In China, Many Children Call a Cave Home

A day in the life of two sponsored children and their families in China’s rural Yuncheng province.

Yuncheng is a sprawling, mountainous region of rural China, nearly 560 miles southwest of Beijing. In the summer, the ancient land bursts and blooms with every imaginable crop: apple orchards and orange groves, fields of wheat and massive gardens. Almost everyone survives on what they grow — relying on their crops for both their income and their food supply. In the winter, it is unbearably cold — often staying below freezing for months at a time.

Poverty is widespread, but the most vulnerable families are usually single-parent families, families impacted by illness or disability, or a combination of multiple factors. As healthcare is extremely expensive, one illness can send a family spiraling into despair.

“In China, most people become poor because they get sick,” says Jian Chen, Holt’s vice president of China programs.

In the north, many of the families in Holt’s programs live in traditional caves carved out of the mountainside — a way of life that immediately identifies them as the poorest of the poor in their community.

“You see the worst poverty when you visit the caves,” says Mr. Lee, the deputy director of programs for vulnerable children in 87 villages near Yuncheng. “People move into caves because they lack other affordable housing options.”

A representative from the local government, Mr. Lee partners with Holt staff to ensure that every one of the 589 children we serve in Ruicheng County has what they need to thrive  — including two 14-year-old boys who are each living with grandparents and a single parent in a cave in Ruicheng. 

What is a typical day like for a child in Holt’s sponsorship program in China? Read about Qing and Loi. Their stories are unique, but their lives and dreams are much the same.

The door to Qing’s home in Ruicheng, China

Qing’s Life

Qing turned 14 in March. He can’t remember his mother anymore. She disappeared shortly after he was born. Qing wants to be a soldier like his uncle when he grows up. An above-average student, Qing is especially good at Chinese. His boarding school is about 12.5 miles away, a distance he must walk twice per week. At school, he likes to play basketball with his friends. Qing has many friends, and sometimes he uses the pocket money he receives as a sponsored child to do fun activities with his friends, like eating in a restaurant in the closest town — about 19 miles from his home. Usually, though, he uses his pocket money to buy stationary and other school supplies. Qing’s sponsors cover the $150-per-term fee that Qing must pay to stay in school.

14-year-old Qing

These days, Qing’s grandparents are too elderly to work as hard as they once did. Qing’s father does most of the farmwork that provides their only income. Qing’s father was born with developmental delays, but the exact condition or cause has never been identified. The whole family openly admits that Qing’s mother likely left because she didn’t want to remain married to a man with special needs. In China, it’s commonplace to view people with special needs or physical differences as less valuable and capable than those without special needs — and to treat them accordingly.

Qing with his sister, dad and grandparents

During the freezing winters, Qing is responsible for cutting firewood, hauling water from a public spigot and helping to feed the family chickens. In the summer, he helps his father on their farm.

Woodstack

Qing’s family only has one bed in their house. It’s made of cement and elevated off the ground to combat the winter cold. When he’s home over the weekends, Qing shares the bed with his sister and both of his grandparents. But he says he likes to stay at school more because he has more space to himself.

Qing’s house & bed

Qing’s grandmother’s hands feel like wood. Strong and dry with thick callouses and toughened skin, her hands have spent countless harsh winters cutting firewood, hauling water in buckets and knitting blankets for her husband, son and two grandchildren. From spring to fall, her hands are buried in soft, fertile soil, delicately caring for the pumpkins, cabbages, wheat, apples and walnut trees that her family relies on to survive the winter. “Grandma is the one who shoulders everything in this house,” Jian Chen, Holt’s vice president of China programs, says. “You can tell.”

Grandma

Qing’s 21-year-old sister, Yu, is a college student. She took out student loans to pay for her engineering classes. Someday, Yu hopes to build roads and bridges near her village. She pays about $6,200 per term to attend college. Her family only makes about $900 per year, so this is an incredible expense. Yu isn’t sure how she will repay the loans, but she is hopeful she can find a good job when she graduates.

Qing’s sister, Yu

Qing’s family keeps their winter ration of crops in one of their caves. They usually eat cabbage, pumpkin or onion with rice. On special days, they eat some of the walnuts that they grow, or trade them for apples.

Winter food ration

Loi’s Life

Loi’s mother died during childbirth. Without air for several minutes, Loi was born with some permanent brain damage that caused learning delays. He was raised by his maternal grandmother, father and uncle. His grandfather died when he was young, and his photo hangs in a place of prominence in the cave Loi shares with his dad and grandmother.

Loi with his grandma and father in their home

“Think about when it rains,” Jian says, as she hikes a steep dirt road to 13-year-old Loi’s cave. “Sometimes they are trapped here because there’s only one way out, and if the rain washes the road out, they are stuck.”

The path outside Loi’s cave turns to mud in the rain

During the week, Loi lives at a boarding school a 12.5-mile distance from his home. A 7th grader, Loi likes English, and has received many awards for being the “Most Improved” student in his classes. Loi also likes school because it is warmer and there is more to eat. At home, Loi only eats two meals a day — usually homemade noodles his family makes from the wheat they grow as well as some vegetables.

Loi’s uncle cooking dinner

Although Loi’s father and grandmother raise sheep and chickens, the family can rarely afford to eat meat. The animals provide much-needed income in addition to the income they receive from growing wheat and apples. They can sell a full-grown sheep for about $30 in the local market.

Loi’s sheep

Grandma with sheep

WRITTEN BY BILLIE LOEWEN | PHOTOS BY BRIAN CAMPBELL

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