Invisible Wings stretch to tangible results

Yang Wenjie
Invisible Wings, a Minhang-based volunteer group, has packaged its latest boxes of shoe donations to send to children in underdeveloped pockets of southwestern China.
Yang Wenjie

Invisible Wings, a Minhang-based vol¬unteer group, has packaged its latest boxes of shoe donations to send to children in underdeveloped pockets of southwestern China.

Though they work during a heat wave in Shanghai, the volunteers know that in mountainous areas where the shoes are headed, the temperatures are growing chilly ahead of winter.

The group's 500 volunteers are involved in an array of projects related to helping the poverty-stricken, protecting the environment and providing support to families needing assistance.

Invisible Wings was officially registered in 2014, but the group's origins date back to 2010, when founder Wang Min was a government worker trying to help a child with paraplegia, a form of paralysis that mostly affects movement of the lower body.

Wang worked with the child's family for two years, but every time he visited the home, the boy covered his face with a blanket and refused to talk to anyone outside his family. The family itself wasn't keen on outside help.

"I came to realize that their urgent need was not financial, and we needed to do something else," said Wang, who at the time was studying to become a psychology counselor.

Wang decided he first needed to win the family over. He contacted a local association for disabled people and managed to secure funding for psychological help for the family. In three months, the family was amenable to further help.

Wang, who has since been licensed as a psychology counselor, said he became aware of about 50 families in Minhang with similar issues. To reach out to them, he recruited 50 volunteers with some psychological training. The bonds between families and volunteers forged during that time endured well beyond the one-year duration of the project.

Since then, the number of volunteers in Invisible Wings has grown, and Wang has expanded the scope of the program to other projects.

Apart from the group's regular support to families in impoverished areas of Xizang, Xinjiang and Yunnan provinces, new projects embraced ecology. The group now works with the China Green Foundation and has planted trees in places that include Gansu and Ningxia provinces. It may later take on animal protection projects.

Invisible Wings works closely with schools. Last year, students at Minhang Primary School raised 17,000 yuan (US$2,630) through a charity fair and donated all the money to a tree-planting project in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Through videos, the children can watch the progress of the reforestation work.

"We want to promote the idea of environmental protection in children's minds," Wang said.

In January 2017, Wang visited an impoverished area in the mountains of Yunnan. He decided to switch the focus from providing financial aid to supplying basic needs.

"I found that up to a quarter of students in a primary school there were wearing sandals or were going barefoot in the winter," Wang said. "The students, when asked, said it was okay because they were used to it. But, of course, that can't be true."

Minhang residents who walk on pavement may not be aware how fast shoes wear out in village areas with rutted, stony roadways. It may only take a few months, Wang said.

Invisible Wings' campaign to collect children's shoes began with donations of more than 5,000 shoes and then grew.

"We have seen photos of children wearing these shoes and having fun, and it makes us feel like we are doing something meaningful," said Zhang Weijie, a director of the group.

As the financial means of people living in the remote areas improves, the group will adjust its services to the needs of the people, Wang said. Some operations, such as collecting donations of clothing, may be phased out eventually, he added.

The group is also involved in several culture-related projects.

Last October, the group raised 300,000 yuan and purchased 12 pianos, which were sent to primary and middle schools in Xizang, Xinjiang and Yunnan for music lessons. Teachers there can receive online training for six months in musical education from volunteer music teachers in Shanghai.

"Children have a natural interest in music," said Wang. "So far, the feedback we are getting shows that the music classes there are welcomed by students."

"Now I know how to play," said a young teacher from Shigatse, Xizang, who came to Shanghai this summer vacation for an offline training. "Even playing at student events is like poetry reciting."

The music project has set a goal of providing more than 100 pianos to schools in remote regions.

"It's a long-term project, and we are just starting," Wang said. "It all takes time, but we remain committed."

Invisible Wings stretch to tangible results
Ti Gong

Volunteers from Invisible Wings pose before a stone marked with the words "Shanghai Woods" at the site of their reforestation project in the Inner Mongolia.

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