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Children have their lunch for free at a kindergarten in Kuqa county, the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. In the region’s rural areas, children can have three-year bilingual preschool eduction for free. Photos by Yuan Huanhuan / For China Daily

Welfare officers help rural children in 60,000 villages access vital services

Whenever she runs into trouble, 15-year-old Uygur girl Dina (not her real name) seeks help from her "aunt" Song Yuelan. Song is not a blood relative; she is the child welfare director of Ergong village, Yining county, in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. Her job is simply to help children enjoy better lives.

Song first met Dina in April 2015. "We didn"t have money to buy seed," Dina said, so she knocked on Song"s door. Song gave her 2,000 yuan ($300). When the family harvested their crops in the fall, they paid the money back.

Song, a 49-year-old Han Chinese, cares for 920 children, including Dina and her two younger brothers. She first visited Dina"s family in 2010, and found them in dire straits.

Dina"s father has polio, and her mother has a serious lung disease. They had no source of income beyond a small cornfield and a basic government living allowance.

"Her 1-year-old brother was not even registered because he was born at home," Song said. "The parents cannot speak Mandarin, so they didn"t seek help from the local government."

Song spent two months helping the family solve their problems. Now registered, the boy has received free vaccinations.

"Auntie Song changed our lives," Dina said.

A bridge to welfare

"Child welfare directors are a bridge between underprivileged children and China"s policies," said Xu Jianzhong, a senior official with the Ministry of Civil Affairs. According to official data, the country had 40 million children living in poverty in 2015.

Gao Yurong of the China Philanthropy Research Institute, who helped set up the child welfare directors program, said the idea was born during a visit to an impoverished family.

"They had a child who had been ill for some time," she said. "His family didn"t know anything about the policies and free programs, so the boy had received no medical treatment."

She later discovered the story was not exceptional. In many outlying parts of China, people simply don"t know about the policies designed to help them.

"Something had to be done," Gao said. "Central government policies are supportive of children in poverty, but not everyone is clear about the welfare system. There needed to be someone assisting them."

The program was launched in 2010 by the ministry and UNICEF and covered more than 60,000 villages.

In Xinjiang"s Ili Kazak autonomous prefecture, 50 villages are covered by the program, where left-behind children, orphans, sick children and those with parents in jail are the priority.

Children have a manual training at a kindergarten in Bole, the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. Photos by Yuan Huanhuan / For China Daily

"They are the future"

Ati from Gama village, Yining, once saw two boys of school age playing in the street.

"Why aren"t you in school?" she asked 12-year-old Ezhar (not his real name). The boy and his younger brother were unregistered because their father went to prison in 2008, and their mother left home and never returned. Both lived with their uncle.

Ati applied for a low-income allowance for the family, settled the registration issue and made sure the boys went to school.

At the weekends, the boys go to a children"s center where the welfare directors host regular activities. Ati found a college student who was willing to teach the children and help them with their studies.

Ezhar"s academic performance improved and he has made a lot of friends.

He was born with finger adhesion, and Ati wants to take him to a hospital in Urumqi, the Xinjiang capital. She knows some programs that offer free operations to impoverished children.

If all goes well, Ezhar"s father will be released from prison next year.

"Stability of communities is key to social stability, and family stability is key to the stability of communities," Xu said. "Children are the core of a family. They are the future."

On the wall of the children"s center there is a sentence in red paint: "All ethnic groups must stick together like pomegranate seeds."

For the smiling faces

But the work is not easy. Many child welfare directors quit after a few years. "The work is tiring, and the pay is low," said Li Mingfeng, who works for the Yining civil affairs bureau.

Song Yuelan"s monthly wage as a child welfare director is only 800 yuan, and her family were against her doing the job.

"I used motorbikes so frequently for household visits that I wore out three of them," she said. She also has arthritis in her knees. "I understand those who quit the job, but it means hundreds of children lose their help," she said.

But Song likes her job. "When the children show their love, seeing their smiling faces, you feel that the effort is all worthwhile."

At New Year each year, Dina and her mother take Song some fried dough twists, a local snack. Song once recommended Dina for a free summer camp in Beijing, and when she came back, the girl brought Song a bracelet.

Dina"s dream now is to be a journalist. "Then I will be able to write down our stories," she said.