Life’s no cakewalk

Life’s no cakewalk

China Daily, 2011-01-13 08:09, By Qian Yanfeng (China Daily)

Wang Li (center) and two other students have earned a six-month bakery training course at the Ecole Francaise de Boulangerie d’Aurillac, in France. Provided to China Daily

Children who have lost a parent, or both, to AIDS find hope in a project equipping them with French baking skills. Qian Yanfeng reports. When Wang Li lost her mother to AIDS when she was only 12, she felt life closing in on her. But soon a window of opportunity opened and her life started to take on a rosy glow. Now 22, Wang, who hails from Shangcai, central China’s Henan province, is on the road to become a French bakery master, thanks to a free one-year vocational training course taught by French bakers in Shanghai.

The formerly fearful, lonely girl with barely a high school education is now a picture of confidence and poise. A quick learner, she has also earned herself a six-month bakery training stint at the Ecole Francaise de Boulangerie d’Aurillac in France. “I never imagined life could be so wonderful for me,” says Wang, who left China for France on Jan 6, along with two other students like her. “I’m so lucky to know what I’m going to be doing with my life.”

Wang is among a group of children, who have lost one or both parents to AIDS, being offered the opportunity to learn life-supporting skills under the Shanghai Young Bakers (SYB) project, which is a partnership between Hong Kong charity Chi Heng Foundation and a group of French and Chinese volunteers living in Shanghai, who started the program in February 2009. It offers fully-sponsored premium training in traditional French baking to Chinese youth aged 17 to 23. The students also get to learn French, adding further value to their skill set.

“The reason why we chose bakery is that at the moment French bread is very popular in Shanghai and qualified bakers are in great demand, whether from hotels or bakeries. Students with baking skills can easily find a job in this market,” says project manager, Frenchman Thomas Meron. “We try to help students who have had little opportunity before in life but are really willing to work hard to live an independent life. We want to give them a chance to realize their dreams and have a decent living where they can stand on their own and also help their families or communities,” says Cecile Cavoizy, a French volunteer for SYB.

For students like Wang who come from AIDS-ravaged Henan province, where illegal blood sales sparked an AIDS outbreak in the 1990s and caused many children to lose their parents, the project is like a cooling salve on their wounds. “Here we don’t face any discrimination and all the teachers and students are just like friends,” Wang says. “The job is not only interesting but has also given my life a purpose.” Says another student Chen Hongtao, 18, who now holds a full-time job at the Four Seasons Hotel in Shanghai, “We are now able to support ourselves.” Cavoizy says the students show considerable maturity and independence by the end of the course.

“We had one student who had been living on the streets before he joined SYB. At first, he was extremely reserved and distrustful. Through his internship at Radisson Hotel, he has grown into a sociable, self-confident and ambitious young man, and he is now starting a promising career at Renaissance.” For Chung To, founder of Chi Heng Foundation, which is dedicated to sponsoring the education of children who have lost their parents to AIDS on the Chinese mainland, the program challenges the age-old notion that success is circumscribed by how much education one has received. “Being able to support oneself with a unique skill is also success,” he says.

The foundation has so far supported more than 12,000 children affected by AIDS, who have either received higher education or learned vocational skills with which to support themselves.

China Daily 01/13/2011 page20