Special Commune gives confidence to challenged youth

Updated: 2013-04-15 16:35

By Mike Peters (China Daily)

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Special Commune gives confidence to challenged youth

Brian Zhang (right) chats with students at the Beijing Zhiguang Special Education and Training School about an upcoming recent stage production. [Photo by Feng Yongbin / China Daily]

It has trained them to grow vegetables, but that's just a sample of the opportunities

The old gray Dodge van might look like it's not going to make the 45-minute trip to Beijing's northern suburbs, but it roars up the road as confidently as its driver.

Brian Zhang is driving north of Beijing to Special Commune, a residential community he runs for young people with mental disabilities. You don't have to ride with him for long to sense that he's an actor - and that's very much to the point.

Designed to train students with disabilities in jobs that can help them integrate into society, Special Commune's first task is to make children believe in themselves. One-time child actor Zhang has the perfect answer: Put them on a stage.

Many of the students have Down Syndrome or other genetic disorders. They are a class of people often set aside by a society that doesn't expect them to be participants.

"So they don't expect to be part of the outside world themselves," says Zhang. "That's the first thing we can change: We put them in a production of, say, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with a cool costume and a supporting cast that believes in them. The parents see that, our sponsors who can offer potential employment see that, and now everybody is a believer."

Zhang is a believer in social entrepreneurship, a recent phenomenon that he says combines the best of both the business and charity world.

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