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Devin D. Thorpe
Devin Thorpe

Learning to Make a Difference: Three-Year Follow-up

Three years ago, I wrote the book, Your Mark on the World. In the book, I profile a host of ordinary people who were doing remarkable things for good. One of the subjects of the book was a group of my students at South China University of Technology where I was teaching when I wrote the book.

The chapter I wrote about this group is included in this post below. I’ve asked one of the students, Niu Chongran, or Adrian, to join me on Tuesday, September 15, 2015 at 6:00 Eastern. We’ll talk about his experience with the service project described in the book (and below) and his experiences since. Tune in here then to watch the interview live. Post questions in the comments below or tweet questions before the interview to @devindthorpe.

You can download an audio podcast here or subscribe via iTunes.

Chapter 27

Learning to Make a Difference

Niu Chongran, or Adrian, got his first real taste of volunteering in China as a student last year at South China University of Technology when his teacher assigned the students to form groups and do some form of volunteer work as a way to develop managerial skills and experience.

Chongran was the leader of a group of freshmen that also included Lu Xiaoliang or Dandelion, Liu Shiqin, Feng Yucheng or Jack, and Zhang Jiahui or Ana.

(Long before college, most Chinese students choose an English name to facilitate their study of English.  Chinese given names are often chosen based on their meaning and may not necessarily be names in the English sense of the word.  Hence, when Chinese students choose English names they don’t feel constrained to use a traditional name, but may choose any English word that resonates with them by virtue of its sound or its meaning.)

The students in the class were initially bewildered by the assignment, but most ultimately caught the vision of volunteering and worked hard to plan, organize and execute a project that would leave someone or something better off.

Chongran’s group decided to coordinate their efforts through the Guangzhou Volunteer Union, an only-in-China sort of organization.  The GVU as it is commonly known is a government organized non-governmental organization or GO-NGO.

Going back to the Cultural Revolution in China from 1966 to 1976, the strident form of communism practiced at the time devastated the economy and left citizens in fear of their government; no one volunteered to do community service of any sort in this environment.  The idea of selfless sacrifice of time and resources for strangers and the less fortunate was inadvertently obliterated by the effort to govern the people specifically for the common good.

The government created the GVU to promote volunteering in the community in 2002; volunteering had sprung to life in the 1990s in Guangzhou, but the government hoped to accelerate the development of volunteering by providing funding to advance the cause.  Their primary activity is to train people in the basic aspects of volunteering, that is, why it should be done and how one might find time to help other people.

Their focus is on helping the elderly, especially those who have no living children.  Each year they help to coordinate 15,000 volunteers in making 70,000 contacts with almost 17,000 seniors either in person or by phone.

After completing a basic course in volunteering, people can opt for more advanced training that teaches them to better appreciate the needs of seniors and to learn how to assess their situation and identify opportunities to help.

The most common problem identified by the GVU among seniors is severe depression; seniors often report contemplating suicide.  The effort appears to be effective; no known suicides have been reported among the seniors in the program.

In one case, Feng Xian or Cherry, a Vice President of GVU with responsibility for coordinating the meetings of the Board of Directors, reported proudly that one of their volunteers had found a woman who was despondent and thinking about suicide.  Not only did the program visits help to improve her mood, but as her mood improved, she joined the volunteers and is now among the most active in visiting other senior citizens.

Chongran’s group got involved with the 2011 effort to make and deliver scarves to the senior citizens.  Chongran and his team hoped to knit five scarves—one from each member of the group, but ultimately the boys in the group were unable to pull it off.  The girls came through, each knitting a scarf (though one of the three scarves was not in the end viewed as being an acceptable gift, leaving two) to be given to seniors.


Left to right:  Lu Xiaoliang “Dandelion,” Feng Yucheng “Jack,” Niu Chongran “Adrian,” Zhang Jiahui “Ana,” and Liu Shiqin (front).  Photo courtesy of Niu Chongran “Adrian.”

Via email, Chongran told me in his excellent English as a second language, “There’s differences between weaving a scarf for senior and buying a scarf for senior, because most of us don’t know how to weave the scarf and we took time to learn and weave, eventually when the scarf was finished by our own hand, we have already weaved our love inside, that’s enough to inspire everyone’s potential of being love.”

Through the GVU, the five student volunteers identified a very elderly woman who lived with the elderly wife of her nephew, who wasn’t entirely out of the picture but who did not live full time with his wife and aunt.  Each of the elderly women received a scarf and a thoughtful visit from the group.

Jiahui noted afterward, “From that project, I not only knew more about life in Guangzhou but also got shocked by what the volunteers did. There were shower devices installed by volunteers also a specially made telephone for the old, buttons of which are quite big to make it easier for the old to read. By marking words like help on the button, the old lady could call for help with ease.”  She added a note that represents the sentiments of her group, “I think we should not only focus on the material abundance, but give them more company.”

The students spent several hours with the senior ladies, having already spent countless hours learning how to knit and then knitting them beautiful scarves for them.  One can only guess at the impact the visit had on the seniors, but I don’t have to guess at the impact on the students.

Shiqin caught the vision of the project and how it benefits not only the seniors, but also the volunteers.  She noted, “I think being a volunteer is not only helping others but also helping ourselves to grow; it’s those efforts that help us realize our responsibilities to contribute to the society and provides us with a source of satisfaction and fulfillment.  And I will continue to do these right things.”

Chongran is organizing an ongoing effort to follow up on the project and plans to broadly recruit students to join him formally in the fall; he already has several committed.  When the entering freshmen arrive on campus next fall, one of the activities will be a day for students to join clubs.  One of the options will be Chongran’s student club for caring for senior citizens.

Yucheng commented, “For me this is an unforgettable experience… From this I learned that we can help people and we should help people who need.  I can never forget the smile in the old lady’s face.”

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