Boys stand in kitchen with social worker

In a village in rural China, brothers Huan and Hui were living alone. Their mom moved away to find work to pay the bills, leaving them without adult supervision. But thanks to the efforts of Holt-trained village social workers — and Holt child sponsors — these boys are getting the help and support they need.

Nobody in Huan and Hui’s town knew that they were living alone. They were quiet, not disruptive. They went to school, they came home and everyone assumed they were taken care of.

But they weren’t.

After Huan and Hui’s father died, their mother couldn’t find enough work to provide for her family in their rural village. She had to borrow money just to pay rent and buy food, and was falling deeply into debt.

So she made a heartbreaking decision. She took her two younger children, who were preschool-age, and she moved far away to a big city where she could find better-paying work as a saleswoman. Though she hated doing it, she had no other options. She bought a security camera for their home that connected to her smart phone, so she could check on Huan and Hui. She promised her sons she would send them money, and she told them she loved them very much.

Then she left. And now it’s been almost a year since she visited.

Brothers Living Alone

Huan and Hui are good boys. Huan is 15, and kept an eye on his younger brother Hui, who is 13. They kept going to school and took care of each other, doing their chores and making meals together with groceries their mom had delivered when she could afford it.

Two boys cook together in the kitchen
Huan and Hui cooking dinner together.

But they were still alone. They didn’t have consistent income or anyone to make sure they were eating enough. They were in danger of malnutrition. And, without anyone to supervise their homework or make sure they went to school, they were also at risk of dropping out of school entirely and becoming homeless. Homeless young people are in incredible danger of exploitation, substance abuse and worse.

Unfortunately, this heartbreaking situation isn’t uncommon in rural China. Parents facing a crisis themselves are often forced to relocate to find work or remarry, leaving their children behind with other family members in the village.

Or, in this case, leaving them alone.

The Barefoot Social Workers

Situations like this, where a child lives under the radar despite their great need, are why Holt China is taking a new approach to social work in rural China.

Rather than relying on limited Holt China staff to visit the thousands of small, remote villages that dot China’s countryside, Holt China is training local village members to become child welfare coordinators (CWCs) — teaching them how to identify children who are struggling and equipping them with knowledge about government resources available to help them.

Jian Chen, Holt’s vice president of international programs for the China region, is excited about how many children this approach is reaching.

“People say, ‘Why don’t you just do it yourself?’” Jian says. “But if we did it ourselves at Holt, we could only help about a dozen kids. However, if we train these social workers, we can reach thousands of children and help change the system.”

Boys sets food on table
Hui sets the table for dinner.
Boy with his back to camera stands at sink doing dishes
Huan cooks dinner for himself and his brother.

These Holt-trained CWCs are taught to pay careful attention to their village. When they see a child who seems vulnerable, they know what to ask: Who is responsible for this child’s care? Are their needs being met? How often are they eating? How are they doing in school? Do they seem withdrawn or engaged?

Based on the answers to these and other questions, the CWCs “score” children according to their vulnerability. The higher the score, the more help and attention the child will receive.

“Using this program, [Holt China] can help the CWCs to keep an eye on this group of children,” Jian says.

The CWCs are also trained on how to conduct a home visit, where they can make a well-informed assessment of a child’s living situation and treatment at home.

“People say, ‘Why don’t you just do it yourself?’ But if we did it ourselves at Holt, we could only help about a dozen kids. However, if we train these social workers, we can reach thousands of children and help change the system.”

~ Jian Chen, Holt’s vice president of international programs for the China region

“Children [whose parents are absent] may live with relatives like aunts, uncles or grandparents,” Jian says. “So we look at whether they are going to school and where they go to school. Children who are struggling normally don’t get good attention in the classroom and aren’t doing well in school. Nobody is there to follow up with their homework and make sure they are doing their work. Then they can become the target of predators in the village.”

This grassroots approach to child welfare in China has earned the CWCs a warm, endearing nickname: the barefoot social workers.

These barefoot social workers are the reason Huan and Hui are now receiving the care and support they need. They realized something was wrong, and their training equipped them to do something about it.

It Takes a Village

Once the barefoot social workers identified Huan and Hui’s needs, they helped enroll them in Holt sponsorship. Now, their sponsors will ensure that they can stay in school and have adequate food and nutrition.

Huan has always been above average in his classes, performing especially well in math, physics and chemistry. His teachers say he is diligent and a good helper in the classroom! Hui is also doing well in school, following the example of his older brother.

Boy stirs rice at the dinner table while looking into camera
Huan, the older brother, is cheerful and competent in the kitchen.

Holt China’s biggest goal is to keep Huan and Hui safe, well cared for and out of an orphanage. In an orphanage, they would receive less attention and face an uphill climb to becoming well-adjusted adults. Though their mother still lives far away, she has a great sense of comfort knowing that her boys have a greater safety net to get them through high school. She hopes and plans to visit as soon as she can.

Sponsorship will keep Huan and Hui at home in familiar surroundings where they can receive the support of their community. Now that she knows his situation, Huan’s teacher from school has committed to checking on them regularly at home.

Boys stand in kitchen with social worker
A social worker comes to check on Huan and Hui.

“We are working very hard on this training program to help keep children out of orphanages,” Jian says. “We used to work [primarily] with orphanages, but now they’re doing so well that we are focusing on the social worker training program. Now we are evolving from focus on the orphanage to the community!”

Huan and Hui receive spending money every month from their sponsors, and they are thrifty with it. They save every cent they can, only spending it on crucial items.

Because of sponsorship and attention from people in their community, Huan and Hui are on track to stay safe, healthy and cared for!

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