Pei’s Cave

Until she was 4 years old, Huan Yu Pei had never lived in a cave. She didn’t face the stigma cave families feel as the bottom of society. She never felt the draft from the makeshift door.

In the cave-dwelling community where she grew up in China’s Shaanxi province, Pei’s family was considered middle class.

Her father worked in a factory and her mother cared for the house. Pei’s grandfather spent his days harvesting their large plot of land, where they grow sweet apples. Their life was comfortable.

Then, in 2006, Pei’s father was in a motorcycle accident on his way to the printer manufacturing company where he worked as a machine operator. His leg was badly mangled and broken. In this rural, underdeveloped region of northwest China, there were few hospitals and none that Pei’s father could afford without health insurance. The injury never fully healed, and Pei’s father needed crutches to move. He lost his job, and the family fell into poverty and debt.

Soon after they moved into the cave where they still live today, Pei’s mother vanished.

The only income Pei’s family makes is from the apples they grow and sell. They also harvest a type of pepper that numbs your mouth. Their annual income is so little, they are classified as living in extreme poverty according to the World Bank, which gives the label to anyone who lives on less than $1.25 per day.

Pei is now 15 years old. Her small village is in a mountainous region of Shaanxi province called Ruicheng, where ancient farmland has been tilled, planted and harvested for thousands of years, and now layers upon layers of terraced plots mark the hillsides and plateaus for hundreds of miles.

Using a small amount of charcoal, Pei cooks over a small stove in her house. Three times a day, she gathers buckets of water from a shared spigot nearby her home. Sometimes, she makes doughy, boiled dumplings, but usually her family eats apples from their small orchard and steamed buns or noodles using flour they grind themselves. She also sweeps and dusts every day, since the dirt roof and walls of her home are constantly dropping dirt on their beds, food and belongings. On the days she needs to bathe, it takes most of the day to heat enough water to fill the same bin that she uses to wash apples.

Pei hasn’t seen her mother since she was 4 years old. Her mother’s family also lives on the outskirts of the village, but they refuse to see Pei. Her face drops when she talks about them.

“It’s sad,” Pei says, her gaze falling to her lap. “But there’s nothing I can do.”

Pei’s test scores and academic performance are extremely high, especially for a child with Pei’s economic background. She is one of the top students in her class.

Pei’s education is not free. With fees, uniforms, books and other supplies, it’s nearly 1,000 rmb per quarter, or about $150 per term.

Class mobility here is virtually nonexistent. In general, children tend to inherit their family’s home and land, and for that reason, their occupation as well.

But simply having the freedom to stay in school or migrate to a city could be life changing for students like Pei. They could find higher paying jobs and have the autonomy and self-determination to decide their futures.

That’s why Holt’s child sponsorship program in this region — as well as throughout China — is so critical. In many ways, China’s citizens experience one of two realities — one that is modern, well-developed and wealthy, and another that still faces extreme poverty, malnutrition, limited access to running water or electricity, as well as basic infrastructure like schools and hospitals. Students in Beijing or other urban areas receive some of the best education in the world, while students in rural regions, like Ruicheng, are unlikely to escape the chains of poverty without considerable support and assistance. This is especially true for students like Pei, whose family has been impacted greatly by her father’s disability.

But simply having the freedom to stay in school or migrate to a city could be life changing for students like Pei. They could find higher paying jobs and have the autonomy and self-determination to decide their futures.

Sponsorship helps children like Pei stay in school and feel like their dreams are possible. Holt’s programs also support children who do so well on their national exams, they receive admission to colleges. So far, six students in Ruicheng have received college support, which will ultimately equip them with the most valuable asset they could possibly have to achieve real change in their lives and the lives of their families: a college degree.

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