Never in her wildest dreams did Liu Zhai imagine that participating in soccer training would change her life and take her so far from home.
Born into a poor family - both her parents have congenital hearing impairments - the student at Jinzhai Siyuan Experimental School lived a gloomy life until early last year, when the Real Madrid Foundation brought its charitable soccer program to Jinzhai, a rural county in western Anhui province.
The formerly shy girl who barely spoke or participated in afterschool activities has become one of the most active players in her class after taking part in games once a week during last year's spring semester. She had never seen the game before then.
Her genuine interest, highlighted by her smiling face and her ponytail swinging wildly during the game, is a stark contrast to her previous incarnation as a quiet student who always looked heavy-hearted.
"I didn't expect to love soccer because I had no idea about it at all," said the 12-year-old student, who once only had real conversations at home with her younger sister.
"We don't have a TV set at home, so I had never watched it or heard about it before. I was chosen by my teacher to take part in the training because my academic grades are good. Soon, I found that I love this sport because I feel so free and I forget about any troubles while I'm on the pitch."
Through participating in the program, Liu has also realized a long-cherished dream - to visit Tian'anmen Square in Beijing.
In October, Liu was one of eight students selected from her school to travel to the capital and take part in a soccer training clinic. It was the first time she had set foot outside her mountainous county.
During the weeklong visit, Liu practiced with foreign children from international schools in Beijing under the guidance of Spanish trainers, visited landmarks, including the Great Wall, and built a friendship with a volunteer teacher from Beijing Sport University.
"It's the most beautiful memory of my life so far," she said.
Liu shared her stories of the visit with her parents by showing them photos she took of Tian'anmen Square, the Great Wall, the soccer pitch and even her hotel room, delighting the hardworking couple.
"My father was so excited that he shared the pictures with a lot of relatives and neighbors right away. I felt even happier that I'd pleased him in this way," she said.
According to Miao Dingguo, a geography teacher at the Siyuan school who also teaches soccer part-time after receiving training via the Real Madrid program, there are too many cases similar to Liu's - children who have embraced a positive life via soccer - to name.
"A lot of the children have become more self-confident, more open-minded and more active in socializing. Those positive changes have been reflected in the classroom as well. The educational value of the game has been recognized," Miao said.