by Guo Yage, Dong Yue
BEIJING, March 12 (Xinhua) -- "Don't you think this little girl looks great with the red glasses?" said Sam Waldo, pointing at a photo he took in Shangri-La County in southern China's Yunnan Province, with a radiant smile on his face.
Sam, a 28-year-old American volunteer teacher, has been dedicated to helping students in rural Yunnan since he first came to China.
He has teamed up with other volunteers to raise funds and donations for vision tests and corrective lenses to help local students in need.
"We did some researches and this problem exists throughout Yunnan," Sam said, concerned about the impact vision problems may have on students' academic performances. "Giving a child a pair of glasses is equivalent to giving them an additional year of schooling."p "It's also been proven that glasses have a higher impact on educational outcome for students than a family's education level or economic background," he said.
Sam's attachment to China could trace back to his school days. When he studied Chinese at Columbia University in New York, he fell in love with the ancient language and culture. Later, in 2008, he made his first visit to China, a trip that further consolidated his decision to move to this country.
Amazed by its economic and social development over the years, Sam felt a sense of excitement in China, a country filled with new ideas and dynamism.
"I was really amazed by everything that happened here, so much change, so much possibility and a lot of areas to contribute. So that's why I decided to move to China in 2010," Sam said.
Interested in understanding the other face of China that foreigners usually don't get the chance to see, Sam joined a program called Teach for China that offered volunteers teaching opportunities in rural areas in Yunnan Province.
"I was really excited to go to a part of China, hours and hours away from the nearest McDonald's, from the nearest familiar cultural things, and to really spend a long time there getting to know what is life like there for people, what are the needs and dreams and challenges of young people in China's rural areas," he said.
Upon arrival in Yunnan, Sam was fascinated by the local culture. "From Monihei Festival in Cangyuan to WWII history in Chuxiong, or hiking trails up in the Nujiang area next to Tibet, there was so much diversity in such a compact region," Sam said.
"Most of my students were different ethnic minorities. When I went to their homes and met their parents and grandparents, they were still wearing a lot of traditional clothing, and farming in traditional methods using hand plows and water buffalo, something that was entirely new for me to see and explore," he said.
However, the rich culture was not the only thing Sam noticed. While he was racking his brains to help local students understand English vocabulary and grammar, he realized that some of the students sitting in the back of the classroom were just not performing well.
"You can see them like squinting and really trying to get the information on the blackboard but they just couldn't. Or they were not copying notes when they should be. So we realize that these kids just could't see," Sam said.
Sam and other volunteers had tried to make more photocopies of notes and let the students move to the front of the classroom, but they knew it was not a long-term solution. That was when the idea of glasses donation came up.
They started the donation at three schools in the local village. With money raised from friends and families, they donated 331 pairs of glasses in the first year.
Then, to build up a donor pipeline in order to make their goal more sustainable, Sam and his friends decided to found a social enterprise in 2015. By selling sunglasses in big cities, they raise money for tests of vision, and give Yunnan students access to glasses.
So far, the team has done 180,000 vision screening exams at 337 schools and donated over 19,000 pairs of glasses in Yunnan. In the local village of Yunnan, six out of eight students Sam once taught were wearing the donated glasses, and were later enrolled in the best high school in the county.
"Look how happy they were!" Sam said, smiling at a photo of teenagers he once taught in Shangri-La.
To build a connection between more developed and modernized cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and rural communities, as well as to enhance communications between the Chinese and the Americans, Sam hopes that more and more people can participate in this charity program.
For Sam and his team, there is still a lot of work to do. "We have estimated that 13 million students in rural China need corrective vision but don't have access to it," he said.
Luckily, his team has been expanding ever since its establishment.
Apart from other volunteering foreigners, energetic young people from Beijing, Hong Kong and other places across China are also making efforts to upgrade the donations.