By Lena Price
For the past three years, Zhou Lu Ying has spent many of her weekends playing games with children and talking with the elderly in her sprawling hometown of Beijing.
Zhou started volunteering at the Beijing Zhuren Social Work Agency in the Dongcheng District while she studied at Beijing Politics Youth College. The agency, an NGO tucked away in one of the many alleyways of central Beijing, matches social work students with volunteer opportunities around the city.
Agency manager Xing Li said the group formed in 2009 to help provide the rising number of social work students in China with work experience. According to the Chinese English-language newspaper Global Times, Beijing alone will train 20,000 new social workers over the next five years.
“Our volunteers try to organize activities according to the requirements of the community,” Xing said through a translator. “There are many elderly people in this district who can be quite lonely, so we usually set up activities where they can interact with each other.”
The organization, the first of its kind in the city, employs about 80 long-term volunteers. An additional 200 students help with activities on an as-needed basis. The agency coordinates programs ranging from sing-alongs to game nights to holiday festivals.
Xing said the agency only operates in Beijing, but there are similar groups across China.
In the mid-20th century, the Chinese government did not view social work as a legitimate profession, he said. During Chairman Mao Zedong’s long rule, which ended in 1976, the concept did not exist and very few people were trained in counseling.
When China’s economy started to rapidly expand in the 1990s, a new set of social problems developed and a class of social workers started to emerge. China formed an official association for social workers in 1988, and joined the International Federation of Social Workers in 1992.
“It gradually become something people did as a full-time job,” Xing said.
Zhou said she did not know what she wanted to do when she started school, and eventually stumbled into the social work field because she thought it would be a good way to meet new people.
She graduated from college in 2009, but continues her work with the agency. She has helped organize a wide variety of social events, but said she prefers working with young children and hopes to pursue it in her future career.
“I was really shy when I first enrolled in college,” Zhou said. “This group, and the social work major, helped me open up my personality. And now I help other people with the same thing.”