Retired teacher who built school for quake victims continues to help farmers
Starting charity work can be easy, but sustaining it is the real challenge. Shen Cuiying, a retired Shanghai teacher who embarked on her charity work in 2008 and has continued with it till this day, knows this well.
The 74-year-old earned recognition as the Shanghai grandmother who sold one of her two apartments to build a primary school in Dujiangyan, Sichuan province, in the aftermath of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.
Over the past 12 years, Shen and her son have also financially helped the survivors by trying to sell their kiwi fruit through a company they have set up.
While the school has been faring well, the kiwi fruit business has been less successful and her son has had to sell his own apartment to keep the company going.
This summer, Shen sold her remaining apartment in downtown Shanghai and bought two smaller ones to ensure both she and her son have somewhere to live.
"My family lived an impoverished life when I was a child. So when I had a certain amount of wealth, I wanted to do a good deed. During the limited days of my life, I hope to do something with social value," said Shen, who used to teach primary school students and hearing-impaired children.
Shen recalled how anxious she was after the Wenchuan earthquake on May 12, 2008 as she followed the news. She was especially concerned about the safety of the school children. "Seeing the rows of schoolbags lined up beside the debris I couldn't sleep," she said.
A news report saying that all the students from a local school, which was built to withstand high-magnitude earthquakes, had survived, caught Shen's attention. She decided to build a safe school for the children.
Shen sold her house on June 12 and went to Dujiangyan nine days later.
"My father died when I was 8 and my mother raised my four siblings and me with the help of neighbors and friends. So when I had a spare apartment, I thought I'd love to share," said Shen, referring to the proceeds from its sale.
Shen's daughter-in-law, Shi Yan, said the family supported her decision. "If she passes on her property to her own grandchildren she is the grandmother of two kids. But if she donates it to others she's the grandmother of thousands of children," Shi said.
Shen said the primary school, which was constructed with the 4.5 million yuan she earned from the apartment sale, could stand a magnitude 9 earthquake. It now ranks among the top 10 in Dujiangyan academically.
"Some parents in neighboring villages also hope to send their children to our school," said Shen, who goes to the school each year to see if there is anything she can help with, such as donations for students from low-income families.
Shen also uses her connections in the education field to take the Dujiangyan teachers to Shanghai for training each year.
However, the goodwill project to help local farmers profit from their kiwi fruit has struggled. In the first two years of the company's operation, she and her son poured 1.5 million yuan into advertising and marketing, but the sales have not been enough to make the company profitable.
"We never failed to pay the farmers for their hard work but we have suffered from losses throughout the years. It has been hard but I don't want to give up," Shen said.
Shi said they've upgraded marketing through new packaging and putting a QR code on the tag so consumers can read information about the kiwi fruit and the lives of the low-income farmers who produce it. The company has also expanded its line of goods to more than 100 food products, including some sourced from Yunnan and Qinghai provinces and the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
Shen expects the business's performance to soon improve, as its products have recently been included on the list of recommended goods for local governments and enterprises to purchase as part of a national drive to help farmers out of poverty.
Despite her age, Shen said she enjoys keeping busy and working with younger people. "You don't go into charity work if you want to make a fortune. I just want to make my life worthwhile."