Caught up in the chaos of Kathmandu, it’s difficult to believe that I left China three weeks ago. For the past year I have been working as a volunteer in Xi’an, that city of ancient dynasties, famed for it’s terracotta warriors. Many friends have been wondering what I was doing there and so I will try to explain as I reflect on my Chinese experience.

I had been placed by my organisation, VSO, with a local volunteer centre as its volunteer coordinator and specialist in the area of Special Educational Needs. At the beginning, it was not at all clear what was expected of me. In fact, I’m not sure if the organisation had much of a clue either. Once I realised this, I began visiting as many NGOs dealing with Special Needs children as I could. Then it became clearer what sort of problems and challenges they faced.

There were about 24 NGOs – “schools” for adults and children with special needs – that for the most part had been  started by a parent of a child with SEN. These children, about 400+ of them,  are not educated by the state and the NGOs struggle to find staff, resources and funds. Despite the standard of education in some of the NGOs, I was full of admiration for these selfless parents.  I would say that the level of SEN education is probably what it would have been like in Britain about 60+ years ago. Going into a classroom, one would see a group of children lined up on benches or at desks, being taught, by rote, something which was usually totally inappropriate. Physical restraint was common place and enjoyment in learning was not seen as important. I saw a small boy with Cerebral Palsy being forced to hold himself up with his arms whilst his legs were clamped down on a bench. Every time his arms gave way, he was forced back into position. This process went on for at least 20 minutes. Many painful exercises were seen as beneficial and there was a belief that they could cure or improve existing conditions.

I was surprised at the large numbers of severely Autistic children. Given the one child policy, it was seen as a real stigma on a family to have a child with SEN and it is one of the reasons that many  severely disabled children are abandoned as babies.  Most of the requests for help focussed on the creative arts. Knowledge about Western methods was gradually filtering through and so the task of providing art and music classes was important. My wonderful Chinese translator was an invaluable co-worker and we slowly put together a team of young, enthusiastic volunteers to work on short term projects in the areas of music and art. To make the projects sustainable, ideas and suggestions for improvement were written down and shared with the specific NGO. It was heartening to see the work of our art volunteer continuing after she had left. This was despite our first few disastrous attempts at getting the class to paint freely. We hadn’t had time to set up the classroom before 12 small children, representing every type of special need in the book,  came rushing in. Within minutes, the orderly classroom was covered in paint and water and soon the children looked like they had been dipped in paint. They had never worked with real paints before. Although we had asked the parents to provide aprons, they didn’t think their children could paint and so hadn’t bothered to pack any. The following week, they all had aprons.

You can see photos of the art project here:


We also recruited volunteers from the Xi’an Music Academy who were shocked to find so many children with SEN. Most normal children are completely unaware of SEN because they never come into contact with such children at school. Once they realised that the children had great difficulties communicating, they had to think carefully about the appropriateness of their lessons. I monitored the groups and was  impressed with the volunteers’ commitment and patience. Some photos of music volunteers:


A video of volunteers working with severe SEN children:


Another area that I got involved in was creating educational resources for the pupils, in particular those with Autism. I met a Chinese teacher from a local High School who thought it would be a good idea to get his students involved in volunteering. Eventually we got a volunteer group to make a set of Learning Boxes for one of the NGOs. It gave me an opportunity to do some teaching again and to talk to the students about SEN and disability.  This Friday afternoon activity lasted for about 6 months and it became a case study for using volunteers in a creative way to improve the education of Autistic and other SEN children. In fact, if VSO can secure funding, it might be rolled out to more NGOs in Xi’an and two other large cities.

The finished Learning Boxes

Various other resources that proved useful were a guide booklet about SEN for teachers and Volunteers, explaining the different types of SEN and how to help the pupils;  A  “Do’s and Don’ts” guide for anyone dealing with SEN children; Circle Time activities for SEN pupils; Social Stories; Communication Passports and a variety of practical tasks for pupils. It was also helpful to get feed back from the teachers who used the materials in order to improve them. It reminded me of the early days of Welsh medium education for SEN pupils where we had to make our own resources.

Apart from this work, there were various trainings for other volunteers and NGOs. During the year, we placed 74 volunteers for short and longer term projects. I was also asked to train other NGOs in Xi’an and Chongqin on Volunteer Management Systems, a subject about which I knew very little before my placement. There’s nothing like practical experience to make sense of the theory. Much of the Western models of Volunteer Management are not suitable for the Chinese context and needed adapting. I enjoyed turning dry theory into participatory workshops with enthusiastic and willing participators. One group’s efforts at advertising a job placement made me laugh. They were just like a group of kids as they collected pictures, drew slogans and waxed lyrical about the benefits of volunteering amid shrieks of laughter .

Despite all the problems that China has with the status of NGOs and the huge challenges in the area of SEN and mental disability, I have great faith in the young volunteers I met. They were concerned about making their society a fairer and more humane one. They really want to make a difference and were shocked to find that they knew so little of the plight of hundreds of children in their country. We made this video to promote the work of the Aileyi centre. It’s mostly in Mandarin but shows some of the projects I’ve mentioned:


As the summer arrived, I helped to organise two summer camps and  hope that this activity will continue each year. It was great to get the children out to the countryside. There is nothing like Storey Arms (an outdoor pursuits centre in the Brecon Beacon) in China, so we had to devise all our own activities. The highlight of one camp was sitting quietly by the river helping to collect pebbles for a boy with severe Cerebral Palsy. It took him ages to grip the pebble, aim and then throw it into the river with a big grin on his face. He would have stayed there all day if time had allowed.

Well, that’s a general summary of my year’s work. It was a fascinating, challenging experience. There are many things I miss – my Chinese and ex pat friends, the children and teachers at the NGOs, the parks where people walk backwards or bring their caged birds for an outing, street food like jiaoza and liang pian. It was not an easy year either – the pollution and millions of people make city living and travelling quite stressful. The language was a challenge as so few people actually spoke English although I had a translator in work. I just got used to remaining silent after work. Probably not a bad thing!

Now I’m in Nepal where the traffic is considerably worse than in China – I didn’t think that was possible. It is only a short flight from China but I feel as if I’m in a different universe. However, this will have to be the subject of another blog.

  1. #1 by jelford on November 18, 2012 - 7:26 pm

    Hi Vanessa, I can’t believe that you were in China for a whole year. Time certainly goes quickly! It looks as though you achieved a great deal in that time. What is it like to be back home? Any thoughts on your next project?!!

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