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Youth Volunteer Program Reaps Rewards
Mo Feng could have been working as a doctor at the Shenzhen Disease Control and Prevention Center in south China's Guangdong Province, with a comfortable salary of 6,000 yuan (US$723) per month.

Instead, the 22-year-old Mo, who graduated from Peking University's Health Science Center last June, chose to work as a volunteer in the country's impoverished western regions.

More than 4,000 university graduates made the same decision last year and joined the volunteer program organized by the Communist Youth League of China.

The program is intended to provide the talent-starved western regions with voluntary services provided by young professionals.

With the one-year program due to end next month, most of the volunteers have chosen to extend their stays for another year.

"The sense of being needed is what strikes me most," Mo said.

"Before my voluntary service in a state-listed impoverished county in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, the local epidemic prevention station had never had a college graduate working there," he said.

The volunteer work goes beyond the public health sector. Much of western China suffers a dearth of professionals in all fields.

Although the population of the 12 western provinces and autonomous regions accounts for 28.8 percent of the nation's total, only 15.5 percent of the country's educated professionals or skilled workers live there.

Of the 16,543 vacant positions reported by the western regions last year, the education sector accounted for 43.7 percent of the total, followed by public health (20.2 percent) and agricultural technology (19.3 percent).

As the only college graduate in the small county's epidemic prevention station, Mo said he was soon appointed assistant to the director.

In the second half of last year he was dispatched to a nearby city to be trained in SARS prevention. After his training concluded, Mo toured the rural districts, lecturing grassroots epidemic prevention staff.

"They paid so much attention to my words in the lectures that some wrote down everything I scribbled on the blackboard," he said. "It really made me feel involved with something of great importance."

Education is another sector that is extremely short of professionals. The Communist Youth League Central Committee reports that demand is highest for teachers.

Feng Ai, a graduate of Shanghai-based Fudan University, has worked as a volunteer teacher in northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and southwest China's Yunnan Province.

During her year in Ningxia, Feng worked with five other volunteers, teaching at a high school and often giving additional tutoring on weekends. Last year Feng was sent to teach alone at a high school in Zhanhe County, Yunnan Province.

"I teach 30 hours a week, 28 days a month. Preparing lessons, teaching and grading students' homework, I am very busy," she said.

But most of Feng's students have to spend an entire day walking from home to school. Seeing this, Feng said, she has no qualms about giving up her weekends to work.

Volunteers praised

The hard-working volunteers have won high praise from officials in the western regions.

"Volunteers have helped a lot in our county, which is extremely short of highly trained people," said Wu Yadong, vice-magistrate of Ziyun County, Guizhou Province.

Schools, factories and other units that have benefited from volunteer help are seeking additional volunteers this year, Wu said.

"In just a few days our county logged 300 unfilled positions waiting for volunteers. The education sector alone needs at least 200 teachers," he said.

So far, this year's program has received requests for volunteers to fill more than 34,000 positions in the 12 western provinces and autonomous regions, twice the number of 2003.

Faced with the increased demand, the Communist Youth League's Central Committee said it will send 6,000 new young volunteers this year.

"They will go in addition to the 4,000 volunteers who went last year and wished to stay for another year, so the number of volunteers serving in western China will reach a total of 10,000 later this year," said Central Committee member Zhao Yong.

So far, more than 49,000 college graduates have applied to join the program, an increase of 13.4 percent from last year.

Rewarding experience

Mo's parents, rural farmers living in south China's Guangdong Province, are not wealthy. But he wants to settle down and work in the western regions for the rest of his life because, he says, "I saw the huge gap between the developed east and the poor west with my own eyes."

He also said his short stay in Inner Mongolia has made him realize how disease is linked with poverty.

The family of a girl who suffered hydrocephalus had to pay 10,000 yuan (US$1,200) for her treatment, but their annual income is only a little more than 1,000 yuan (US$120).

"I really worry about how that girl's family can make a living in the next 10 years," he said. "As a doctor, I should stay to help them escape poverty."

Feng said illness is the greatest fear among volunteers in Yunnan.

The village where she teaches is 3,000 meters above sea level and the daily temperature often fluctuates more than 25 degrees. "So every time we go to the county seat, we buy a lot of medicine," she said.

But compared with local children, Feng said the hardships she endures are not really hardships at all.

"The dormitory for my students in Yunnan is made of wood, has no windows, and there are cracks in the walls wider than a man's fist," she said.

The students sleep on tattered bedding, and some are so poor that they use gunnysacks for beds.

"And I cannot forget how a mother encouraged her child to study hard," Feng said. "She told her daughter to study hard so that she can wear a pair of leather shoes like me, which I bought for only 38 yuan (US$4.60) at the county town.

"Many people have asked me why I volunteer in Yunnan instead of living a comfortable life in Shanghai. In my heart, I want to tell them that being a volunteer in the western regions is to know what happiness really is. I believe most volunteers share the feeling. I know the lives of some people there have changed because of me."

(China Daily May 11, 2004)

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