Li Dan has been dedicated to the relief of children orphaned by AIDS.
At 26, Li Dan could have a promising career as an astronomy major at Beijing Normal University for undergraduate studies and a solar physics major at the National Astronomical Observatory under the Chinese Academy of Sciences for graduate studies. Few people would anticipate that the young man with such a strong science background would give up science to devote himself completely to children orphaned by AIDS.
Li was first involved with HIV/AIDS in his freshmen year back in 1996. As a member of Beijing Normal University¡¯s Red Cross Society, he took part in the activity to distribute anti-AIDS booklets on the World AIDS Day (December 1) that year.
¡°I learned from the pamphlets that AIDS is a terrible disease¡±, Li recalls.¡± I became curious of the epidemic and began to be concerned with its social impact¡±.
But he didn¡¯t feel the impulse to really do something for people living with HIV/AIDS until he saw the movie Philadelphia. ,I was shocked to see the American lawyer was fired just because he became HIV infected,, Li recalls. ¡°I admired the lawyer for his guts to bring his boss to court and felt obliged to do something for these people.¡±
In 1998 Li Dan became a volunteer to work for AIDS patients. He had learned that there are only three channels for HIV to spread: from blood transfusion, unsafe sex, and mother to baby. ¡°However, many people are so HIV/AIDS phobic that they would pale at the very mention of the disease¡±, he observes. ¡°People living with HIV/AIDS are often discriminated upon in their life and work.¡±
Li as a student could not turn the situation around, but he would try his best to get associated with AIDS patients and show concerns for them. Even after he began his graduate studies of solar physics at the National Astronomical Observatory in 2000, he would go to places hit by the disease to conduct investigations among AIDS patients.
The young man made his first trip to villages plagued with HIV/AIDS in Henan Province in 2001. His heart sunk when he saw a patient named Zhu Lifang lost her eyesight completely to the high fever caused by AIDS.
A month later, Zhu passed away, leaving behind her lonely child. The bitter scenes of many lonely children orphaned by AIDS struck Li Dan, driving him home. Back to Beijing, Li Dan still thought of them, and he spared some money from his meager living allowances to support those orphans. He wanted them to continue their education.
While attending activities of the 11th World AIDS Day in 2001, Li Dan came to know Song Pengfei, a young man who got infected with HIV/AIDS in an operation in his hometown in Shanxi. They became friends, and for some time Li Dan lived together with Song, for he understood Song was eager to have such friendship.
Children at the Dongzhen School
Li was not free from worry that he might get infected. But he has donated blood every year and every time his blood test was HIV negative. Two years after his association with AIDS patients he has remained healthy, Li is assured that people living with HIV/AIDS are not as ¡°dangerous¡± as many people have assumed so long as he is careful.
Through his work with AIDS patients in Henan, Li Dan learned that every couple of AIDS would leave one to three children orphaned after they died of the disease. Without financial support, these children can hardly make a living, let alone continuing their education. He is determined to help these orphans with their schooling. He planned a project called ¡°Relief to AIDS Orphans¡± and is determined to help sweep away the shadow over their mind through his efforts.
Li Dan decided to give up his solar physics career for this goal upon his graduation in July 2003. His parents urged him to think twice for his choice, as it was no easy work to help these AIDS orphans. His girl friend also held his efforts would be in vain. But Li Dan was adamant. ,I decided that it is more important to save and help these children orphaned by AIDS,, Li says. ¡°They need me and my help may change their whole life.¡±
Li Dan came to Henan to carry out his project. Together with him were three other volunteers. Initially Li intended to run an orphanage and adopted several children. When the school year started in September, he sent the children to a high school in Shangqiu City. But the schoolmaster was reluctant to enroll them, as parents of other children would protest if the school admit the orphans.
It was not right for the school to reject the AIDS orphans, for they were not the source of the virus and infection. They should not be denied of their rights to education just because their parents were the toll of AIDS. Yet Li Dan and his colleagues could not force the school to enroll them. After discussion, they decided to run a school for these orphans on their own.
A friend found an abandoned temple, and they turned the temple houses into classrooms of their school. With the help of local villagers, Li Dan and his friends got 17 children who dropped out of school because their parents were infected with AIDS.
The Dongzhen School for AIDS Orphans were officially launched in the old temple in Shangqiu, Henan on October 24, 2003. Li Dan says they named the school Dongzhen, meaning ¡°oriental treasures¡±, because they hoped the children could learn well at school and become treasures of the country.
For the 17 children aged from 7 to 14, Li Dan hired four teachers at a monthly salary of 400 yuan each. The children were divided into second, fourth and fifth grades. ¡°I asked the teachers not only to pass on knowledge to the children but also to lead them out of the shadow and grow healthily¡±, Li Dan says.
Both tuition and boarding are free for the kids. ,It¡¯s important for the children to have a space of their own, in which they suffer no discrimination,, Li says. However, the free tuition and boarding would certainly increase the cost of the school operation.
The school has relied on a funding of 20,000 yuan from UNESCO and domestic and overseas donation of 100,000 yuan, which is enough to support one year¡¯s operation.
Li is happy to see every child in the school is happy. He feels that his ideal is being fulfilled as the school offers new horizons for the kids.
Li Dan agrees that he would not have run into so many difficulties had he not chosen to help the AIDS orphans, and he would have enjoyed a much more stable life. ¡°But my heart would have never been at ease¡±, he says,¡±because I would feel so many orphans look at me in despair¡±.
His biggest headache is money. It¡¯s far from enough to run the school just on donations. He is thinking of running a commercial company and using the profits to make up the school budget. ,That will be a good cycle,, he says.
The first objective of the school is to rid the children of the psychological trauma. Then it should teach basic knowledge of math, physics and chemistry to the children. Equally important is to cultivate their mind with human knowledge. Li Dan hopes the school will draw attention from more people so the children will get more help. He is aware that he is no expert on AIDS or education, but he believes China needs non-governmental resources in its anti-AIDS endeavor. ¡°I regard myself as a slab stone on the road and I,m happy to play such a role¡±, he says. ¡°Even if my school fails, I,m reconciled if the society is concerned with the issue of AIDS orphans.¡±
He knows he cannot save all the AIDS orphans but he doesn¡¯t feel lonely. Within a short period of time, his school has attracted nearly 100 volunteers.
But right now, aside from funding, Li Dan is haunted by another problem: The Dongzhen School has yet to get registered. He was told by the local department of civil affairs that he has to pay 1 million yuan to register the school. While trying hard to raise fund for registration, Li is confronting a serious of questions: How to measure the education quality before the school could get registered? Who is to issue graduation diplomas to the kids after they finish the 6-year primary education? How to help them go up to secondary school?