HEFEI, May 19 (Xinhua) -- On a rainy afternoon, Zhou Yumei accompanied a philanthropist to Jinzhai Hope Primary School, China's first primary school built under Project Hope, to look for 15 pupils for a free summer camp in Beijing.
With the goal of ensuring students in poverty-stricken areas enjoy greater access to education, the Project Hope was launched in 1989 by the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League of China and the China Youth Development Foundation.
Tucked away deep in the mountains, Jinzhai Hope Primary School was founded on May 19, 1990 in Nanxi Township, Jinzhai County of east China's Anhui Province. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of the school.
"Before the two-story building was erected, the school was originally in an old ancestral hall," said Yu Gan, a teacher at the school for 37 years.
"When the new school was ready, the students rushed into the classrooms with roars of laughter, and were excited to find that it had access to electricity. Some of them wouldn't get up from the new chairs and desks. I wrote a lot on the new blackboard that day, much more than usual," recalled Yu.
But the building of the new school was no panacea. Like many students in the 1990s, Zhou was forced to drop out of school several times due to poverty.
Jinzhai was an important revolutionary base for the Communist Party of China and was where a major branch of the Red Army was founded. However, its remote location and poor transportation facilities had held it back as one of the most impoverished areas in China.
"I had to quit school for the first time at the age of 11 because my family couldn't afford the tuition. I later found a job at a restaurant to wash dishes," said Zhou, who is now 36.
About a month later, she received a call from the school and was told someone was willing to pay her tuition.
It was an entrepreneur from south China's Guangdong Province, who donated 400 yuan (about 56 U.S. dollars) through Project Hope to Zhou.
"After the establishment of the school, donations started to pour in from all over China, including money, clothing and school supplies such as pens and books," said Jiang Huai, the principal.
However, even with the funds from Project Hope, Zhou still "needed to climb the mountains to collect firewood and sold it for money" to continue her education.
"Going to school was a luxury at that time. Our family of five lived in a crude thatched hut which leaked on rainy days," Zhou said.
In junior high school, when Zhou was on the brink of being pulled out of school again, a civil servant from neighboring Jiangsu Province lent a hand.
"I wrote the donor a letter, vowing never to quit school and pay him back when I grow up. He also wrote back to encourage me," she said. "We never met, but he influenced me a lot."
Zhou eventually finished high school in 2002 and went to Shanghai after graduation. After trying various jobs, she finally settled down at a manufacturing company and took eight years to rise from an assembly line worker to vice chairperson, the quickest ever in the company.
In her spare time, Zhou is a public welfare activist. In 2016, she gave up her job and returned to her hometown to concentrate on the cause of Project Hope.
"When I was a child, I often sat in the hills and looked into the distance, hoping that one day I could go out. Now my dream has come true, but eventually I decided to come back," she said.
Official data showed that as of September 2019, Project Hope had received over 15.2 billion yuan in donations since its establishment, aided nearly 6 million students in financial difficulty, and built 20,195 primary schools across China.
As for Zhou, her team has helped more than 2,000 children since 2016. She is now also the mother of an adopted girl.
More than 5,400 students have graduated from Jinzhai Hope Primary School over the past 30 years, and many have taken up professions such as teachers, doctors and journalists. The school was renovated in 2004 and has expanded into a five-story modern building.
"Nowadays, there are almost no kids dropping out of school because of poverty. What we're doing now is to bring them more care, give them a good education and a happy childhood," she said.