Special Commune gives confidence to challenged youth

Updated: 2013-04-15 16:35

By Mike Peters (China Daily)

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"Making donations makes people feel good," he says, "but we want to break out of that 'begging cup in the hand' mold. It's not sustainable, and it's not healthy for the people who receive the handout to be victims as long as they live."

By teaming up with the Beijing Zhiguang Special Education and Training School, founded by Zhang's mother in 1998, Special Commune each year offers internships for about 30 learning-challenged adults between 19 and 35 years old. During their six to 10 months on the farm, they learn to plant and cultivate vegetables in a food co-op program sponsored by neighboring Little Donkey Farm. Members of the co-op can collect boxes of just-picked produce every week that is fresh, seasonal, organic and provides support for the disabled community.

Besides learning skills that can produce cabbages, leeks and fresh-laid eggs, Zhang says, the students learn to interact with the farm's staff and clients. "Ultimately, they can be employed in basic hotel and hospitality jobs," he says. About 40 have been through the program already, tutored by a staff of 10.

The commune's living space, meanwhile, is designed to teach residents to take care of themselves. And skills taught in the communal kitchens, for example, also help to make them employable in simple jobs.

On the immediate horizon is a property-management contract, under which Special Commune residents will staff a nearby resort complex. Zhang drives us to the facility and leads an animated walk-though - "Look at this, have you seen anything like it in China?" he asks, waving his arm toward a row of wooden houses sporting colorful paint jobs that would be right at home on Cape Cod in the US.

He spits out facts, figures and benefits in the quick, clipped style of a machine gun, an eager pitch that's part Donald Trump, part Mother Theresa - but never condescending toward those under his wing.