Shasha (pseudonym), a six-year-old girl, had been begging from city to city with her father for almost a year. Her father was disabled and said her presence would encourage passersby to donate more.
Upset by the little girl’s street life, Shasha’s aunt contacted volunteers with a charity organization in Beijing. Last month Shasha was sent to Guangai, the only charity school for street children in the capital.
In 2012, United Daily News reported that China had approximately 1 to 1.5 million street children. Yet it’s hard to gauge the accuracy of that number when juxtaposed against China’s fast development.
Shi Qinghua, the headmaster of Guangai, said attempts to formulate such a number are ultimately “meaningless.”
“It does not really mean anything and is never accurate. There is a phenomenon called ‘repetitive tramping’. If the system cannot satisfy these children’s needs for living, food and education while also failing to offer them a home, they will just end up back on the street,” Shi said.
Family is the key issue behind street children, he said.
“There are left-behind children: children who have lost their parents; children with a single parent; and so on. Most children who end up on the streets do so because their family fails to offer a complete home,” Shi said.
Data showed that the number of left-behind children reached 61 million in 2014. Left-behind children come mostly from rural areas, where their parents have abandoned them to the care of relatives or friends.
More often than not, the care they receive is less than satisfactory.
In June, news about four left-behind children killing themselves by drinking pesticide shocked the country. The three girls and a boy, aged between 5 and 13, had been left to fend for themselves for three months before their suicide.
Their mother reportedly left the home in Bijie, Guizhou province in March 2014 after a dispute with the father, who disappeared four months after and left the children a debit card. It had 3,500 yuan left when they died.
Although the news shocked the country and triggered a nationwide review of the Ministry of Civil Affairs’ welfare system, the problem of left-behind children remains prominent. And left-behind children easily end up on the street in the hands of begging and criminal gangs.
“There is another type of children we try to help. We call them trapped children, as neither of their parents has the ability to work or to take care of them. These parents either have mental illness or are physically disabled. These children are forced to end up on the street. Some get jobs to take care of their parents, and others end up wandering from city to city as beggars,” Shi said.
Home, Education and Future
“There are no more than three schools like Guangai in China,” Shi said.
Shi created Guangai 12 years ago. At first he only provided shelter and food for street children, but later on he realized “offering them food is no better than offering them a good education.” Shi then started teaching kids by himself. Through years of work, Guangai has developed into a leading school center for street children.
Currently, Guangai has two branch schools: one in Anhui Province and one in Beijing. The one in Anhui focuses on middle school and high school education, whereas the one in Beijing is a primary school.
Located in Shunyi district, Guangai has 107 students. Unlike regular schools, Guangai emphasizes on providing “home,” “warmth” and “a loving environment” for students.
“These children are different from regular kids. They think differently, and they behave differently. They all, to different degrees, have psychological wounds. They either are abandoned, left behind or have lost their families. Either way, it’s hard for children to process if no proper help is provided.”
Guangai collaborates with East China Normal University. Psychologist volunteers come to school every week to talk to the students. Shi said whether the student is violence prone or depressed, the ultimate solution is love.
“No matter how bad they’ve behaved, you have to give them a secure and loving environment. You will see gradual change. It’s a process, and when the environment is friendly and warm, it will be shorter,” Shi said.
In the morning, students study regular courses such as Chinese, English and math. And in the afternoon, students can choose to learn drawing, music or sports. These course are mostly taught by volunteers. Although the school is a charity school, Shi said it still has an obligation to help students develop their interests and passions.
Monthly operating costs hover at around 60,000 to 70,000 yuan, and most of the money comes from donations. Shi said they have long-term cooperation with enterprises including ConocoPhillips. Guangai also has its own fund, which is mainly used to support students who are admitted to universities.
After finishing the six-year primary school in Guangai, students are offered free education at one of three vocational schools in Beijing. A-list students can be recommended to the engineering school under Beijing Automotive (BAIC).
Like many village schools, the biggest challenge Guangai faces is a shortage of teachers. The 107 students are taught by seven teachers, and each has to teach several courses.
“It’s hard to get teachers. The job is low-paying and tiring. These children are special, and we require our teachers to stay with the children 24 hours a day,” Shi said. Most of the teachers in Beijing are retired teachers.
Shi said the situation in Anhui is better, as the local government is offering help to find teachers. But Shi added the majority of the government’s effort is to “prevent children from ending up on the street.” Whenever the police or the protection center finds a street child, they have to send him back home in 15 days.
“But taking care of street children needs collaboration of different departments from street management to police, women’s and children’s associations and educators. Currently there is no comprehensive system offering that kind of help,” Shi said.
“I would be happy if one day I could close the school because that would mean society is finally taking care of these children on its own,” Shi said.