Skip to main content area Skip to main content area Skip to institutional navigation Skip to search Skip to section navigation

Shen Builds Volunteer Spirit in China While Helping Migrant Children Blossom

May 20, 2011

By Fredda Sacharow. Reprinted from the Penn Law Journal.

Judy Shen L'05
Judy Shen L'05

Three basic strokes - two vertical, one horizontal – form the Chinese word cai, which means “human talent.” 

Judy Shen L’05 chose that simple symbol for an organization she hopes will have a profound effect on an underserved segment of China’s population: its migrant children.

The outgrowth of a two-week summer program Shen launched in 2006 in Beijing, CAI (pronounced sigh) has reached out to more than 1,500 children to enrich their school experience through sports, music and the arts – amenities often in short supply in the country’s cash-strapped migrant schools.

For Shen, it’s just a beginning.

In recent decades, as China’s explosive economic growth fueled a need for workers, families responded by moving to the cities to find jobs, or by sending their children ahead to become wage-earners. The mass movement created a steady stream of internal immigrants with limited social services and educational opportunities available to them, Shen says.

What schools did exist were often housed in abandoned factories or in woefully outdated facilities with no indoor plumbing.
“Children in the street would come up to my Caucasian friends, begging for money,” recalls Shen, who went to Beijing as a Fulbright scholar researching intellectual property law in China six years ago and stayed to build a new nonprofit from the ground up.
“I wanted to know where they came from, why they were there, and why there were no services for them. They were a forgotten population.”

Shen was born in China; her parents moved the family to New York when she was six. She was at once appalled and inspired by the plight of the migrant children, whose numbers she estimates at close to 78 million throughout the country.

She remembers in particular one boy of 12, who left his outlying village for Beijing when a family friend promised a job in the city. The “job” turned out to be washing cars in the dead of winter for the U.S. equivalent of 70 cents per car – of which the youth earned nothing.

Recruiting an ad hoc team of 30 volunteers, both Chinese and foreign, and securing a $5,000 grant from Cummins, Inc., Shen began that first summer by partnering with an existing school to offer classes in dance, photography, sculpting, drawing  and other creative outlets. Sixty eager children, ranging from 9 to 13, flocked to what Shen was convinced would be a one-time program.

She was a corporate associate with the American-based law firm Skadden Arps by then. What did she know about running a supplementary education program, Shen thought.

And yet …

“After that first project was completed, the feedback from the children was so tremendously positive I felt compelled to continue,” says Shen.

Taking a six-month leave of absence with full support from Skadden, the young attorney began working toward her vision of providing underprivileged children in both rural and urban China a transformative learning experience, one formulated around what she calls the Four Cs: care, courage, confidence, and commitment.

From the beginning, Shen has believed that focusing on “soft” skills rather than on the technological know-how they get during regular school hours would help her children navigate through the challenges migrant life throws at them.

Testimony supporting her thesis has come not only from the teachers and administrators CAI has paired with over the years, but also from her target audience: the students themselves.

Shen treasures a letter she received in 2007 from Liu Rui, a fifth-grader who came to Beijing from Sichuan Province with her parents. Liu Rui, who enrolled in the summer arts program, was an introverted child with no friends. By the time she left, Liu Rui had made a best friend and become more expressive, writing to her mentor in scrawled characters that grew increasingly exuberant: “When I grow up and am able to find a job, when I have time, I will also become a volunteer, to enrich migrant children’s life by teaching them arts.”

Tingting, also from Sichuan Province, had a similar experience. Extremely short in stature and painfully shy, the child joined CAI’s basketball for girls program, hoping it would improve her health and make her stronger. As the weeks progressed, the little girl who never dared to make eye contact with an adult came out of her shell and opened her heart to Shen.

“Through our program, she felt much healthier, and shared that she was more confident as a result, had developed new friends and became quite social,” Shen recalls.

Currently working with a $150,000 annual budget, with funding from foundations, corporations and individuals, CAI operates under the auspices of the Promise Foundation, a tax-exempt public charity Shen set up in the United States and Hong Kong to support its growing reach.

The initiative has become a full-time job for Shen, who is convinced she gets as much out of it as the youngsters do.

“I think for me this has truly been life-changing,” she says. “It’s amazing to see the amount of goodness in the people who volunteer, the promise that is in the children.”

The volunteer ethos has been slow to develop in the country of her birth, Shen adds.

“That was one of the major challenges I faced at the beginning. The idea of volunteerism in China was so new, people would stare at me when I asked if they wanted to be part of CAI. It just was not part of the society.”

A former law school classmate who was with Shen in China for a post-Bar Exam trip says she is filled with awe at what Shen has accomplished in just a few short years.

“What Judy is doing is the most amazing thing,” says Alicia Novak L’05, now an attorney in Boston. “She started this from nothing, and now she has affected thousands of children in an area of very high need. There’s really no culture of volunteer service in China, and she is helping to instill one there.”

Her fellow alumna could have had her choice of jobs back in the states, but opted to remain in her native country because “she could do good work there,” says Novak, a member of CAI’s Board of Directors who often served as a sounding board for Shen during the early weeks and months of the initiative.

The imperative of community service is hard-wired into Shen’s soul. Early on in her schooling, she tutored younger students and ladled food in soup kitchens. Immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, she threw herself into rescue efforts, working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross to relocate survivors and provide counseling.

“I always thought I would go into the medical field, but law came calling,” Shen says. The training she received at Penn armed her with the tools to establish and steer the nonprofit, from negotiating with potential educational partners to uncovering funding sources, she explains.

“On a daily basis, I find myself relying on my legal education to analyze and resolve new and evolving challenges,” Shen says. “In the most direct way, my legal background helped me develop our organizational structure – which now encompasses a U.S. 501 (C)(3) charitable organization, a Hong Kong charity, and a Chinese legal entity.”

She also relies heavily on her fluency in Chinese and her knowledge of the nation’s culture – both of which ease Shen’s interactions with the locals and give her credibility with her young charges, she says.

Shen returned to the United States this past winter to await the birth of her first child, Joshua, who arrived on Feb. 7, and began drafting a long-term strategy for expanding CAI’s reach. Having recently branched out into teacher training – some 120 educators have already participated in CAI-led sessions in rural schools in two provinces – she is now focusing on a program for special-needs students, with an emphasis on autistic youngsters.

The Chinese government says there are approximately 100,000 children with the condition, but other sources, such as the World Health Organization, say the number is closer to 600,000, and may reach as high as 2 million.

“There is a dearth of attention paid to this population, and to the availability of quality services for special-needs education,” Shen observes. “We’re in the process now of conducting market research and analysis to develop a long-term strategy for this program.”