When a group of professionals from Beijing began sponsoring children in their own country, they soon learned that their impact could go far beyond a monthly gift. What ensued was a genuine relationship with their sponsored children and the possibility of changing China’s culture of philanthropy.
On a cold winter day in a rural community in northwestern China, an unlikely group of people gather together. Ten of them are deemed among China’s most successful professionals from Beijing — businessmen and women, bankers, university scholars and government officials. The rest of the group, numbering about 30, are made up of 12-to-16-year-olds — most of whom have grown up in critical poverty.
They pull their chairs into uneven circles and sit facing each other — the young students listening intently to what the professionals have to say. And the professionals just as eagerly listen to the teenagers. Although they have never met before, the group bonds quickly over a mutual care and interest in each other’s lives. This connection transcends their differing backgrounds, ages and ways of life.
This group is made up of Holt-sponsored children and their sponsors —meeting for the first time.
Here, two exciting and groundbreaking things are taking place. For the first time, Chinese sponsors living in China are sponsoring children in their own country. And as these sponsors and sponsored children meet and talk, they begin to build a deep, lasting, in-person relationship. Unlikely events, both. But perhaps even more unlikely is how it all came about.
In China, when professionals are about halfway through their careers, many will enroll in an executive master of business administration program, called an EMBA. Designed for professionals from all sectors, this program offers a way for them to network, learn and promote their businesses or organizations. These programs last for two years — during which time the 70-or-so students become very close. On the first day of the EMBA program in Beijing three years ago, Sue Liu, Holt’s China program manager, sat as the only representative of a nonprofit organization in her class. And on the first day of class, she was asked to make a presentation about Holt to all of her colleagues.
In her presentation, she told all about Holt’s work in China — caring for orphaned and abandoned children with special needs, placing children with nurturing foster families while they wait for adoptive families, and family strengthening efforts that provide children with the resources they need to go to school, among other programs Holt has developed over a quarter century in the region. At the time, she never could have anticipated how her classmates would respond.
“Afterwards, some classmates looked very interested in what I’m doing,” Sue said. “They wanted to learn more and told me they wanted to support it.”
Of the many ways to get involved in Holt’s work in China, Sue saw Holt child sponsorship as a great way to engage her classmates. She showed them approximately how much Holt needs to support one child in our family strengthening or orphan care programs in China and they also explored ways they could go above and beyond a financial gift. “I told them about the kinds of support we can give them — and not only money,” Sue says. Because of their common language and location, this group of sponsors could support their sponsored children in an even more personal way. “[We dreamed] that maybe someday we could even visit them,” Sue says.
Many of them chose their sponsored child for personal and meaningful reasons. Some chose to sponsor a girl so that their own daughter could, in a symbolic way, have a sister. Or some chose to sponsor a boy. “Because I have two girls in my home I want to help one boy—it’s my dream to help a boy,” one of Sue’s classmates shared. Just like sponsors in the U.S., many of these sponsors in China viewed their sponsored child as an extension of their own family.
No one in Sue’s EMBA program had ever participated in this kind of philanthropy before. Some of them had donated money to charities in the past, but they had never heard reports about the impact that it made. “In fact, for people in China, the idea of charity is completely new — before, people thought that it had to be done through the government,” explains Jian Chen, Holt vice president of China programs. “What these sponsors are experiencing — knowing whom they are helping and the exact impact of their gift — is completely new to them and to the entire country and culture of China.”
When Sue’s classmates began sponsoring a child through Holt, they received update letters and photos — just like sponsors from the U.S. They were able to see their sponsored child grow and progress in school. This impacted them greatly.
After about a year, Sue planned a trip for her classmates to meet their sponsored children. They were all thrilled by the opportunity. Although some sponsors couldn’t make it, they wrote letters to be delivered to their sponsored children by the ten sponsors who could make the trip. On a wintry day, they traveled 1,000 kilometers from Beijing to Meihekou in northern Jilin province — traveling a full day by both plane and bus in order to get there.
Then, they were all sitting in a room together — sponsors and sponsored children — able to talk, laugh, learn and connect together.
Everyone introduced themselves, then separated into smaller groups so that each student could get to know their sponsor. The sponsors shared about their jobs and the hard work it took them to get there. The sponsored students told about their lives and families, the hard work they put into their schoolwork and how through sponsorship, they have the opportunity to achieve their goals and dream jobs someday.
“Most of the students want to study hard and go to a good university so they can get a good job and help others,” Sue says. “Although many have had hard, sad stories, they don’t worry. They know how to work hard and take control of their lives.”
Even though it was wintertime in this cold, northern province in China, no one wanted to leave. They ended up staying and talking a whole hour longer than they planned.
For both the sponsors and the children, this experience felt truly unique. As most children in Holt’s sponsorship program in China are supported by Holt sponsors in the U.S., it was unusual to meet their sponsor face to face. And for the sponsors, never before had they experienced the joy of interacting with those who benefited from their giving. “This was so much better than I ever expected,” Sue says. “Through this, these donors learned that their money has meaning.”
“With [her classmates’] help,” Sue says, “the people who live around them can also start [to sponsor].” Holt’s China team hopes that this model will spread — enabling more people in China to experience the meaningful impact that sponsorship has on their country’s vulnerable children, and empowering more and more children with the support they need to reach their full, thriving potential.
For the children who are experiencing this now, the effect goes beyond the educational support they receive from sponsorship. These young students have gained an advisor, mentor and a friend. Many of the sponsors even hope to someday fly their sponsored children out for a visit in Beijing, most of whom have never experienced the big city.
What began as saying “yes” to Holt sponsorship has turned into something even deeper. It’s a relationship that will continue. A relationship that affects the lives of sponsored children, the hearts of their sponsors and maybe even the entire culture of philanthropy in China.
“This is just the beginning,” says Jian. “The country and culture has made huge progress in philanthropy, but it’s still new. These sponsors will have a great impact not only on the children they sponsor, but they will encourage more people in China to get involved and advocate for children.”
Megan Herriott | Staff Writer