It is prosperity that gives us friends, adversity that proves them.
When Peggy Liou, 58, was diagnosed with Stage III, Triple-Negative Breast Cancer in December 2010, her friend Tenny Tsai, 59, accompanied her to nine of her 10 rounds of chemotherapy the following year. [The only round Tsai missed conflicted with her son’s graduation.] During her treatment, Tsai promised that she would accompany Liou to China on a volunteer mission once Liou recovered. In July 2012, the two close friends, who met as programmers for a Silicon Valley company in 1979, traveled to a poor, mountainous region in China, where Tsai encountered what she called a “life-changing” experience and Liou returned to the children who, she says passionately, needed her – and whom she needed.
‘Walking the walk’
Since 2001, Liou has been involved with the PEACH Foundation U.S.A., which stands for Promoting Education, Arts and Community Harvest. The Foster City, CA-based nonprofit organization’s main project is to help children from the poorer regions of China stay in school. In China, education is free up until middle school. Finishing middle school is a challenge for students in remote regions, however, because their families can’t afford the room and board. The PEACH Foundation sponsors economically disadvantaged students, but they have to be motivated to stay in school, Liou explained. Thus, students nominated by the local middle schools must be among the top 20 in their class. Sponsors donate 125 USD for middle school students and 250 USD for high school students. A sponsor for 10 years, Liou became more involved in 2006 – “walking the walk,” as she refers to it – by traveling to China three times a year to conduct interviews and home and school visits.
“We don’t just give them the money; we care about the kids,” Liou said, which distinguishes the PEACH Foundation from other organizations. Every summer, the foundation sends volunteers to China to teach in summer camps. “The purpose of the camp is to care for those kids,” she said, which includes developing self-esteem, something the children lack because of the stigma of their socio-economic standing. Liou, who translates the children’s autobiographies from Chinese to English to post on the organization’s website, said that many of their stories “break your heart.”
Liou recently translated the story of a girl who had started school at the age of seven but quit at age nine at her parents’ request when her father became very ill. While her mother took care of her father and the household, she was responsible for taking care of the family cow, which meant taking it to the mountains, even in inclement weather. “I couldn’t help but cry when I saw other children attending school because I wanted to go back to school so badly,” the girl had written. Within a span of four years, her father was hospitalized and underwent two surgeries. When her father’s health improved, he told her she could return to school, but she thought it was “too late” and that people would laugh at her for going back to third grade at the age of 13. She came to realize, however, that if she didn’t go back now she would never have that chance again. On her first day of school, she wrote how excited she was to return and resume her education. The girl, whom Liou called “brave,” is now in the ninth grade.
Changing lives and being changed
Students who are accepted attend a new student orientation in the summer, which is run by up to 40 volunteers from the U.S. and Taiwan per section, with 400 students in each section. The orientation packs English and Chinese language lessons, music, and other activities into nine-hour days. Tsai had been a sponsor for the PEACH Foundation for four years, but eschewed volunteering for the summer camps because it wasn’t her “cup of tea.” Although Liou had asked Tsai to join her a few times in the past, Liou noted that it was Tsai’s over-commitment to other volunteer activities that kept Tsai from going.
Teachers and parents mold their students for years and their children for a lifetime, respectively, Tsai said, but after the 10-day camp, volunteers come away having changed somebody’s life – as well as their own. “You build a relationship with them,” she said. While volunteers can’t solve the children’s life problems, Tsai pointed out that these children, who often have never had people care about them, experience the generosity of strangers who have come into and made a difference in their lives.
For Tsai, the experience also made her realize the tremendous scope and amount of work that Liou had accomplished in the last 10 years with the organization. “I was speechless,” she said. She also witnessed the tenacity and passion of her good friend when Liou badgered her doctors after each round of chemotherapy, wanting to know when she could return to the mountains of China. At first, Tsai was frustrated with Liou because they had discussed going to Europe when she recovered. With her lymph nodes removed as part of the treatment, Liou was advised against traveling and being in high elevations, but still she persisted. “Somebody else is up there!” Tsai scolded Liou, referring to other volunteers running the camp.
Tsai grew to understand and appreciate the bond Liou had developed with the children she knew and those she had yet to know. “It was almost the purpose, her goal for living,” Tsai said. In 2012, Liou participated in a cancer support group as she fought to recover. For her type of cancer, the recovery rate is two years and the survival rate is 50/50. “I’m the lucky 50 because I have a reason to live,” she said. “I have a mission waiting for me to do. I have kids who need me. They keep me going.” Liou said that the kids at the foundation saved her life, which motivated her to get well. “I have to do it; I have to go see them,” she added.
Liou spent 2012 recovering from her treatment and learning how to take care of herself and preparing herself for when – not if – the cancer comes back. “I’ve come alive again,” she said. When she wakes up every morning, Liou says she is grateful: “I learned how to live as if each day is a blessing.”
Editor’s note: Part II will be posted on Monday, March 25th.