It’s been a momentous time
for the babies, preschoolers, parents, and grandparents in OneSky’s village model in rural China.
In the spring of 2015 we launched our first four village pilot programs, to bring Early Learning Centers, Family Skills training, and Community Engagement programs to the left-behind children of China’s migrant workers, and to the grandparents who are struggling to care for them.
Four impoverished rural villages were chosen for the first efforts. Then in a flurry of activity, classrooms and village gathering places were readied, teachers intensively trained in OneSky’s responsive care methods, and the newly painted doors flung open.
After just a few weeks in the classrooms, our preschool teachers could already see dramatic changes in the children. Take three-year-old Anlong, who had in the first days stood frowning by the wall, reluctant to join in. He was now in the middle of a happy group of children building a little town with blocks, or heading for the sandbox.
Yet the Chinese New Year—celebrated in 2016 on February 8—promised both joy and sorrow for children in our programs. That holiday (in China, Spring Festival) is the biggest family celebratiom of the year. Relatives from near and far gather to celebrate and forget their worries for a while. For everyone, it’s important to be home, with family. For China’s children, including OneSky’s preschoolers, it’s a school vacation.
As the Year of the Monkey neared, many village children—some who had waved goodbye to migrant parents not too long ago, others who could barely remember a parent’s face—held hopes that they might soon see a mother or father coming into town.
A little girl named Zhilan was perched on the stoop of her grandparent’s ramshackle home, eyes riveted on the street. Nearby, An sat playing with sticks in the dirt, looking up every time he heard the sound of a motor scooter.
In the big cities, millions upon millions of young parents, many working factory jobs under often grim conditions, held dreams of coming home. Depending how far away they were, it wouldn’t be easy. New Years is the busiest travel time of the year in China, with packed train and bus stations, huge crowds, and desperately sought tickets. For many poor factory workers, there would be no chance at all.
For the children whose parents didn’t make it home, OneSky’s teachers offered special attention or activities—sometimes an invitation to spend time with another family during the New Year’s festivities.
Too soon, it was all over, and even the kids whose wishes had come true—Zhilan was one of those—turned sad when it was time for parents to leave. Some cried, others went silent. Zhilan smoothed the front of the new smock her mother had brought her, trying to be brave. Then she hid her face and turned away, her small shoulders shaking.
The next day she managed a smile for her teacher, and seemed happy that school was starting up again. As grandparents and other children came walking down the path, the teachers stood by the door, smiling and greeting every child by name. In the classroom, Zhilan picked up a baby doll off the shelf and pretended to comfort the dolly.
Each day there was progress as well as tribulation.
When the teachers worried about a little girl named LiShen who didn’t come to school one day, they heard she had stayed home to take care of her grandmother, who had injured her leg.
When the child returned, the teachers praised her for her good heart. “Grandma had pain,” said the five year old matter-of-factly. “I brought her tea and rice.”
In the Family Center, OneSky mentors (all local moms) offered tips for caring for little ones.
“I have no education, I can’t read, I have nothing to offer,” one grandma said. The mentor asked if she could sing. She smiled shyly and nodded. The mentor begin to sing a children’s song, and after a couple of verses had Grandma singing along, her weathered face crinkling into a smile.
“Now go home and sing to your baby,” the mentor said with a smile. “You have something to offer!”
As another grandmother in the group said goodbye, she commented that life had seemed a little empty over the holiday when the Family Center had been closed. Now the Year of the Red Monkey seemed off to a good start!