Chang Ping-i has never forgotten her first visit to a leper village in China. It was 1999; Chang was a high-profile, award-winning journalist with China Times in Taipei; and the 40-year-old had just given birth to her second child three months earlier. When she walked in, she found naked, filthy children wi t h flies crawling over their faces , adults with rotting but untended limbs, and an overpowering stench coming from the villagers.
Chang was first exposed to the issues surrounding leprosy, a chronic disease that can permanently damage nerves and ravage skin and limbs, four months before that disturbing scene. At nine months pregnant, she was not getting any assignments from her newspaper. So when a n Austrian priest persuaded her to visit Losheng Sanatorium, Taiwan’s last remaining care home for leprosy patients, Chang, living up to her “ fearless” nickname, agreed. That piqued her interest and when the same priest suggested heading to leper villages in China, Chang didn’t hesitate.
Despite the awfulness of what she witnessed there, Chang was deeply moved by the plight of the villagers in more than 800 leper colonies across China, who want nothing more than for their children – most of whom are unaffected by the disease – to be educated and accepted by society. “I didn’t expect to find that more than half of the people in these colonies would be healthy and young,” says Chang, now 53. “As a mother of two, I couldn’t help but wonder about their future.”
After returning to Taipei, Chang quit her high-paying job at China Times. It was not an easy decision for someone who grew up in an affluent family, but she knew in her heart she had to trade her career and comfortable four-storey villa in Taipei to help the children of China’s leper villages. “I didn’t choose it,” she says. “It was the timing. You can’t explain it.”
The Chinese government had begun isolating lepers into colonies during the 1950s to contain outbreaks. While the disease is now curable and preventable, discrimination was rife in communities such as Liangshan in Sichuan province, where the majority of residents belong to the Yi ethnic minority, who traditionally equated leprosy with demonic possession.
Many of these villages were never officially recognised by the government , so resident s do not have identification papers that allow them to go to school or seek work outside their village. With no care, education or future to speak of, Chang learned that children in these villages routinely become addicted to cigarettes by the age of five and many eventually turn to alcohol, drugs and crime.
Near the end of 2000, a contact rang Chang about a school in Liangshan’s Yuexi county. The so-called “education depot”, established in 1987, had been the first school in Sichuan built for the children of leper villages. It was a dilapidated, windowless two-room house and the 70 students were taught only up to the fourth grade by a teacher with no formal training.
Chang saw the school as an opportunity for the children to have a better future so she poured her efforts into rebuilding it. She raised funds, supervised the construction and dealt with local officials. By 2002, she was proud to attend the opening of a new school block, equipped with new facilities, teachers and staff. The next year, the school added an on-campus dormitory, and she established the Wings of Hope foundation in Taiwan to give her vision a specific name and purpose.
By the end of 2005, Wings of Hope had achieved three major milestones. Firstly, Chang beat 800 applicants to win a NT$1.7 million ($58,000) prize from the Johnnie Walker Keep Walking Fund, which awards grants to deserving projects. Then, in March 2005, authorities recognised the village around the school, giving residents legal identification for the f irst time in their lives. The village was renamed Dayingpan. And, thirdly, in July 2005, Dayingpan elementary school celebrated its first batch of graduates and Chang could move on to the next phase of her dream: building a middle school. With the help of a 2.6 million yuan ($410,000) grant from the Sichuan Poverty Alleviation Bureau, Dayingpan middle school was completed in 2010.
Dayingpan is now the pride of Liangshan, with ten multimedia classrooms, a kitchen and two libraries, water resources and solar power. It even has its own underground water tank and the village’s first public toilet. Next term, the school expects to have 17 teachers and 355 students. Amazingly, one in ten students are not from leper villages.