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Volunteering with intellectually challenged youth in China

Most foreigners volunteering in China are teaching in schools, but even though they are not easy to find, there are other options. One possibility for

foreigners is volunteering at the Special Commune, a Non-Governmental Organisation working with disabled Youth.

APSA (Americans Promoting Study Abroad) volunteers, having fun at the Special Commune

Even though China is often being criticised as not having a civil society, since the opening of the country in the 1980s Chinas number of social organisations has grown to over 1.4 million. Still Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) face many problems. Most organisations work in the grey areas of the law and live in constant fear of being shut down. Accordingly it can be quite a challenge to find an NGO willing to work with foreigners.

One of the NGOs, that has been working with foreign volunteers since its establishment is the Special Commune. The NGO was founded in the beginning of 2010, but its founder Brian Zhang had been working with intellectually challenged youth in China for over eight years before starting Special Commune.

According to Zhang, there are over 19 million mentally challenged people in China and there is a great need for socialisation training after the nine years of school provided by the Chinese government. Special Commune provides this training on their organic farm. The project gives intellectually challenged youth to learn work and social skills through involving them in all aspects of the Special Commune.

Special Commune Drama group

The youth Zhang works with is being trained on the premises of the Special commune, which include a small hostel, a restaurant mostly cooking with the organic vegetables growing on the farm, a juice bar and a quite successful drama group. After the training, Special commune tries to provide internships for its trainees. “Sometimes, it’s very simple jobs, but all our trainees work very hard and conscientiously”, so Zhang.

The collaboration with companies and small businesses is especially important for the sustainability of Special Commune. China still has a long way to go concerning the integration of mentally challenged individuals. Zhang explains, that there is still a lot of prejudice towards the intellectually challenged trainees, but that the best way to overcome this is to let the trainees challenge this bias through their work.

“One of the company heads we collaborate with was quite critical towards our trainees before the first one started to intern at his company. After the internship was over he said I should send over as many interns as I could because he was extremely satisfied with their work” says Brian Zhang,founder and CEO of Special Commune.


When volunteering at the Special Commune there is a range of possibilities to get involved. Many groups, for instance from International Schools in Beijing, stay at the Special Commune for a weekend or longer to volunteer. There is also the option to only stay for a day, though the longer the stay the more interesting and impacting the experience.

Volunteers usually help with the work most pressing, such as planting in spring or weeding during the summer time, but also have the opportunity to get involved in other areas at the farm. As Helen Ridehalgh from the advisors board puts it: “we try to accommodate our volunteers wishes, but volunteering for Special Commune also means to get your hands dirty and help out in the fields”. Other volunteer jobs are helping the trainees in the kitchen or practicing new dance routines with the drama group.

“Volunteering at the Special Commune has really changed my perspective, now I know there’s more important things than just my own needs!” says Kynedy H., an US American student volunteering at Special Commune for four days as part of her exchange programme. Many of the volunteers staying at the Special Commune say that working at there has helped them gain a new view on intellectually challenged people and also their own life.

For Chinas intellectually challenged youth, organisations such as the Special Commune are fundamental. They give the opportunity to build up a future independent from others and break down stereotypes in a society that, especially in rural areas, sees intellectually challenged children mostly as a burden.


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