“Many of them hadn’t been dining out for so long that they were happy like children,” she says. “I realized how much sorrow lay behind those happy smiles. I learned how so many children didn’t have time to spend with their parents and grandparents.”
Just when everything seemed to be going hunky-dory, another crisis hit Gu.
In 2013, the area around Tianruixuan was designated for urban renewal. Although her restaurant was left intact, her customer base disappeared.
At the same time, her husband wanted a divorce and her daughter didn’t perform well on the college entrance examination.
“Suddenly, I seemed to be losing everything,” she says. “I almost suffered a mental breakdown.”
But self-pity wasn’t Gu’s style. She decided to start all over again and make services to seniors a full-time career. She closed the low-cost cafeteria, rented out the second floor of the restaurant and stopped taking customers without advance reservations.
Gu and her finance manager signed up for a course on volunteer work and obtained their social worker certificates, qualifying them to found a nonprofit organization. The name Leshanyuan comes from the transformation. In Chinese, le means “happiness,” shan means “kindness” and yuan means “source.”
“I hope our kindness brings happiness to seniors and forms a bond between people who need help and those willing to provide it,” she says.
After Leshanyuan was founded, Gu invoked all the social connections she had made over the years. People from all walks of life became volunteers. Leshanyuan organized 100 events for seniors, including fashion shows, educational classes and, of course, dinner parties.
“One of our most active volunteers was an old lady I visited when I first came to Shanghai,” Gu says. “She now attends nearly all our events and helps us with organizing work.”
But Gu does not want to rest on her laurels.
“I have invited a team of food-safety experts to develop a system so that seniors can either eat in the canteens or order meals to be delivered to their homes,” she says.
Meanwhile, at Tianruixuan restaurant, a dining hall has been converted into a multipurpose room for volunteer training. The first sessions will start next year.
“I want to go as deep as I can to provide services,” Gu says. “Seniors are and will always be our only target for services.”
She says her passion for helping seniors springs from a sense of guilt after her father suffered a fall and died at home alone.
“My father was always proud of me because I was his first child,” Gu says. “Every time I see the needy seniors, I think of my father and I want them to be happier and live longer.”
Her new career success has been matched with some positive development in her personal life. She has married a swimming coach that she met at one of the senior events.
“My husband doesn’t know much about charity, but he supports me fully,” she says.