Embrace The Hurdles: Volunteer In China

by Published

“Now I kind of want to know what concrete tastes like.” 

“You could get down there with her; I bet she’d like the company.” 

I lowered myself down onto all fours and then onto my belly in the courtyard next to the little girl named Sarah. “Here goes!” I stuck my tongue to the rough ground in front of me.

A Volunteer fishing in a river in China
Volunteering in China will change your life as much as theirs. Photo by Jenny McCarty

“Gross! I can’t believe you actually did that! You probably just got every disease in the history of China!” my best friend exclaimed.

I rolled over onto my side chuckling and looked up at her. “Haha, oh Chels, Sarah here is still alive. I think I’ll be just fine. You should try it.”

“No thank you. I’ll stick to my meat-lover’s MacDonald’s hamburgers. You can keep your vegetarian concrete.” I chuckled and reached to touch Sarah’s stubbly head. She stopped investigating the ground with her mouth and lifted it with a smile directed somewhat at me. It warmed my heart.


Sarah is a blind, anemic Chinese girl. She has had so little support in learning how to walk in her seven years that she has taught herself to belly around investigating her environment with her mouth. Her case is nothing special among the orphans we work with. The Sunshine Academy has been given 30 of the most “presentable” children the orphanage houses. They range in age from three to 12. The majority could not walk or communicate when the program started nine months ago, and a few of them suffer from deformations caused by cramped living conditions. Another girl, Hannah, is nine, but is the size of a 4-year-old because she was tied and shoved into a crib with six other children all of her life. It’s awful to think what the "untouched” children look like if these 30 are the best.

I could write endlessly about the conditions of the orphanage, what happens to unwanted children in a communist country, but I’d rather focus on the positives.

Working for the Sunshine Academy and with these children has been one of the most rewarding and eye-opening experiences of my life.

Volunteering at an Orphanage in China - The Sunshine Academy

I’ve always been involved in odd volunteer projects throughout the years, but this is my first international work, and really my first trip out of North America in general. For most people, I think this would be too much, but for those that can look past the abuse and see the good that can come of it, the rewards are limitless.

The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China

In just the first two weeks of the project, I saw our 30 kids improve drastically. Many of the ones who couldn’t stand are now standing, many of the ones who couldn’t walk are now walking, and many of the ones who made only random squeaks and guttural noises are now forming words. Some even communicate with simple sentences! Even more amazing is their improvement to this point from where they started nine months ago. These children had hair filled with lice, faces that hadn’t been scrubbed in weeks, and could make a whole room reek from their stench within seconds of entering it. Many could not talk, stand, walk, or grasp objects. They didn’t know how to play games, use hand-eye coordination, or use a toilet, and some would balk at human touch.

Now, with the daily dedication of volunteers, their lives continue to improve. They laugh and smile and chase one another around the courtyard. They engage in language classes. They beg for a hand to hold or a lap to climb onto, and I am more than willing to oblige them. Observing the visible results of the volunteers’ work is so rewarding, but even more so is providing these children with one of the things we often overlook because we can’t measure it — love, an element needed by all people. Just showing these children affection can go farther in a day than classworks.

Caring is usually the easiest part of being a volunteer, as it’s hard not to fall in love with these children.

They have endured so much for being so young; they’ve survived, and still produce unguarded smiles and laughs. They are a reminder for me to be grateful for all that I have been given and to share those blessings with others.

We so often forget what life is like for those less fortunate. Volunteering abroad in China, or even near to home, is a great way to open our eyes to other conditions and ways of living, how people adapt, and how other people think. In so doing, we become more effective at helping them. By lying down and experiencing the world through Sarah’s “eyes,” I was not only expanding my view of my own world, but joining with her in the hopes that such understanding may lead me to be a more effective element in her progress.

And I think this is the key to being a successful volunteer: immersing ourselves in projects so that we may better understand how to enable others.
The Li River or Lijiang in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region

The Li River or Lijiang

Facing the Challenges

As with anything in life, there will always be challenges. I won’t hide from you that volunteering in China can be tough. Communist countries, especially China, have numerous restrictions, rules, and hot tempers. We have never been allowed to bring a camera into the facility, interact with any other child in the orphanage, intervene when we observe wrongdoings, or we would be dismissed. On two occasions, all of the volunteers from the Sunshine Academy have been barred from entering the facility without knowing whether or not we would ever be readmitted — for reasons never disclosed to us. As you can imagine, there are many details hidden within these events that challenged my composure as a volunteer in China.

Trust me that it’s worth it to embrace those hurdles. Volunteering in situations like these require a mindset of perseverance. You can choose to let similar events deter you or define your determination. 

Remember that those you may help do have it worse than you and your sheer presence can make a difference in their lives. If given the opportunity, I suggest you get down on all fours with them and lick the pavement; they’ll probably appreciate the company.