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The Wounded Dragon


Last Updated: 08/13/2013 3:52 pm

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Fund-raising emerged as Handreach’s greatest challenge. “We would spend all of our time raising these little bits of money, a dollar at a time—we were selling bottles of water and literally asking for coins,” says Swartz. The goal initially was to raise at least $1,000 per year, in order to empower local Chinese students to run their own projects back home. Swartz and her team encouraged the grant recipients to be as creative as possible in finding the best way to help their local schools. “We didn’t have a pattern or a recommendation or an agenda for how that money should be spent,” she recalls. Any reasonable application was acceptable, as long as the person had a real connection to China and could prove that 100 percent of the grant would go where it was promised, and that the recipient would provide absolute transparency. Receipts, photos, thank-you letters and other documentation were a requirement. From 2002 until 2004, Handreach was primarily concerned with education, and it continued offering microgrants until 2007. However, after Swartz’s encounter with Zhou Lin, the organization expanded its mission.

Swartz spent two years continually reaching out to Zhou Lin’s family after their introduction outside the CCTV building in 2004. She had provided a $200 Handreach educational grant during their first meeting to ensure Zhou Lin and her sister could return to school, but serious medical care was financially out of reach at that point. However, thanks to Swartz’s efforts, within two years she was able to secure enough funding to bring the girl to America for treatment. Eventually, Swartz found herself sharing a room with Zhou Lin in the Shriners Hospital in Boston, where Swartz had procured free surgical care for the little girl. As Zhou Lin struggled through round after round of surgeries, Swartz had another important encounter.

“There were a couple of young people from Indonesia who were there with their little cousin who had been burned by a stove in Baza Aceh [Indonesia],” says Swartz. “We were sitting there in the playroom with these little tiny chairs around this children’s-sized table. They were medical students and they said. ‘You know what? There are a lot of kids that cannot go to school, cannot function, cannot find jobs, because their bodies are deformed by these fires, and by traumatic amputations.’” It dawned on the group that Shriners had empty beds, tremendous spare capacity, expertise for treating burn victims, and the will to help. Swartz and Indonesian medical students brainstormed and came up with the Children’s Healing Initiative (CHI), which would eventually emerge as Handreach’s central project.

The initial funding for CHI came from The Hope CD (2006, Handreach), an album made up of donated songs from local Boston musicians. Swartz and her team sold copies for $20 each to help launch the initiative. “The hope was to find a way to create a connection between Shriners and hospitals in Asia that were trying to provide burn care for kids but either didn’t have the technological know-how or just didn’t have the funds to do this very, very expensive care,” says Swartz. Factoring in the surgeries, miscellaneous procedures, bandages, special ointments, physical therapy, medication, and prosthetics, burn care is one of the most expensive forms of treatment in the world. “We realized that Shriners has the capacity to be able to really help not only the children but the hospitals in China and eventually Indonesia, India—we’ve got someone in Sierra Leone that wants to work with us. We’d like to be able to spread to other countries as well,” says Swartz. “But we’re trying to get it off the ground in China, which as you know is challenging because of working with the government.”

Beijing remains unflinchingly intolerant of politically oriented NGOs—especially those concerned with human rights. However, according to the Institute for Asian and African Studies, the government has expanded its tolerance of “service-provider” NGOs over the past decade. This suits the agendas of party officials, who find these organizations useful in assisting the Chinese people in uncontroversial sectors where there is an established need that the government is presently unable to address. As long as the NGOs refrain from criticizing the Communist Party system or stepping on the wrong political toes—and maintain what Professor Shui Yan Tang of the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development calls “a nonoppositional stance”—they present obvious value in their ability to support a restless and underserved population. The German Development Institute reports that China has learned to recognize and tolerate the efforts of environmental NGOs in particular, and Chen Jie, writing in China Perspectives, suggests it has also loosened the reins on gender, public health, poverty, and education-oriented charitable groups.

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