.
“It was quite an eye opener for the girls,” said Su, who chaperoned the girls with other adults.
The girls visited 11 elementary schools in Guangxi, often by taking many forms of transportation and trekking through dirt roads through Southern China’s scenic landscape.
“Compared to the kids here, [the Chinese students we visited] were very disciplined and respectable. They were learning math and worked so hard. They all stayed in dormitories, in bunked beds, [with] three to four kids on one single [bed],” said Collins.
“Compared to what we grew up with, their condition seems so minimal. But the kids were [still] so happy.”
Despite being unable to communicate with the students there, Collins and Foster described their interactions with the students as a cultural and educational exchange.
“We [wrote a word] in English. They’d copy it. They’d write in Chinese, and we’d copy it,” said Foster.
“We not only learned about the schools, but [also] about the political structure and minorities in China,” added Collins. “[Not only did] we make so many people happy, we also helped ourselves. [We] got a cultural experience.”
Collins and Foster’s experience was documented in CTEF’s documentary, tentatively named “Higher Path,” due for release this December.
A continued path
After returning home and settling back into their normal routines, Collins and Foster prepare for their final year in high school. Though they are busy with classes, sports, and college applications, they are determined to continue charity work in the future.
“My dream would be to continue to learn Chinese, and do service there,” said Collins. “I just find it extremely intriguing.”
For Foster, her newfound connection to China extends far beyond the students that she has helped through Yuan for Youth. It has developed a greater connection to her family’s cultural ties.
“I hope they have motivated other Chinese people to help out in China,” said Seto.
“I want to continue this for as long as possible,” said Foster. “My grandparents are proud of me. I’m doing something that relates to something they love.” (end)
Nan Nan Liu can be reached at email@example.com.