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Last updateWed, 11 Nov 2015 11am

Wednesday, 16 September 2015 14:37

Navigating Towards a Better Tomorrow

Written by  Tan Kim Hion, Sandakan / Translated by Goh Hwe Yong & Lee Ren Hui

Although the long boat was packed with 30 people, the children did not complain but contented with what they had. [Photograph by Hsieh Hsiu Hua]

It is not a ship, but a long motor-propelled boat without any form of shade. Rain or shine, everyone on board has to bear with the cold or heat. But to the school children of Paitan, this has never been a problem, as the long boat is the only mode of transport to get them to school, and more so, towards a better tomorrow.


 
Paitan, situated in the state of Sabah, is a remote rural area adjacent to Pitas and located about 220 km away from Sandakan. It comprises of many small villages, each of which has dozens of aboriginal families. To those who stay along the river, the main means of transport is by long boat.
 
In recent years, much of the forest has been cleared and replaced by oil palm plantations. This development has been a threat to their livelihood, since they had long depended on hunting of wild animals in the forest; the rivers have become so contaminated due to development that there was no more fish that they could catch. They could but toil the land or work as ad-hoc labourers for a living. Life has become difficult for these stranded people.
 
Since 2004, Tzu Chi volunteers in Sandakan have been travelling to Paitan to provide free medical care to the people there. The free clinics are held twice a year at a local school premises. Touched by the sincere love and respect shown by volunteers in serving the local people, the principal of SK Lubang Buaya requested Tzu Chi to help the school children in 2006. Thus, volunteers started distributing stationery and exercise books to the children.
 
Giving hope to students through aid distribution
 
Back then, volunteer Hsieh Hsiu Hua, person-in-charge of Tzu Chi Sandakan, learnt from principal and teachers about the difficulties faced by the students. She recounted, “In Paitan, it is not easy to attend school every day. The principal told us that as the school children are all living in villages scattering amid the forest or along the rivers, they have no choice but to either walk or take a boat to school. There is no other means of transport.”
 
Due to the clearing of forest to give way to oil palm planting, tracks and paths became rather muddy. Already the journey to school was long enough, and so the muddy condition would only worsen the situation. The children could hardly move in the mud on rainy days. By the time they reached school, it was already recess time.
 
Why did they not take a boat ride then? The answer – they could not afford the RM1.80 fare. It was thus no wonder that absence rate from school was very high.
 
Hence, in 2010, volunteers scale the whole of Paitan to get into primary and secondary schools to help needy school children with the Tzu Chi Study Grant. Ever since then, applications for the study grant have been on the rise year by year, and about 3,500 students have benefitted. This year, a total of 500 plus applications were received. Hsiu Hua and her team of volunteers relentlessly made home visits to each and every applicant to understand the real needs of the school children.
 
“Each year at the Study Grant Presentation Ceremony, the principals would ask us to give the students aid in kind, not in cash because the children badly need stationery, such as pens, pencils, rulers and exercise books. Sometimes, some schools would request us to give uniforms and sports attire. The distribution of various stationery and other aid in kind means a lot to the children, and gives them hope for their own future.” The fact that whatever given them, the children accepted with joy really moved Hsiu Hua.
 
After caring for the students for some time and realizing they have other needs, Tzu Chi volunteers initiated the Happy Schooling Scheme in 2014, where they visited the schools and the children’s families, and provided transportation (long boat), tuition and lunch subsidies to needy students.
 
Four hours of tough journey
 
On September 15, 2015, Hsiu Hua and fellow volunteers made a trip to SK Lubang Buaya, SK Simpangan and SMK Simpangan, which are under the Happy Schooling Scheme, for a regular visit scheduled once every three months.
 
Although the volunteers have travelled to Paitan for countless times, every visit to them was still a challenge. They had to start travelling from Sandakan at around 5 am, passing through oil palm plantations and mountain road before arriving at the pier four hours later. Then, they had to put on a life jacket and a hat, before boarding the long boat following the water flow to the schools – SK Simpangan and SMK Simpangan.
 
As the local people do not usually wear a life jacket, they were surprised to see the volunteers in full gear. Volunteer Chin Choi Mei, who would always equip herself with a life jacket, rain coat and hat said, “I was really scared the first time I took such long boat because I cannot swim. Sometimes, when water got into the boat, I would help scooping them out for fear that the boat might sink!”
 
After half-an-hour boat ride, volunteers arrived at the shabby pier of SK Simpangan and the class of the neighbouring secondary school had already ended. Some secondary school students were waiting at the pier for the primary school students to take the boat back home together. Teacher Jinol Maijin, who liaised with Tzu Chi, greeted and welcomed the volunteers.
 
“They are students subsidized by Tzu Chi for the long boat ride,” introduced Jinol to Tzu Chi volunteers. After confirming with Choi Mei that there are 19 secondary school students and 30 primary school students who benefit from the monthly transportation subsidy, he thanked Tzu Chi for the help, which enables the students to come to school every day. 
 
Jinol has been living here since he was young. Although he is teaching in another village, he is very concerned about his alma mater, SK Simpangan, where his wife is also a teacher at this school.
 
Jinol shared with volunteers that when he was a child, he was just like the group of students taking long boat ride to school. He recalled that the long boat back then did not even have motor and relied on manpower, and every day, he would wait by the pier at 5.30 am. During low tide, he would need to get down from the boat to drag and push the boat, sometimes reaching home at 8 or 9 in the evening.
 
Although it was difficult, Jinol was determined to go to school. He saw how hard his grandparents and his parents lived, and he knew the only way to get out of poverty is by studying hard. As a result of this mind-set, Jinol became the first in his village to graduate from a university.
 
A kind thought to help others
 
After graduation, Jinol chose to return to his village to educate the next generation by becoming a good teacher, and his wife also chose to follow his footsteps. Although they teach in different schools, Jinol often heard from his wife that the absenteeism rate in her school was very high. He understood the plight of the children, and hence he often thought of ways to help them.
 
On one occasion, when Tzu Chi was hosting a free clinic in Paitan, Jinol saw Choi Mei and bravely approached her and asked her if Tzu Chi could help children who could not afford to go to school. Choi Mei listened to his story and reported back to the Sandakan Liaison Office. After volunteers visited the school to gain more insight, they immediately provided transportation subsidy.
 
Since then, Jinol and his wife witnessed the improvement in student attendance, as well as academic performance. Parents were also very grateful because their children not only have the chance to go to school, Tzu Chi’s subsidy has also helped reduce their financial burden. 
 
Teachers are always glad to see their classrooms filled with students. Jinol never expected his request would lead to unconditional help from Tzu Chi. Therefore, he is also willing to assist his wife to be in charge of the subsidy matters. He always told Choi Mei, that one day, when the children are grown up and are capable of contributing back to society, it is all due to the effort of Tzu Chi.
 
Jinol and his wife realized that a kind thought can actually help a lot of students, and they immediately asked to become Tzu Chi donating members, in hope that they could continue to help the children in their study.
 
It is a blessing to school everyday
 
Danue, who is in Form 3, and his sister who is in Year 1, are thankful to Tzu Chi volunteers. They stay about a 20-minute boat ride away from school, and before receiving Tzu Chi’s transportation subsidy, they only had enough money to go to school for two days in a week, and other times, they would stay at home.
 
Danue’s father works for the Water Department and earns a small salary, while her mother stays at home taking care of his younger siblings. He likes to study and hopes to become an engineer in the future, but was once worried that his dream would be crushed if he could not continue schooling. 
 
He said, “Now my sister and I can go to school every day, and that makes us very happy! Previously, my grades were not good, but this year, I am among the top 10 students in class.”
 
Choi Mei was deeply touched by Danue’s sharing, and she also felt sorry for the children having to travel to school on long boats. In order to personally experience what the children have been going through, Choi Mei and the volunteers decided to travel home with them on a long boat. Sitting quietly on the boat, all the children smiled contentedly and naïvely, while waving to the volunteers when they saw their boat passing by.
 
After disembarking from the boat, which usually stops at muddy spots, the children would still need to walk a distance for homes. The volunteers had to grip at the branches and help one another to get on to the muddy slope, and they could deeply feel how tough a journey it is for the children to go to school. But, they also learnt from the children’s bright smiles that they are happy and grateful for the opportunities to education.
 
Selfless love is the most beautiful painting on earth
 
Around 2 pm, volunteers left SK Simpangan on a long boat, and then took a car ride to SK Lubang Buaya. It was already about 4 pm when they arrived at the school.
 
Volunteers then handed over meal and tuition fee subsidies for 23 students to Dasni Dooh, the school principal. Dasni, who was posted to SK Lubang Buaya in 2013 to serve as the school principal, already got to know Tzu Chi in 2008, when he was teaching in Tanjung Nipis, Paitan. Back then, Dasni approached Tzu Chi for kindergarten note pads, and since then, Tzu Chi has been giving stationery to the students yearly.
 
In 2012, having considered that a dictionary is an essential tool for learning, volunteers started giving out dictionaries to students in Paitan. That same year, Principal Dasni requested volunteers to donate 16 bicycles for the students on reason that some students, who lived in remote mountain forests, always skipped school due to the long distance; with a bicycle, they could commute to school every day.
 
After being posted to the current school, Principal Dasni found out that many students were not performing well in their studies, so he decided to let 23 students who lived far from the school to stay in the school, and arranged tuitions for them. He also sought Tzu Chi’s help to pay for the students’ meals and tuition fees. After making home visits, Tzu Chi volunteers not only provided tuition to the boarders, but also to students who fall behind in class.
 
Principal Dasni remarked, “Since Tzu Chi helped to pay for meals and tuition fees of these students, their academic performances have made great progress. Among them, ten Year 6 students with learning disabilities actually passed the trial exams, and two of them even scored five A’s! No student of this school has ever achieved such good results before!”
 
To Dasni, Tzu Chi is an organization that sincerely helps these students, and never gives up on them. He often said, the schools in Paitan have no attractive sceneries, but Tzu Chi volunteers are willing to take the troubles and travel long distance there, just to help and care for these students. He was intensely moved by such kindness and voluntarily became a Tzu Chi donating member to help others.
 
Most gratified to see the students’ academic progress
 
At Paitan schools, one thing that volunteers felt most gratified was to learn of the academic progress made by the students. These volunteers would always cheer up the students during their visits, and the children would always chuckle to hear Hsiu Hua reading Bahasa Malaysia text with her Taiwanese accent. Yet despite the language barrier, the children welcomed her dearly as if she was a family member, for they really felt the sincere care and love showered upon them.
 
Not only did they make progress, they took great care of their own school bag that they received from Tzu Chi volunteers earlier this year. Their bags still looked new. This touched the hearts of the volunteers.
 
When Hsiu Hua asked them how they liked their school bags, none failed to nod. Some of them even opened their bags to let her see how they packed their books and stationery, and said “It is a good bag, big enough to take in all books.”
 
Principal Dasni remarked smilingly that the school bags provided by Tzu Chi are indeed practical and much loved by the students. With the school bags, the students would not forget to bring any of their books too.
 
Volunteers followed the boarding students as they walked back to their hostel, which was simple and with basic furnishing. After putting down their bags, the students rushed to the pavilion to bid goodbye to the volunteers, who waved at them and reminded them to study hard. In the cheerful and innocent smiles of the children, the volunteers could see the hope of a better tomorrow in them.
 
 

 
To the native children in Paitan, the happiest thing is being able to go to school every day, and they love the school bags given by Tzu Chi. [Photograph provided by Tzu Chi Sandakan]   Students treasure the school bags from Tzu Chi. They take care of their bags and arrange all the textbooks and exercise books neatly in the bags. [Photograph by Tan Kim Hion]

To the native children in Paitan, the happiest thing is being able to go to school every day, and they love the school bags given by Tzu Chi. [Photograph provided by Tzu Chi Sandakan]
 
Students treasure the school bags from Tzu Chi. They take care of their bags and arrange all the textbooks and exercise books neatly in the bags. [Photograph by Tan Kim Hion]
 
Hsieh Hsiu Hua (standing) from Taiwan would try interacting with the students in Malay language every time she visits them, although the students found her broken Malay amusing. [Photograph by Tan Kim Hion]   Thankful to Tzu Chi for subsidizing their food and tuition fees, the boarding students would always wave goodbye to volunteers when they left. [Photograph by Hsieh Hsiu Hua]

Hsieh Hsiu Hua (standing) from Taiwan would try interacting with the students in Malay language every time she visits them, although the students found her broken Malay amusing. [Photograph by Tan Kim Hion]
 
 
Thankful to Tzu Chi for subsidizing their food and tuition fees, the boarding students would always wave goodbye to volunteers when they left. [Photograph by Hsieh Hsiu Hua]
 
Principal Dasni is grateful to Tzu Chi for its commitment in helping the students. [Photograph by Hsieh Hsiu Hua]   The students who receive Tzu Chi’s subsidies, Teacher Jinol (back row, 5th from right) and his wife (back row, 4th from right) posed for a group photo with Tzu Chi volunteers. [Photograph by Tan Kim Hion]

Principal Dasni is grateful to Tzu Chi for its commitment in helping the students. [Photograph by Hsieh Hsiu Hua]
 
 
The students who receive Tzu Chi’s subsidies, Teacher Jinol (back row, 5th from right) and his wife (back row, 4th from right) posed for a group photo with Tzu Chi volunteers. [Photograph by Tan Kim Hion]
 
Danue and his sister take long boat to school every day. After school, they still need to take a short muddy road to reach home. [Photograph by Hsieh Hsiu Hua]    

Danue and his sister take long boat to school every day. After school, they still need to take a short muddy road to reach home. [Photograph by Hsieh Hsiu Hua]