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Volunteer team helping students find sense of normalcy

Two volunteers give children an English class in a tent in Lushan county, Sichuan province, on Monday. Photo: Xinhua

"Simon says, touch your nose," Brendan Frentz said during an English class in a tent on the playground of Lushan High School. "Simon says, touch your foot."

The school is providing shelter for more than 2,000 survivors of the magnitude-7 earthquake that hit Sichuan province on Saturday.
 
Canadian volunteer Frentz, 22, along with 14 other students and three teachers from Southwestern University of Finance and Economics in the provincial capital of Chengdu, set up a class for children temporarily placed at the school, the largest shelter in Lushan county.

The class began on Sunday afternoon in a tent that can hold about 40 students. However, organizers had received more than 200 applications by Monday afternoon.

The class has two sessions a day: from 9:30 to 11:30 am and from 2:30 to 4:30 pm.

Besides spoken English, the temporary school also provides psychological counseling, a sanitary and earthquake protection course, as well as basic finance curricula to students.

"My main idea is to divert students' attention from the grief and fear from the quake," Frentz said. "We mostly play games and sing songs, try to bring some fun to these kids, making them not think about the earthquake for now."

He said students from different age groups are mixed together, from 6 to 16.

"As a volunteer, I can't stay here too long. I'm skipping school to be here," he added.

Zhang Wenju, a young teacher and leader of the university volunteer team, said starting the lessons was a "last-minute decision".

When the team came to Lushan High School on Sunday, they saw many children fooling around on the playground, looking upset and lonely.

"We thought, Why not set up a temporary class to gather these kids?" said Zhang, who also worked as a volunteer teacher during the Wenchuan earthquake five years ago. Classes began four hours later in one of the two tents from the university.

Michael Kleinert, another international student from Oklahoma in the United States, led the class activities with Frentz.

"The students were upset, and some of them were crying. That's why we try to make them excited," the 21-year-old said.

Zhang Xinwei, a college junior, taught students how to work together.

"I hope the youngsters who receive our help can offer helping hands to people in need in the future," he said.

In the daytime, the tent serves as the classroom. It serves as a "dorm" at night.

"When I was sleeping in the tent, I was woken up by aftershocks 15 times on Saturday night, the first night we arrived here, and 10 times last night," Frentz said, adding that one aftershock on Sunday night was strong enough to send everyone running from the tent.

Frentz said some of his friends asked him not to go because of the danger.

"If I didn't come, I'd regret it for the rest of my life," Frentz said, adding that his parents are very supportive.

"I came here under a Chinese government scholarship. The Chinese people paid for my study. This is my chance to give my thanks back to them," he said.

The tent school also collects students' wishes and posted on a board outside.

University teacher Zhang Wenju said they will bring the board back to Chengdu and share it with college students.

"I want to return to Bao-xing. I want to bring food to mom and dad," one post said. Baoxing is one of the counties hardest-hit by the earthquake, with 26 dead as of Sunday.

Students in Baoxing are expected to resume class in tents within a week, at least for the Grade-12 students first, according to Han Bing, Party chief of the county.

A total of 410 students and 30 teachers from the 12th grade at Lushan High School will set out to Southwestern University of Finance and Economics on Tuesday to resume classes in Chengdu, China Central Television reported.

Lushan county has 38 primary and middle schools and one high school.

Wang Dong, deputy chief of Lushan county government who is in charge of education, told Xinhua News Agency that except for senior students, the school schedule remains unknown because of the damage to school buildings.

Education Minister Yuan Guiren told China Daily on Sunday that senior students in Ya'an would resume classes on Monday, and schools in other disaster areas would gradually resume.


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