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The World's Youngest Principal

China, July 15, 2008

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    Mercy Corps  </span>
    With help from fellow students in his earthquake-stricken village, 17-year-old Zhang Yong (left) started a temporary school for young survivors of the disaster. Photo: Mercy Corps

When I think about our first day distributing hygiene kits to displaced earthquake survivors, I will most remember the bravery of a 17-year-old school principal.

On July 4 — a grey, rainy day in Sichuan Province that accentuated the plight of families living in tents — I traveled with Mercy Corps colleagues to Jin Hua, a town near the earthquake's epicenter. The place suffered terribly: at least 79 students and 11 teachers died when the primary school collapsed. Today, with help from the Chinese government and local organizations including our partner China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation (CFPA), survivors are doing the best they can to move on with their lives while awaiting more permanent housing.

We met 17-year-old Zhang Yong after we had unloaded the truck and begun passing out hygiene kits, which contained two weeks of supplies for families, including: cleaning products, first aid supplies, toothpaste and toothbrushes. As curious schoolchildren waited in line to pick up kits on behalf of their families, a bright-eyed young man came up to us.

"Do you remember me, Mercy Corps?" he asked. Some of us did. We had first made his acquaintance here on June 1 — Children's Day — as we were doing assessments in the area alongside CFPA. At that time, even though it had not even been a month since the earthquake struck, he had organized a small celebration for the village's displaced children. He and his friends had decorated the camp with little paper flowers and given away small toys, games and sweets that had been donated.

So here we were, back in Zhang Yong's village to help. Over the course of the day, we found out more about what it takes to be the world's youngest principal.

Before the earthquake, he was a student at one of the schools here in Jin Hua. That changed immediately in the disaster's aftermath: he was asked by displaced families to help create a temporary school. He gathered 15 volunteers, 13-17 years old, to get started. They salvaged a few desks, chairs, books and a whiteboard from the collapsed school and set up a new classroom in a long, narrow tent overlooking a rice paddy.

Within a few days' time, he went from tent to tent to ask parents if they'd like their children to attend classes. Soon, he'd registered 54 youth — from kindergartners to high school students — in the camp to attend the new school. Zhang Yong's documentation is thorough: names, ages, parents' information and original village are all carefully written down.

"Our goal is to keep these kids safe and on a routine, so they don't forget their studies or what life was like before the earthquake," he said.

Zhang Yong will soon return to a rebuilt school to continue his studies. But he said that, now, he understands teachers more than ever because he knows how difficult it is to manage students and run a school. He hopes to use this knowledge to contribute to the reconstruction of his hometown.

That day, we weren't the only admirers of the youngest principal in the world. One of those traveling with us for the day — 53-year-old school principal Ning Xingcai, who is also leading recovery and rebuilding efforts — gave him high praise.

"Who are you? You look very familiar," he said to Zhang Yong.

"I'm one of your students," Zhang Yong answered with a smile.

"Young man, you are great!" Ning Xingcai responded with pride. In this part of China, that's the best recognition that a teacher can offer a student.

It will take many months for earthquake-stricken villages and families to recover and rebuild. Through distribution of critical provisions, school supplies and restocking of school libraries, as well as psychological support for young survivors, Mercy Corps and its local partners are up to the task. Much of our work will happen in places like this: villages that have lost everything, but remain committed to the education of their children.

We're proud to work with determined, energetic individuals like Zhang Yong — local leaders who are full of resolve to not only rebuild, but also care for their communities when it's needed most.