Touched by homeless children, one-time beggar now helps them

BEIJING - Once homeless and begging on the streets, Shi Qinghua scrounged for leftovers in garbage bins to keep his wife and son alive.

"I was helped by homeless children during my most difficult times on the streets," Shi recalled. "They shared food with us even when they didn't have enough."

So strong was his appreciation for their help that when he got back onto his feet he set up a school to assist homeless children in 2004.

Since then, more than 100 children have found a home at the Guang'ai Waifs School, and some have re-entered society and live independent lives.

"It's so joyful for me to see these children have changed so much, and I feel all my efforts have paid off," said the 40-year-old Shi.

Nestled in a remote village in Beijing's northeast suburbs, the two-story main brick building sits inconspicuously among villagers' bungalows.

On a brilliant Sunday morning, children of all ages play games in the courtyard, some gathering around the visiting volunteers and posing for photos.

Loud music floats down from a dancing room on the second floor, where several girls rehearse to Western music.

"At first there were only seven children in the school. Now we have 87 children, and around 20 are studying in vocational schools," Shi said.

As more and more children were saved from homelessness, the need for stable financial support became urgent.

"I can't imagine how we went through all the difficulties. Sometimes children could only have cabbage because we did not have money to buy any other food, and that is why was I dubbed 'cabbage dad'," he recalled.

"Sometimes I thought I would collapse and couldn't help crying, but I had to hold on as I couldn't give up the children," recalled Shi.

In 2007, a commercial about Shi and his school put him in the limelight and brought an outpouring of donations.

Now, the China Foundation of Culture and Arts for Children allocates annual funding to support the school, and in addition to governments, various non-governmental organizations and volunteers also keep donating.

"Thanks to their help, now we don't have financial difficulties any more," Shi said.

However, helping these children get rid of the shadows of past misfortunes and rejoin society has proven far more difficult.

"Most of the homeless children have a negative attitude to life when they're sent to the school. They're not willing to communicate with us."

"You need love, unselfish love, to move them, and it requires great patience," he said.

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