Work in Xi’an


For all of you who have been asking me about work, here it is! I’ve only done about a month in all but it’s been interesting and challenging. My VSO job description gave me the title of “Volunteer Centre Advisor” working within their China Programme of “National Volunteering”. Although VSO have been in China for 30 years, the days of sharing skills in Education and Health are coming to an end for obvious reasons. Their new strategy will be focusing on supporting people to engage in development and reduction of poverty in China and overseas from China. VSO have begun recruiting Chinese doctors to work in developing countries. My brief is to help a local volunteer centre develop its capacity in helping NGOs (non-government organisations) or charities, working in the areas of disability and the environment. It also includes engaging with the corporate sector (public and private) that wants to show its social responsibilities in the communities where they work. That’s the theory – does it sound familiar? The Big Society? In fact, many people are willing to volunteer even if they have been working all week.

I work from a Volunteer Centre office and we have just moved offices this week. We now share space with the umbrella organisation SNWDF (Shaanxi Western Development Foundation).   There are  8 of us in the office, including the 2 VSOs. Ed, the other VSO, works in marketing and fund raising. He’s from Holland and has been a great in helping me to settle in. He’s also a whiz kid on computers and is busy creating a new database and web site for the volunteer centre. It’s strange being an office worker for part of my time. As a full time teacher I used to envy office workers imagining that they had less stress to deal with, time to chat and time to go on line. In my experience so far, it’s true! I have a wonderful translator named Ting. She is only 23 and wants to be a translator after doing further studies in the UK next year. She was brought up by her grandparents, who were in the army, and she still lives with them. Her English is very good and she has a creative, enquiring mind. She’s a real gem to work with.

Although I have been given a work plan, I am left pretty much to my own devices. Everyone in the organisation is busy with a fund raising event at present which doesn’t concern me much. I asked to visit all the NGOs to start with but have only been taken to one special “school” so far. This is not a government school but was set up by parents of Autistic and Special Needs children who wanted somewhere for their children to learn. There are no government run schools for SEN children and the teachers are only paid a fraction of ordinary teachers’ salaries. They work long hours and often at week ends as well. This school was keen to have some input and training from me in several areas. I spent a couple of days there observing various classes. Several of the children were autistic but there were others with Cerebral Palsy and a wide range of other special needs. Most of them had communication difficulties and behavioural problems. One little boy of about 5 was given Peto – type training for about an hour. He had splints on his legs and was made to go up and down a ramp over and over again despite his tears and protestations.

In response to the school’s requests, I have been working on developing the “Shoe Box Tools” idea – simple exercises such as sorting and stacking – contained in a shoe box. They can be used by parents and teachers in a structured way to help with organisational and concentration skills. I’m getting students in a local high school to help me to make them. They don’t do Design and Technology here (or anything creative really) but spend hours on academic study to pass the exams for university. The Head is keen for me to help them improve their English by teaching the tasks in English and I’ll break from tradition and get them to discuss volunteering, disability and special needs. My first session is tomorrow so I’ll let you know how it goes. They also want to help in the special school, so I’ve got 150 new volunteers!

I’m also working on Social Stories for Autistic adolescents and the school wants to create a book of them. They have to be visual and symbolic as the pupils can’t read. The idea behind them, for those of you who aren’t Special Needs teachers, is to present a social situation (one that is causing problems for a particular pupil) in a factual, logical way. It’s “written” in the 1st person and aims to improve the pupil’s understanding of a social situation and over time, to modify behaviour. The teachers wanted to know what they could do to stop certain older pupils from masturbating in public! So, I’ve produced a Social Story to use in training with them. Let’s hope it is effective! Discussing such issues with a young Chinese translator is not easy.

Well, that’s enough on work for the time being. Photos can be viewed on

  1. #1 by jelford on November 22, 2011 - 4:53 pm

    It was really interesting to hear all about your work Vanessa. Your job sounds really varied and challenging. Good luck with it all. James

  2. #2 by Miriam on November 30, 2011 - 1:18 am

    Great photos and I feel hungry reading your wok stall descriptions.

    Hope you are keeping warm! Obviously working hard and keeping busy. How’s the Mandarin coming along?

    Lots of love, Miriam x

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