The beauty of the Guangxi province belies the hardship of life in its remote mountainous terrain in China. Home to more than five million people living below the poverty line, many in the region are farmers who are engaged in a daily struggle to feed, clothe and house their families.
So when Sidley’s lawyers and staff in the firm’s Hong Kong office met last year to discuss ways to give back to local communities as part of the firm’s 150th anniversary commemoration, they ultimately chose to partner with the charity China Care Fund, which has been helping families in such rural areas since 1993.
“I wanted to give colleagues an opportunity to make a meaningful impact in people’s lives,” recalls Tom Albrecht, Sidley’s Asia Pacific managing partner (retired).
So began a three-year sponsorship of 50 promising high school students from the Teng Xian No. 1 School in Guangxi province. Late last year, Sidley began providing what will be a total of 150 scholarships for the children. Those scholarships will permit these students to complete the 10th, 11th and 12th grades, since the state-school system receives public funding only through the 9th grade.
Albrecht said that of the 50 scholarship students, the majority are girls. “Boys are more likely to receive an education when there isn’t enough money to go around in a farm family with four or five children.”
Making a Connection
When the scholarships were awarded, Sidley’s Hong Kong office began receiving letters of thanks from recipients, many of whom shared photographs and stories about their lives. Lawyers and staff in the office made a commitment to regularly reply back to the children in writing and also via video chats, both of which are helping the students broaden their English-language skills.
“One student had written me a letter that was particularly heartbreaking,” Albrecht recalled. “She said she felt very blessed as a girl to be continuing her studies. Yet she also has tremendous guilt about being away from the farm and not being able to help her parents.”
Families in the region typically depend on all members to help farm the small plots of land they till to make ends meet. So it is no small sacrifice when someone leaves in pursuit of education. The young adults who study beyond 9th grade in the region must attend boarding school, since these rural areas often lack institutions for higher learning. Albrecht says the parents thus face difficult choices. “Education is highly valued in China, but when a poor family is faced with losing the help of a child around the farm and having to pay tuition and boarding expenses, they often decide to keep their child on the farm.”
A Deepening Commitment
As part of their dedication to the students, the lawyers and staff in Hong Kong set about planning an event to meet with them in person. In late March, Albrecht, his wife, Ellen, and several others from the Hong Kong office, traveled seven hours by train and bus to visit Teng Xian No. 1 School. When they arrived that morning, as a way of breaking the ice and getting to know the children, members of the Sidley group played games with the students and gave them small gifts. Albrecht brought along a CD player and everyone sang and danced to music in the school’s courtyard.
Albrecht recalls a particularly heartwarming moment during the day when one of the scholarship recipients, by way of thanks, presented him with an intricately crafted origami heart with little flowers. The gift is now prominently displayed in the Hong Kong office. “These kids study from early morning until 11 or so at night. So I don’t even know when she found the time to make it,” Albrecht said.
He and the team later took the children out to dinner at a traditional Chinese restaurant; for some, it was their first time eating in such an establishment. The meal was punctuated with lighthearted conversation, with the children wanting to speak as much in English as possible to sharpen their language skills with native speakers. As dinner wound down, Albrecht says he asked the students if they had any questions.
“One of the girls looked at me and asked, ‘Why did you give us this money so that we can go to school?’” Albrecht was moved by her candor. “I said, ‘You know what? The hope is that one day when you all graduate from university and you have good jobs, you’ll do something like this for someone else.’”
Making that type of connection has been very meaningful to Albrecht and to the others in his office who have participated in the endeavor. “To have our Sidley colleagues spend time and get to know these young men and women and hear their stories — as lawyers, we rarely have the opportunity to experience that one-on-one relationship.” he said.