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Zhang Guimei helps impoverished children improve education, offers motherly love to orphans

Updated: Sep 21, 2020 Women of China Print
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Zhang Guimei accompanies a group of orphans at the Huaping Children's Home in Huaping county, Lijiang city, southwest China's Yunnan province. [Yunnan Women's Federation]

Although she does not have a child of her own, she deeply loves her students, and she loves the orphans who are ethnic minority children from poverty-stricken families in Lijiang, a city in southwest China's Yunnan province. She has been devoting her life to helping those children receive an education, and she has been offering a warm, loving home to orphans. Who is this kindhearted, loving woman? Zhang Guimei, president of Huaping Girls' Senior Middle School, and president of Huaping Children's Home (Welfare House).

Despite her poor health, Zhang has been working tirelessly to ensure the children's wellbeing. During the past two decades, she has offered motherly love to more than 172 orphans (in the home), as she has meticulously cared for them. With support from the local government, and with financial aid from warm-hearted people, Zhang has helped thousands of impoverished girls receive an education at Huaping Girls' Senior Middle School during the past 12 years. More than 1,600 girls from the school have been admitted to universities. In July 2020, she was named the National March 8th Red-banner Pacesetter.

Since the results of China's university-entrance examination were announced in July 2020, Huaping Girls' Senior Middle School, the first free-of-charge girls' senior middle school in China (established in 2008), has been in the spotlight, and the focus of many media outlets. Why? It was among the schools in Lijiang whose students achieved, on average, the best results during the examination. However, Zhang was not satisfied with the results; she said she hoped her students would improve their studies, so they could narrow the gap between their studies and those of students in key middle schools (in some large cities). Zhang is filled with all sorts of emotions, as she recalls the many sweet, and bitter, incidents she has experienced along her unique career path over the years.

New life

Born in Harbin, capital of northeast China's Heilongjiang province, Zhang studied Chinese in Lijiang College of Education from 1988 to 1990. She married Dong Yuhan, an ethnic Bai man, soon after she graduated from the university. In 1990, the couple moved to Dong's hometown, Xizhou, a town in Yunnan's Dali Bai autonomous prefecture, to teach at a middle school. However, misfortune befell the happy couple. Dong died from stomach cancer a few years later.

To avoid things that would remind her of Dong, Zhang moved to Huaping (then a poverty-stricken, mountainous county) in August 1996. She started a new life; at Huaping Minzu Middle School, Zhang taught Chinese and politics to four graduating classes, all Grade 3 students of the junior middle school.

In April 1997 , Zhang was diagnosed with hysteromyoma (fibroid tumor of the uterus). Despite suffering great pain, Zhang did not go to the hospital until July, after her students attended the entrance examinations for senior middle schools.

Soon after they learned about Zhang's disease, many of the rural residents (in Huaping) donated money and food to her. Touched by the residents' concern, Zhang made up her mind to work hard to repay the residents for the care and assistance she had received.

'Dear Mom'

In March 2001, supported by the local government, the Huaping Children's Home was established. Zhang was named the home's president. Since then, the childless woman has offered her love to orphans (in the home). Over the past two decades, Zhang has tried her best to establish intimacy — a relationship as close as flesh and blood — with the orphans. Affected by her boundless love, many kids have called Zhang their "Dear Mom."

Despite the financial aid from the local government, and from some warmhearted people, Zhang has run the home on a tight budget. However, she has never wavered in her determination to help the orphans. As more people have donated money to the home.

First free-of-charge senior middle school for girls in China

While she taught at Huaping Minzu Middle School, Zhang donated money and daily necessities to impoverished students, to support the children as they studied.

Zhang has often sighed about the misfortunes of some impoverished children. The children, mostly girls, had not received a proper education, as their parents,who were poor and less-educated, failed to realize the importance of education.

To help the locals shake off poverty and attain prosperity, Zhang realized she should improve the education level of the local girls. "It's a shame, due to social prejudice, the girls could not get equal access to education," Zhang says.

Zhang canvassed for support to establish a girls' senior middle school. However, some people misunderstood her, and accused her of using the kids to swindle people.

In October 2007, Zhang attended, as a delegate, the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC). After the session, Zhang spoke through mass media to the public about her long-cherished dream: To establish a free-of-charge senior middle school for girls from poverty-stricken families in Huaping. Within a short time, Zhang received financial support from the local government, various organizations and warmhearted people in different regions of the country.

With support from the local government, Zhang established Huaping Girls' Senior Middle School in August 2008. On the first day of the new school year (September 1, 2008), 100 students enrolled in the school. Most of the students were ethnic minority children from poverty-stricken families (in Lijiang). Every day, Zhang blew a trumpet to urge students to have classes, eat meals and do exercises on time. Many students referred to Zhang's strict discipline as the "devil's training."

Traveling along treacherous mountain paths, Zhang during the past decade has visited more than 1,500 students' families, to encourage the parents to send their daughters to school, so the girls could improve their education, to change their fates. Once, when she took a motorcycle to visit a student's family, Zhang did not dare to look down from the vehicle, as it travelled between an abyss and a sheer precipice. As she suffered from fatigue and/or a fever, Zhang fainted several times during her trips to the students' families.

Given Zhang and other teachers' efforts, to help the students improve their studies, all of the children during the past nine years have been admitted to universities or colleges after they passed China's university-entrance examinations. In 2010, some 4.26 percent of the school's students were admitted to key universities (in different regions of the country). In 2020, that rate rose to 44.02 percent; as a result, the school topped the list of Lijiang's best middle schools (in terms of the results of the examination). Many of the graduates have expressed gratitude that they received an education in the school, which paved the way for their future studies in China's top universities.

Dedication, Perseverance

Many people who know Zhang say they are impressed by her dedication to her career, and by her persistent pursuit of her lofty ideal (of helping impoverished girls improve their studies, to change their fates).

Despite her poor health — she suffers from 23 diseases, including osteoma (a hard tumor of bonelike structure developing on a bone or other structures) and emphysema (a lung disease which results in shortness of breath due to swelling of the alveoli) — Zhang lives on campus. She has a tight schedule every day, getting up at 5 am and going to bed at 12:30 am.

While she has saved her income and collected money to help create favorable conditions for local children, Zhang has led a spartan life. However, she has never complained to anyone about her situation. During the past 12 years, Zhang has helped thousands of impoverished girls stay in school. That, in turn, has helped change the girls' fates. Now that the girls are grown and have their own careers, many are playing important roles in society.

Zhang is pleased that many of the school's former students have volunteered to work in faraway places with harsh conditions (to help the residents improve their lives), after the students have graduated from university.

Given her outstanding achievements, Zhang has received many awards and honorary titles, including the recipient of both the National May 1 Labor Medal and the National March 8th Red-banner Pacesetter. She has also been named one of the National Top 10 Teachers.

In July 2020, Zhang established Lijiang Huaping Guimei Education Foundation, to match the donations (solicited from various organizations and people from all segments of society across the country) with impoverished girls (in Lijiang).

As words of Zhang's experiences have spread throughout the country, numerous people have been moved by her passion for and dedication to education in Lijiang. Zhang is glad she and other teachers (in her school) work as a bridge, through which the local kids may get a glimpse into the broad and colorful outside world.

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