Steve Hwang is the executive director and founder of A Bridge for Children (ABC), a U.S.-registered nonprofit that serves orphan and migrant children in China. He talked with us about his dreams for getting the youth involved in giving back to their communities and how ABC has impacted the lives of those who have come through their programs.
When and why did you first come to China?
I grew up in Chicago as a Korean-American. Though I had no connection with China at the time, I did have a desire to work with orphans and children.
So I came here in 2006 to start ABC. It was something I had wanted to do since college. When you think about working with children you think about either Africa or China. Africa needs more infrastructure, clean water, roads, et cetera, and that will take billions of dollars. In China, the government has already done that. So every dollar you spend actually has much more value here.
In 2006, it was the eve of the Olympics. And if you think about the Olympics, it usually drives the country’s economy and propels it forward. When the economy grows very quickly it usually separates the rich and the poor, making the gap greater. [China was] also in the middle of the one child policy. You can then anticipate some of the social issues that would follow, whether it be overcrowding in orphanages or children in the street.
I recognized there would be a certain need within China so that’s why I chose to come here. I chose Beijing specifically because that’s where the policies are made and I wanted to work with the government, not against it.
Can you describe the work that ABC does?
ABC is designed as a self-funded NGO. Initially, I utilized my own resources, then built up other private companies to help support ABC.
Our motto at ABC is that we CONNECT the DREAM with the TALENT. The whole idea of the CONNECT program is to instill corporate social responsibility and volunteerism because that’s still quite new here. So we work with companies, getting them involved in our other programs to help orphans and migrant children.
The DREAM program is primarily for orphans, providing homes and education. We have a home in Qiqihar, a long-term foster home, and we have two homes here in Beijing, which are one-year education programs.
When I first began, we supported about 200 foster homes. After we learned more about how foster homes worked, we started opening our own. The one in Qiqihar is a typical model for younger children. They were between three and four years old when they first came to our home and now they are around ten, eleven. There are two parent figures that live with them. If the children start at the foster home early enough, they can actually call these figures mom or dad, creating a typical foster home arrangement.
The homes in Beijing are for older orphans, teenagers and kids in their early 20s. We take applications from different orphanages within China. Then we select and interview kids who will be accepted to this program. The whole point is to help them transition out of the orphanage into society. Finding them jobs is one of the main practical results we hope to achieve from this program.
The kind of education we try to provide is rather ambitious.
Typically, orphans or kids who have been institutionalized for a long time lack skills that an average person may take for granted. They can be social skills, emotional management, day-to-day skills and how to live on your own. The kind of education we try to provide is rather ambitious. For one, in our homes they learn the basics of how to take care of themselves—from taking a shower every day all the way up to bartering, managing their money and cooking. We teach them English and Mandarin. Their Mandarin is okay but their writing skills are usually pretty poor.
We also provide art, music, computer and leadership skills. That’s all during the first six months. Once they get acclimated, in the second six months we get them more involved with our TALENT program, as leaders and volunteers. They get to utilize their own talents and abilities to help others.
The TALENT program is essentially for migrant children and held on Saturdays at their regular school. We have been averaging 400-500 students per semester since 2006. The idea is to use extracurricular classes—for example, basketball, art and music—to teach them values and expose them to areas their local schools will not. We have tried cooking, photography and dance in the past as well.
What results has ABC seen in the lives of the orphans and migrant children you serve?
For the good cases, they continue to improve in school and a couple of them are number one in their class. One kid went into social work and she will be graduating this year. She plans to do an internship at ABC, then go back to her hometown orphanage and serve as one of the leaders there.
We have one kid who is studying to be a chef. After she graduates she will work for a hotel and then move up to management. We have another kid who currently writes for a magazine since she did pretty well in the writing classes. We have one other kid who wanted to be a travel agent and passed the test and is officially licensed as a travel agent now. Another kid has good people skills and is currently working at a company in Beijing doing sales. Then we have a bunch of kids who went back to their hometown and became nurses.
We have been growing every year. We started the TALENT program with just one summer camp. Now we work with six migrant schools and there are close to 500 children per semester and we have over 100 volunteers. In the CONNECT program we went from working with one to two companies in the first year and now we work with about 24 different companies.
How do you recruit volunteers?
Although we are an international NGO, our organization is very local. The majority of the volunteers and people involved are locals and the working and teaching language is Chinese. We use all the social media channels to recruit volunteers. But I have found that usually we are referred new volunteers through our previous volunteers.
We usually require every volunteer for the TALENT program to stay for the entire semester. Then for the DREAM program, depending on the role, somewhere up to a year but a minimum of three months. It is especially important for the orphans, because they suffer from fear of abandonment, so we try to find people who can actually commit.
What are the hardest decisions that you or ABC has had to make?
I don’t know what would be the hardest decision, but I would say as an organization the retention of people for the long term is very difficult in this field. Overall, it’s hard having to limit the number of kids and exposure, because of budget constraints, which is something that every NGO faces.
What are your goals for ABC in the next few years?
There are many different layers of growth, such as expanding the number of schools we interact with through our TALENT program. We could also expand the different types of classes. We can also try to get new companies involved.
I think you need to keep a balanced and manageable level of growth to maintain quality control. For companies who partner with us through our CONNECT program, it is about getting different departments involved. Most companies start with one department and then expand to involve their other departments. Many companies have also increased their frequency of involvement from twice a year to around once a month.
One of the things that I believe in is for the youth to get involved and be committed to start something like this. We have partnerships with different universities in the USA where the career services office will sponsor one of their students to come work as an intern here. I think a lot of the youth are much smarter and are a lot more aware about what’s going on in current events.
I want ABC to become a platform for the youth to get exposed to this type of work and through this experience identify other needs in this field. Then hopefully they will be able to either start something like ABC or get more involved in mobilizing others to address social needs.
Unless you live here, you won’t really understand the people and what goes on.
Based on your own experiences, what do you think is the biggest misunderstanding about China?
I think in general, unless you live here, you won’t really understand the people and what goes on. It’s really unfortunate. I think that the news coverage supports this very basic knowledge that becomes the average American’s perception about China.
They hear about bad air in Beijing, they hear about some poor kid that didn’t get taken care of, things that don’t typify the whole country. Media coverage is very influential and people just take it at face value. Unfortunately, I think this causes misunderstanding and is a misrepresentation of the majority of Chinese.
Additionally, because China is considered a communist country, a lot of people in the U.S. think that China is a closed country. This stance toward communism has strongly influenced the way that people in the U.S. think about China. But in fact, I think China is one of the most open countries that I have been to. Not only in terms of their politics, but also the people here. Openness in terms of ideas and openness in terms of people’s welcoming and accepting nature.
I have found that in the hearts of the Chinese, they want to do volunteer work. They just need to learn how to manage their time and understand that they actually can make an impact, even in a short period of time. It’s more about giving them the opportunity and the platform to exercise this mindset.
What is one of your favorite or most memorable China experiences?
I have been fortunate enough to visit a lot of local areas, because that is where many of the orphanages are. I visited this one local wedding where they killed and boiled an entire cow. I remember what came out of this gigantic bull was the heart; I guess it was supposed to honor a certain guest. I remember tasting my first heart, and I had to eat otherwise I would dishonor the guest.
For ABC, I remember the first year that the DREAM students graduated. When they first come here certain kids they have what I like to describe as hollow eyes. Their eyes are without hope and with shadow. At their graduation you could see the sparkle in their eyes and that change is quite memorable and rewarding in itself.
Want to get involved as a volunteer or learn more about A Bridge for Children? Go to www.abridgeforchildren.org.