The story of one young woman who, through the support of Holt sponsors and donors, received a life-changing surgery on her spine as well as the resources to attend school and go on to college.

Le Gen Hao on the campus 3-3

One year ago, in early September, Li Gen Hao arrived at the university where she would spend the next four years of her life. A 21-year-old girl with dark pixie-cut hair and a twiggy frame, Gen Hao easily blended with her fellow students as she walked beneath the shady palms of her campus. But Gen Hao did not feel that way. She fit, but she didn’t fit. The faces were strange and unfamiliar. The environment felt nothing like home. And although she walked alongside her fellow students, she moved at a different pace — slowed by a spinal deformity she has struggled with all her life. Homesick and alone, she felt discouraged.

But then she remembered something. Something she has relied on whenever she felt hopeless and dark about her life. She remembered all the people who love her and care about her. She remembered her mom, who labored in the family farm to support Gen Hao and her two siblings after her father died of cancer. She remembered her little brother and older sister, and her friends back home.

And she remembered the social workers from Holt who came to visit her family one day when she was 15. After her father died, Gen Hao’s mom could no longer afford to send all three of her children to school. Gen Hao was on the verge of dropping out of school when the Holt social worker promised to match her with sponsors in the U.S. who would help pay for her tuition and other expenses. Because someone cared about her — someone she had never even met — Gen Hao received sponsorship support to stay in school, earn her high school diploma and go on to university in the fall of 2013.

And here she stood now. Dwelling on the darkness in her life.

Slowly, Gen Hao began to crawl out of her depression and become herself again. She made friends. She joined group activities. She found solace in the library, where she spent hours at a time. She even became a counselor to her fellow students who turned to her for support and encouragement. In some ways, Gen Hao’s own dark struggles make her an unlikely advisor to her fellow students. But perhaps not despite, but because of her challenges in life, Gen Hao is the perfect person to counsel and support her classmates. Gen Hao is an inspiration.

Li Gen Hao with her high school friend.
Li Gen Hao with her high school friend.

About seven years ago, when Holt first came to Gen Hao’s hometown of Longchuan in China’s Yunnan province, our local program staff recognized a growing need in the region for services to help children at risk of dropping out of school — or worse, ending up on the streets. Since the early 1990s, drug addiction and HIV/AIDS had spread from the Burmese border and become an insidious problem throughout this southwestern province of China. Working with the local ministry of civil affairs, Holt targeted children directly or indirectly affected by HIV/AIDS in particular — providing tuition, uniforms, living subsidies and transportation costs for a little over 300 at-risk children to attend area schools.

When Gen Hao’s father was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer, he began using illegal drugs to ease the pain. When he died, his family was left in a very vulnerable state. Brought to the attention of our Holt China staff, Gen Hao became one of the first sponsored students in Holt’s Longchuan family strengthening program.

Although sponsorship eased the financial burden on Gen Hao’s family and gave Gen Hao the resources to continue her education, she still struggled with a crippling spinal deformity that limited her mobility and made it hard for her to breathe when she got sick or if she walked too far. Due to atrophy of her muscles, she didn’t have full use of her right hand and relied on her thumb, ring finger and little finger to write. Although she always dreamed of running and jumping with her friends, she walked more slowly than others. And at times, her breathing got so bad, she felt like she would suffocate.

She had lived with this condition all her life. But she didn’t even know what to call it. Local doctors lacked the expertise to diagnose it, and her family was too poor to send her to a specialist in a bigger city.

Li Gen Hao on her college campus.
Li Gen Hao on her college campus.

While children in sponsorship often receive much the same support — food, clothing, education — Holt strives to meet the unique needs of every child and family in our programs. Social workers visit the families and children at home, assess their circumstances and tailor services to address the particular challenges they face. Hearing of Gen Hao’s health condition, Holt provided resources for Gen Hao and her mom to see two different doctors. They traveled three hours by bus to the city of Mangshi, but the doctor couldn’t diagnose her. They then took a 12-hour bus ride to Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan, where for the first time a doctor could identify what Gen Hao had suffered from all her life. Finally, at 17 years old, Gen Hao knew that she had a congenital spinal deformity. In November 2010, Holt partnered with a local donor to fly Gen Hao across the country to Shandong province in eastern China, where she received surgery on her spine.

Throughout her recovery process, Gen Hao kept a positive attitude. In the beginning, she practiced getting up and out of bed and walking with the help of chairs at home every day. She returned to school in August 2011. Although the motor skill of her left leg remained weak and she still needed to walk with a crutch, she forced herself to climb up and down 30 steps in front of the cafeteria twice a day — holding her arms wide to keep her balance.

Three years after her surgery, Gen Hao wrote a text message to our Holt China staff. “Now I realize it’s the power of love,” she typed in her native Mandarin. “I may be one of the needy people who gets Holt’s help fortunately, yet the power of love given by you folks is endless. My whole life will carry on the love and hope of yours. Let’s keep moving forward together.”

Gen Hao with a classmate at college.
Gen Hao with a classmate at college.

Today, Gen Hao stands taller and breathes easier than she did when our staff first met her seven years ago. The surgery helped straighten her spine, which eased the pressure on her abdominal cavity that made it so hard to breathe. She also walks at a quicker pace than just a year ago when she started college. Her campus is vast, and rushing to and from her dorm room for classes and lectures has helped build her strength.

Gen Hao is now enrolled in Holt’s continuing education program, through which sponsors provide support for students in China to attend college. Although the program covers all four years of her tuition, as well as her boarding fee and living expenses, last January, Gen Hao also got a part-time job selling fruits and other specialty foods online. She earned a little bit of spending money, but more importantly, she gained confidence and experience. She took to heart something her employer told her, and still remembers these encouraging words: “No one can steal the things you learn.”

In her first couple months at college, Gen Hao wrote a letter to the sponsors and donors who have supported her education, eased the financial burden on her family and helped her receive the surgery she needed to live a full, healthy life. “Truly, I never imagined that I could one day enter the university when I was young,” she wrote. “It’s mainly because of the severe poverty of my family. And I had no idea if I would even survive to this point.”

With the support of Holt sponsors and donors, Gen Hao is far surpassing what she imagined for her life. She is a student of agricultural engineering. She is an advisor to her fellow students. She stands tall and walks proud and is determined to become self-reliant.

Back home in Yunnan, Gen Hao’s mom also lives an easier life than she did when Holt first came to help her family. With Holt providing funds for Gen Hao’s education, she didn’t have to worry about paying school fees when Gen Hao was in grade school. Her older daughter graduated from vocational school, her son works in a steel plant and now Gen Hao is in college. She no longer has to labor in the fields to provide for her family. Although a woman of humble beginnings, she was willing to do anything to help give her children a brighter future.

Today, Gen Hao is looking forward to going home for Chinese New Year — to seeing her friends, her little brother, older sister and her mom. She wishes good health and happiness for the donors who support her. And carrying the hope and endless love of those who care about her, she will keep moving forward toward her graduation day.

Robin Munro | Managing Editor

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