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Mother of Mercy's Ray of Hope
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Only a few days before Mother's Day, a teenager from Henan Province was doing what millions of youngsters around the world were doing writing on a card about how much he loved his mom.


Zhang Shuqin and the children whose parents are serving prison terms at the Sun Village in Shunyi District of Beijing. More than 130 children live at the center.
But unlike most youngsters who were able to give their moms a big hug yesterday, the 14-year-old had to be content with just sending a card two cards to be precise.


The first card was for his mother who is serving a prison sentence, and the other card, plus a small gift, was for "Grandmother Zhang", the director of Sun Village.


For almost a year, Chen has lived at the Beijing's Sun Village, home to more than 130 children whose parents are locked up behind bars.


Chen wouldn't reveal his gift to Grandmother Zhang. "I want to give her a surprise on the day," he said, winking cheerfully.


Zhang Shuqin has broad shoulders, curly dyed brown hair and the energy of two people. She has two daughters, one aged in her 30s and the other in her mid 20s and raised them by herself after her divorce about 15 years ago.


She is tough, and never does things in half measures.


For more than 20 years Zhang has worked closely with the prison system. As a policewoman of the Shaanxi Provincial Prison Administration Bureau and later an editor for a prison newsletter, she gained great insight into the lives of prisoners, not only to discover why they committed their crimes, but also seeing their lives from her point of view as a woman, a mother and grandmother. Her caring attitude has made her warmly welcomed by prisoners.


In 1987, she interviewed a prisoner who just received a special award for reporting a planned prison-break. He was the focus of her story for the prison's newsletter. Rather than mentioning his award, the man expressed grave concern about his five children, whom he had lost contact with since both he and his wife were put in different prisons. The couple used to organize prostitution.


Touched by his tearful request, Zhang promised to visit his hometown. After days of hard research, Zhang eventually located his children living at a small and damp cave dwelling in Fufeng County, Shaanxi Province. They were staying with their grandmother and living in dire poverty. His eldest daughter had died of an illness years ago.


Zhang visited the girl's tomb and came back to write a story titled My Children, which was published in the prison newsletter. Letters from prisoners flooded into Zhang's office, with many inmates claiming they had similar concerns. They begged Zhang to help them.


The policewoman realized that more children were left untended when their parents became criminals.


Only last year did the Ministry of Civil Affairs allocate responsibility to the civil affairs departments to take care of these children.


"Parents committed crimes, and they have already been duly punished. But their children are innocent and we have no reason to neglect them," the 59-year-old said. "And I am a woman and a mother. I don't have the heart to see them being abandoned by the society."


"Loving Mother" Shan Hong tries to calm down Zhang Haixing, 3, at the Sun Village. Zhang was abandoned by his parents three years ago and the police sent the little boy to Sun Village. The youngster has become deeply attached to Shan.
n 1995, Zhang set up her first helping center for children. Now her non-government organization has developed into four helping centers across the country and has assisted more than 1,000 children thanks to donations from the society.


Zhang named the organization "Sun Village", because she hoped these neglected children could walk out of the shadows and enjoy the sunshine just like other children.


According to Zhang, children came to her center normally from three ways: Prison administrations sent her children; prisoners write asking for help, and neighborhood committees, who operate in the areas where the children reside, also report such children.


Sun Village signs an agreement with the incarcerated parents and covers all the expenses during their absence; the parents pick up children back home upon their release.


As for those with parents serving long sentences, Sun Village raises the children until they are 16-18 years old, and help them learn vocational skills in order to get jobs and better fit into society.


The four centers Beijing Sun Village, Xi'an Children's Village in Shaanxi Province, Xinxiang Sun Village in Henan Province and Longzhou Orphanage in Shaanxi Province are home to more than 380 children aged between 4 months and 18 years old, and all those above 6 years old are sent to local schools nearby for proper education.


Every 14 children form a small family unit, while a social worker, called "Loving Mother", takes care of their daily life, supervising their homework, cultivating independence and encouraging their image of self worth.


At the Sun Village in Beijing, the eight "Loving Mothers", aged between 22 to 50 years old and from all across China, help children read books in the village library, surf the Internet, play outdoors or in a small stadium. The children also learn to take care of fruit trees and other plants.


What worries Zhang is many of the children have deep psychological problems because of long-term neglect. They are either over-active or too timid to speak to outsiders. Many are self-protective and aggressive.


"To open their hearts, you have to treat them as your own children, and you have to be sincere. Love is something you cannot pretend," Zhang said.


Once she received two children whose father received death penalty for killing their mother because of an extramarital love affair. The younger girl was active, however her 13-year-old brother never said a word. Zhang took them back to Xi'an to visit their parents' graves on the Tomb-Sweeping Day that year. Burning paper money for the dead couple, Zhang promised that no matter what the grievance between them was, their children were innocent; and she would try her hardest to love and cherish the two as long as she had the chance. On the way back to Sun Village the boy started to talk. He later learnt sculpturing and is now an artist.


Zhang said it is important to create the sense of security for children who lack it. Hugs and tender touches from somebody they trust make them feel better and help them recover.


Zhang said it is crucial for both the children and their parents to maintain a bond.


"The mother-children bond should never be cut off," she stressed.


Despite the fact that the children come from 16 different provinces, and the prisons are located in remote areas without public transportations, Sun Village arranges children to visit their parents at least once or twice every year and make phone calls to their parents once a month.


Many prisoners have expressed their thanks.


Li Xiuying wrote in a letter: "When I committed a crime, my son was very young. Nowadays he has grown up with a loving character, I feel happy and guilty too. No wonder the Sun Village is the place in which he was reborn. May he have a good life and he has all the hope from his mother from the prison."


Zhang's own daughters have joined their mother's efforts, with the eldest working at the Xi'an Children's Village while the younger daughter works as a volunteer at the Beijing Sun Village.


Zhang did not feel guilty about her daughters as she has devoted herself to caring other children since 1995.


"As a single mother, I've tried my best to raise them up," she said. "I have taught them how to love and care others.


"Finding a meaningful life and being warm-hearted are the most valuable things I, as a mother, can pass to them," she said in every bit of confidence.


(China Daily May 14, 2007)

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