A roomful of children cheerfully cut hearts from luminescent gold paper, stencil dancing blue dolphins onto ocean scenes and paint smiling faces onto white ceramic mini Beijing opera masks. The charity foundation Chi Heng brought them from the provincial townships of their native Henan province to Shanghai for a summer camp that gives them a broader vision of the world that surrounds them and of the opportunities that await them. The art night was a session of therapy, but these children--orphans of HIV-AIDS--were not expressing sadness. They were expressing childlike joy and wonder.
"That looks like the shark we saw today at the aquarium! Just like it!" One coltish teen robustly praised a wiry younger boy.
"This is going to be the perfect house for a girl and her pony," mused a little girl who was working alongside a chubby-cheeked somber little fellow.
"This is YOU teacher!" exclaimed a jocular tyke pointing to a drawing of a woman with cat ears.
After a farewell dinner celebrating their lives and solidarity, the students returned to begin their autumn semester.
Through the handful of events I attended, I witnessed the growing sense of camaraderie among the children; I saw how the older ones looked out for, instructed and encouraged the younger children. This is precisely what Chi Heng founder Chung To is aiming for: children empowering each other and emboldening each other to dream boundlessly even in the face of tragedy.
In China, particularly in poor regions such as Henan province, entire communities have been wiped out by HIV-AIDS after poor residents selling blood contract the disease through unsanitary needles. Currently 4,000 AIDS orphans receive help from Chi Heng, but a recent study by UNICEF estimates that by 2010, there will be a total of 500,000 children living in China who have contracted the disease, have been orphaned by the disease or are living in households with a least one HIV-positive parent. Most children still face this darkness alone.
To understand better the philosophy of Chi Heng and their work with those most vulnerable to HIV-AIDS in China, I interviewed Chung To. Please find the full transcript here.