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Youth Impact Part II: Bridge to Yunnan

Introduction

BTY_landscapecover_rough.jpgNow in its second year, Youth Impact has developed audacious new goals. By visiting Yunnan as a group of eleven youths and creating the first book made expressly for the organization, Youth Impact offers an inspirational chain reaction. By creating a book about our trip, we hope to motivate other youths to do the same. This effect, while relatively immeasurable compared to the direct aid we offer in Yunnan, is equally, if not more, important. We want to trigger a cascade of youths around the planet to create projects to impact the world; if we will have done that, then we will have succeeded in our goal.

Youth Impact is the notion of bridging together the many good-willed, individual youths as a strong force that aims to help others in fulfilling their vision. It hopes to dream big, and then turns those dreams into a reality. It hopes to inspire, enable, and grow as a community of the young people.

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It is through a process of questioning and stubborn determination that the youth can look beyond the limitations, the rules and bounds of the static and untried norms. Youth Impact hopes to be a driving force in impacting the lives of children throughout the world by encouraging a movement of self-initiated, compassionate, and passionate youth who seek to empower each other. Youth Impact epitomizes a journey of self-discovery, for just as in looking through the Tibetan children's eyes, we saw a deeper image of our own selves. We invite you to flip the page and immerse yourself in this journey. We invite you to place your first step on the Bridge.

Thangka Academy

Desks, children, and beautiful artwork greeted us as we entered one of Shangri La's art academy the first stop on our trek through Yunnan. While I entered the school with the expectation that it would be nothing more than a tourist attraction, in reality we had stumbled upon an academy for children who otherwise would not have had the luxury of attending school at all or learning a skilled trade while also preserving an important tenant of Tibetan culture.

Our guide described, "In this academy, we don't support painting for the sake of painting. Students are taught the meaning behind each brush stroke, each color, and each object." The students are exposed to the importance of Tibetan culture, and are ultimately taking the first step in preserving the Tibetan culture in Yunnan.

During the middle of our tour a member of our group sat on a seemingly normal bench, causing something unexpected to happen… As it was Saturday and most of the students were working at cleaning the school, the only long-term student we met was a feisty nine-year-old monk, The moment he noticed someone sitting on the bench, he yelled in Chinese, "Don't sit on the Grandmaster's seat!" Tibetan culture places great respect on the head monk, thus sitting on his chair was considered to be disrespectful, In the traditional way, Tibetan children are born into the values and practices of Tibetan culture, However, as the culture begins to modernize, the more esoteric practices begin to fade away, The Thangka Academy strives to expressly retain Tibetan culture, and to give these practices significance to the children and the community.

By Kevin Ye

Shangri La Orphanage - Melancholic Melody

"What is your dream?"BTYgirlphotodesksmall.jpg

"To be someone special, helpful and great. And to lead a happy life,"

"Oh! You need to work very hard and get  good grades then."

"No...not necessarily. My dream has kind of come true already."

"So, you are a special, helpful and great person already?"

"Yes! I am sure I am very special to her (pointing to her friend). She scored the lowest in class in the previous mathematics exam, and she was really upset. She was only cheered up after I sang a song for her. 'Am I not a special and great person to you?' (asking her friend) Hahaha ...and I am always a happy person because there is nothing to be unhappy about!"

This was the conversation that I had with one of the orphans at the orphanage in Shangri La, one that surprised, touched, and inspired me. She was only eleven years old and attending elementary school, yet her words still conveyed such reflective insight. I have always thought that someone who is "special, helpful, and great" must be some remarkable, popular, and famous personality that has brought about groundbreaking and revolutionary change to our world: an inventor, politician, or artist, maybe. Yet, this little girl, through her simple, unpretentious, and seemingly naive words, pointed out one important universal truth: a human's value need not be judged solely by their achievements. Rather, man can be measured through the sincerity of his effort, given his strengths and weaknesses, and the motivation behind his actions. It is true that not everyone can be as well-known as Barack Obama, not all of us can be as outstanding and wealthy as Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, but all of us can still be "great and special" if we decide to act with integrity and principle in all our endeavors, and always strive to be our best selves so that we can become a source of happiness for those around us. I was also moved by how untroubled, carefree and simply happy the orphans were despite their unfortunate and uncompromising realities.

BTYdancingsmall.jpgThis girl was not alone in her sense of self-contentment; I saw it in almost all of the orphans. The solo performers who sang us three local folk songs were also remarkable and unforgettable. Though they appeared timid at first, the moment they began singing, they were transformed into very confident, professional, and passionate singers. Furthermore, I was touched by how the orphans who were not performing would loudly applaud for those on stage, making a concerted effort to support their performing family members. I also had the chance to talk to a number of other orphans and was astounded by how optimistic and genuinely happy they were. One girl fell onto the ground and hurt her knees, but she was not upset and stood up by herself. Feeling sorry, the girl who made her fall immediately embraced her, at the same time gently blowing at the wound to lessen her pain.

Another example was a young boy on the basketball court. He was frustrated that he could not make a shot despite repeated effort. Seeing his disheartened face, an older boy lifted the younger one onto his shoulder to help him shoot. The two eventually made a successful shot, and they celebrated for more than ten minutes, eagerly telling everyone around them about their triumph. Another girl under the tree was sharing her fairy tales and toys with a few of her friends. When asked why she was willing to share her belongings with the others, she answered without hesitation, "I love them and they love me." I was talking to an eight -year-old boy who told me that he hoped to one day be a doctor. He further explained to me that it took many years to be a doctor in China because there were many examinations that he needed to take. I asked him if he would feel like having wasted a lot of time if he could not get good grades in the final examinations after all of that effort, and he replied, "No, it does not really matter even if I can't be one. I will be somebody else anyways".BTY3boyssmall.jpg

I was, once again, left very impressed and impacted by his words. He was forward-looking and he did not lose hope easily. He could live his life in the moment, accept imperfections and flaws without whining over them, and always believe that there will be a positive solution in life even when faced with daunting and seemingly insurmountable obstacles. I came to the orphanage thinking that I was the volunteer who was supposed to help or teach the children, but it turned out that these young kids have inspired and enlightened me in ways that I could never have done to them. at the orphanage, I was surprised to discover that happiness, a seemingly complex, abstract, and intangible concept, is actually not that complicated. It is something within the reach of everyone and is always available to us. Even without complete schooling, those children were wise beyond their years. The day ended with the children standing in straight lines near the School gate to bid us farewell. We all shook hands and exchanged warm wishes and regards. Then, feeling somewhat bittersweet, we left the orphanage and got onto our bus. As I looked out the back window and saw their bright faces again, I felt confident in them. I said a prayer for them in my heart, wishing all of them every happiness in their lives, and a splendid and brilliant future. I know that they will make life into something splendid and brilliant.

By Nicole Leung

Impressions

It was dead silent as we walked into the orphanage. A kind looking woman with a sun-dried face greeted us and led us to an auditorium filled with rows of benches and tables that faced a stage in the back. As we were seated at the benches, the woman, with the help of the children, handed out tea in paper cups, and then warmly told us, "My English is not good. This is my orphanage." The headmaster was a Tibetan orphan herself, and she has dedicated her adult life to two orphanages that she started in Lhasa and Shangri La for the Tibetan children that she cares so much about. After telling us her story, she led in her children and we were greeted with a friendly Tibetan hello. The children then got onto the stage, and for the next 30 minutes, Tibetan songs, traditional dance, and the sound of sheepish laughter filled the air. It was as grand a welcoming as anyone could expect, and the children kept everyone smiling with their expression of sincere joy.

BTYboyatdesksmall.jpgEveryone seemed to live in harmony with one another; after getting the call from the owner, the children immediately filed in a neat row. They supported and cheered one another on during performances and weren't afraid or shy in front of each other even when it came to dancing or singing. They lived in harmony with the owner and teachers; their obedience and willingness to help eased the burden the owner had in running the orphanage smoothly. They helped with chores around the orphanage such as moving tables, cleaning, and cooking. And despite what chores they were asked to do, they were always willing and glad to help each other. Right after the dancing and singing, I wandered the orphanage,  while talking to a 12-year-old boy, we got an idea of how happy a typical orphan at the orphanage was, "They treat us well." They were also self-conscious and were able to balance fun with work, "During August, we get free time for vacation. We get to camp at the mountainside with friends for one or two weeks. Three years ago, I got to go horseback riding, but we also have a ton of chores every day.”

As I walked out, waving at the orphans with smiling faces, I thought, "Such harmony within the people of this orphanage is so charming and inspiriting!" I'm sure we were all amazed by the orphans. We walked outside into the bus and looked back one last time; we saw everyone crowding outside the entrance, still waving to us from a distance as we drove off.

By Jane Lee

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The Founder

The founder of the orphanage in Shangri La has given a better life and a brighter future to every child in her homes. When the founder first approached us, we did not know what to expect. She was a strong figure, with broad shoulders and good posture; she conveyed in her manner a wholesome nature and principled personality, Her skin was tan, and she had a bold, bright smile that portrayed both leadership and character. She looked as though she may be of Tibetan descent, and from what we had seen of her interactions with the children, she appeared to be running an orphanage in which the children were happy and well cared for. not only an adventure that she took to pursue her goals, but also a tough challenge that she overcame in order to improve the future generations of Shangri La and directly betterBTYbunkbedssmall.jpg the Tibetan children that she felt such a strong familial connection to. The founder's determined and friendly figure gives life and optimistic energy to all of the children at the orphanage. As a mother to all whom she accepts into her orphanage, the founder teaches her children the values, morals, and manners that are integral to any family. While we interacted and played with the children, we saw what charming and well-behaved individuals their surrogate mother had shaped them into. When interviewing these children's surrogate mother, we were surprised to discover that she was an orphan herself and as such knows exactly what the orphans are going through, and understands the importance of providing them a family, and some semblance of a normal life.

Although she spent some of her childhood in Tibet, she grew up in Switzerland where her adoptive parents lived. The story of the founder's journey brought about even more interesting facts to the team as the interview progressed. As an orphaned child, she experienced what it was like to live without parents, and armed with that knowledge, she was determined to give a home to as many children without families of their own as possible. Over time, her idea of protecting orphans from these situations evolved into a new level. In 1990, when she was walking the streets of Lhasa, Tibet, on a visit back to her childhood country, she saw children that were living in horrible conditions, clothed in rags. With her mind set on helping children such as these, she returned to Switzerland, looking for advice from her family and friends on whether she should pursue her vision to open an orphanage for Tibetan children. Everyone discouraged her, telling her that it was an impossible task, that she was unqualified, and that she did not have adequate funding. Although initially discouraged, she thought that the universe seemed to be sending her a sign, as she soon witnessed another tragic scene.

While exploring the rural parts of China, our heroine came across two impoverished orphans rummaging through trash to find food on the street. Heartbroken, she brought the two orphans to a nearby restaurant to give them a free meal and had a friendly conversation. The owner refused to serve them, claiming they were too filthy. After experiencing first -hand the injustices facing orphans and what seemed to be a general culture of apathy toward them, she was even more motivated to start her orphanage as soon as possible, no matter what it took. Our determined founder took out all of her savings and life insurance money, totaling approximately 800 Swiss francs, but it was not nearly enough. She then took loans from friends and relatives, compiling a total of US028,000. After gaining permission from the Chinese government, she was able to purchase a piece of land and began building the orphanage in May, 1993. With help of many volunteers working day and night, the founder was able to open the orphanage, accommodating seven children and a few house parents, in October of the same year. The project that was once condemned as impossible began to take off.

The founder currently runs two orphanages, one near Lhasa and one in Shangri La, which are both staffed and functional. Both provide a safe and haBTYdoor.jpgppy environment in which the children can learn and thrive. Currently, there are forty five orphans staying at the orphanage in Shangri La. The youngest orphan is five years old, while other orphans are as old as twenty-five. Four of the older orphans are already attending college, while one has gone on to look for a job. Including the orphanage in Lhasa, there are around three hundred orphans of which eighty-two have graduated from COllege thus far. The children in the Shangri La orphanage are from all over the Tibetan region. However, not all the children are orphans. Some are the children of Tibetan nomads and families who either can 'f afford the cost of education, or do not trust the public school system. Because the founder is Tibetan, the local Tibetan community trusts her with the schooling of their youth. At school, the children study Tibetan, Chinese and mathematics, among other subjects on a less regular schedule. 

During our visit to the orphanage, the children also entertained us with a talent show full of singing and dancing. We asked if they were taught that in school as well, but it turns out that the children teach each other all of their extracurricular activities, including dancing, singing, and games. The children also help each other with studies and divide chores and tasks among themselves. The orphanage founder loves supporting the children, but due to limited funding from Europe and America, she can help only a few. When choosing children to enroll in the orphanage, she selects only Tibetans or minorities and among these, only the poorest and most in need.

The lack of funding is constantly looming. "Sometimes I stay awake all night wondering how I will support the orphanage." The cost of running both orphanages totals only USD4,600 annually. The orphanage has fortunately been able to survive for almost twenty years, relying solely on inconsistent donations and the founder's husband's retirement money as well as her own. Our founder wants to come up with a more stable and long term source of funding to help her sustain the orphanages without the need to worry about receiving enough private donations. Her vision is for the orphanage to one day "stand on its own two feet." By the end of the discussion, the whole team was moved by the wonderful story of how the founder, once an orphan herself, was able to start an entire foundation and support many children in orphanages she created herself. She concludes, "Despite of all the difficulties, when I see these children grow up, I feel that I'm the richest, happiest, and luckiest person in the world ... the children themselves are our reward."

By Noorsher Ahmed and Mark Lee