Archive for category Work




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.


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Chongqin and Dazu

Chongqin, the City of Fog and “as polluted as almost anywhere in China.” (Lonely Planet) How is it that I find myself here for the second time in less than two months?

My first visit was during the Spring Festival in January. Having visited an exhibition of Buddhist sculptures from Dazu at the museum in Cardiff during 2011, I was determined to visit the place for myself. After a 12 hour train journey to Chongqin and a 2 hour bus ride, I arrived at the Unesco World Heritage Site of Dazu. There, at Treasured Summit Hill, were extensive cliff carvings and statues of great beauty. Dating from the Tang Dynasty (9th century) to the Song Dynasty (13th century), the carvings show  Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian influences. The central carving is a 31m long, 5m high reclining Buddha seen entering nirvana. Having seen individual sculptures at Cardiff museum, I was amazed to find so many fine carvings still in situ. I’ll let the photos tell the rest. They also include photos of Chongqin and AnKan.

So why a second visit to this city of 5 million people? I have been working this time. It is strange what one does in foreign lands. I was asked by VSO to give a two day training on Volunteer Management Systems to a group of local NGOs and here I am. Having worked in a Volunteer Centre for only 6 months, I have just delivered a two day workshop to over 25 participants. It was touching to meet so many young  people who run NGOs (charities) despite the frustrations of funding and capacity. Many of the NGOs worked on environmental projects and they certainly have their work cut out for them. Others worked with the deaf – there are over 45,000 of them in Chongqin – with special needs children, soldiers’ wives, children from rural areas, migrant workers and the elderly. They gave up a week end to come to the training and participated with enthusiasm and commitment. I was also pleased to hear that the British consulate had sponsored the week end. The training of course was free!

I will leave Chongqin tomorrow with fond memories of the time I spent here as a tourist and a trainer.

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Rainbow Night


Ever since I arrived in Xi’an, the organisation I work for, Shaanxi Western Development Foundation, has been working towards the Rainbow Night. This is a fund-raising/disability awareness raising event that has taken place over the last three years. It has taken me a while to understand exactly what was happening but all was revealed on 22nd December when the event was held.

During the day, the two VSO volunteers were sent to make jiaozi (dumplings) at a local home for special needs children. This was to show that we all work as a team  for the benefit of SEN children but it was also the Winter Solstice, when one should eat jiaozi to stop one’s hair from falling out. As there were only meat fillings and I’m vegetarian, I’m expecting the worst.  There are multiple layers of meaning for so many things here in China. Needless to say much of it passes me by.

We were not the only celebrities at the home. A local beauty queen arrived to be photographed with the children and the laowi (foreigners). The paparazzi were there in force as well but I’m now getting used to the importance of the media here in China. The Beauty Queen was to show up later at the evening event and apparently this is a common practice in fund raising  events. I guess it shows that they are doing something worthwhile during their beauty reign. (See photos at end.)

Now to the evening performance. A large theatre was hired for the event and my organisation was responsible for the everything but the show. The theatre was beautifully decorated. People sat at round tables piled high with fruit, cakes and drinks. The event was live on Weibo, the Chinese social networking site, and again the paparazzi were everywhere. Special Needs pupils from local NGOs sat for hours waiting for the show to begin. The opening speeches went on for ages but it was important to thank various corporations for their support. Certificates were presented to the worthy and then the show began.

I’m not sure how I feel about using people with SEN on stage with ordinary actors  but this was to raise awareness about special needs. The show was rather cheesy with lots of love and rainbows as well as a troupe of little dancers, clearly without special needs. Actually, it was good to see so many Down Syndrome pupils enjoying themselves on stage. They do like acting, as those of you who remember Sian Fouladi will know. The evening concluded with various items for auction being carried in by a pupil with special needs and accompanied of course by, yes, you’ve got it, the Beauty Queen.

I’m not sure how much money was raised and I’m not sure that I ever will. I was told that it’s as important to put on these events and be seen at them, as it is to raise money. Now that the hype of the event is over, I’m hoping that we might get back to the job in hand. In other words, concentrating on the reason why I’m here!

Click on the link to see the photos of the evening. Can you spot the official beauty?

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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


Paediatricians on Tour


So many of you have asked for details about my work. I realise that we are very work-orientated in the West. I’m still feeling my way and building relationships whilst trying to find the most effective and sustainable way of working. I’ll give more details of my efforts in a separate blog. I’ll keep this one to my first assignment.

My friend Wendy Keay-Bright of the Graphics department at UWIC Cardiff, gave me the name of a paediatrician she had met whilst working in Xi’an a couple of years ago. Wendy has devised a series of computer based interactive games for Autistic children – – which I’m hoping to be able to use if I can get some computers for the kids!I got in touch with him soon after arriving here and he told me he was organising a lecture tour with a small group of paediatricians from Canada and Turkey and asked me to join them. He wanted me to talk on Special Needs Education in Britain and China. Given that I’d not even been in work a week, I had to persuade them that it would be a good thing to do. The professor had established the only centre in China for Abused and Abandoned Children and I thought that our organisation might be able to help him with some volunteers. After considerable discussion, they agreed to let me go. I’m not sure if they were trying to protect me from the rigours of travelling to the northern areas of Shaanxi province or what.

Distances are vast here, and although we didn’t leave Shaanxi province, we travelled by train, car and plane and ended up near Inner Mongolia. In the three main cities we visited – Sui De, Yulin and Shun Mu – we lectured and the real paediatricians did ward rounds and taught/exchanged information with local doctors whilst I listened and learned. I realised that one of the reasons I’d been asked along was because here in China so many children with special needs are treated in hospitals. Most Cerebral Palsy children have their physio and exercise programmes in hospital and I was asked about cures and medical treatment for Autism and Cerebral Palsy. Needless to say I did not comment on the Chinese education of SEN children as I had only just arrived. Suffice it to say that children with SEN are educated by NGO’s if they’re lucky and are not part of ordinary schools at all. Hence there is no system of early educational intervention.

The northern part of Shaanxi has discovered large quantities of oil, gas and coal in the last 5-10 years and it is bringing extreme wealth to the area. We passed a continuous stream of coal trucks, bumper to bumper, that clogged up the roads for mile upon mile. Five years ago there was only desert where the city of Yulin now stands. They are proud of their new hospital and five star hotel. Everywhere we went we were given a royal welcome and treated to wonderful Chinese hospitality. We were also able to do a couple of touristy things as well and saw the “beginning” of the Great Wall near Yulin and the Genghis Khan Mausoleum near Inner Mongolia. The pictures tell the rest of the story so highlight and right click!

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