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Written by Hu Changmin / Zigen earlist program coordinator in Hubei

If you don’t look at the students in the photo, you would not recognize that this is a rural elementary school, a rural school in the foothills of Dabie Mountains. Supporting the school in its transformation from an “ugly duckling” to a “beautiful swan” is my serendipity.

In 2004, with grants provided by Zigen and the Three Dogs Foundation, I came to school for the first time. The school had a three-story building for classrooms, two single-story buildings, one for student housing and kitchen, the other for teachers to prepare for classes. All buildings were dilapidated and crowded. The triangular-shaped schoolyard between three buildings, although sizable, was dusty on sunny days and muddy on rainy days.

I asked the school management why it could not be improved by government funds. The school management told me that Xinji Village was about to be incorporated into the nearby Jiujie Town and the Elementary School was slated to be demolished and the students were to be transferred to another school. They did not expect any new government investment.

As the Chinese government implemented compulsory education in the countryside, students from poor families have been supported by the “two exemptions and one subsidy” policy. They can attend elementary and secondary schools free of tuition and fees. We think the student grants from Zigen can be utilized for other projects, what should we do with grants? The Education Officer of the School, Teacher Dai, said “Xinji School is not going to be demolished for a while. We still have about one hundred and twenty students. Our dormitory and schoolyard are truly in bad shape. Could Zigen help us improve them? They would not cost much.”

We went to the School and consulted with Principal Yang twice. Zigen and the Three Dogs Foundation decided to support the projects with more than RMB 100,000 (or $16,000). With the grants, we hardened the schoolyard, it is no longer dusty or muddy. We also planted many trees. After recognizing Education Officer Dai and Principal Yang as get-the-job-done types, we began our reading promotion projects in Xinzhou, the Xinji School and Jiujie School were our first pilot project schools. In 2007, we supported the school further with more than RMB 280,000 (or $45,000) for building a biogas digester, renovating the canteens, and converting pit latrines into water flushing toilets.

Due to the improvements supported by Zigen, the school has increased enrollment. The government decided not to demolish the school. Of course, this was good news. Afterwards, even though I did not visit the school as frequently, I still paid attention to news from the school.

In 2014 a volunteer, from our group, Zhao Chen, coordinated a college student team from Hong Kong Tassel to hold summer camps for rural elementary school students from Jiujie. The summer camps were held in both Xinji School and Jiujie School. I accompanied two of my child relatives, who had volunteered to join the summer camps.

When I arrived at the school, I asked “Is this Xinji School?”, Teacher Dai answered, “Yes, this is the Xinji School you supported.” I could not believe my eyes: the “ugly duckling” had become a beautiful swan!

They told me that all awards are related to the biogas digester built with grants from Zigen.

Originally, we built a biogas digester for the Zhongxing Elementary School in Caidian Village of Huangbei District. Its primary purpose was to resolve the pollution problem caused by the human wastes in the toilets. For the biogas digester, we also built a pig pen to raise two pigs. Wastes from the pig pen facilitated conversion of human wastes in the biogas digester. We were taught by an environmental protection NGO to promote ecological education of students, and to develop awareness of environmental protection in young minds.

The originally planned “demolition and consolidation” of Xinji Elementary School is now on the top list of “Standardized Construction” countryside schools. The government has invested tens of millions yuan to rebuild it.

Frankly, I never thought that the six-figure Zigen supporting grants would gradually shake loose eight-figure governmental grants. What a leverage it is!

Award plaques from the Central Government, the City of Wuhan, and the Xinzhou District for achieving multiple projects and demonstrations, and for being a pioneering school for ecological education cover the wall.

Postscript:
Zigen has supported Xinji Elementary School with student grants, a biogas digester, reading library and book campus project. The contents of supported projects have changed through the years, but Zigen’s support has never been interrupted. In 2017, Xinji School joined the Rural Green Eco School Project. Principal Zhang Zhiping was trained as a seed teacher under the program co-sponsored by Zigen and Beijing Normal University. In turn, he has trained nearly 300 teachers for the pilot schools in Xinzhou District to develop and implement green eco school activities.

Translated by Chin Houi Lin, born in Fujian, China and grew up in Taiwan. After graduating from the Chemical Engineering Department of National Taiwan University, he received a PhD degree from Rice University in the US. He is currently retired after working in NASA Johnson Space Center for 36 years, specializing in technology developments, design and analysis of space flight life support and thermal control systems.

Edited by Solo Tung, graduated in Economics from New York University and resides in Bayside, NY. He has participated in Zigen’s work starting over 20 years ago, and has worked as a professional Chinese-English translator and proofreader.

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