Thursday, November 9th – one of two days that students of the Bellevue School District had off from school last week. Of the thousands of students who are relaxing at home, catching up on homework, or on vacation, a few dozen are gathered in the kitchen of a cozy hillside house this afternoon.
Parents and kids alike bustle about the kitchen, which seems smaller when filled with so many people. A pile of small blue cardstock boxes are stacked haphazardly on the dinner table. A ginger cat with a squashed face slinks between the table legs, chased by a squealing toddler. Balls of sweetened bean-paste are carefully placed on cookie trays. A glob of sweet rice dough sits in a bowl, waiting to be used. The two languages that were spoken by the occupants of this room – Chinese and English – mix together in a strange and semi-organized mush that would give a linguist nightmares.
Among the noise and chaos, it’s hard to decipher what’s going on at first, but soon what the students are doing becomes apparent. They are making mooncakes, a type of Chinese cuisine that often involves beans and specialized dough. Plates of the finished product line the tables, and several of the students look at them rather longingly. But these mooncakes aren’t being made for them to eat.
“I wish I could eat all of these mooncakes right now. But I know I’m making this for something greater than my own enjoyment,” says Jessica Massey, one of the volunteers working on the mooncakes that day.
And that’s indeed what the students are – volunteers. This group of kids is part of the Gansu Education Support Team (GEST), and the mooncakes will soon be boxed in those blue containers and sold to friends and family. They are estimated to earn around two thousand dollars in support of GEST, an organization which aims to provide financial support to impoverished students living in various Chinese villages.
In 2012, Serena Yin, now an 8th grader at Odle Middle School, and her brother Evan Tung visited the village of Shan Xi. Many of the residents of Shan Xi lived in poverty, their homes nothing more than small caves. Students in Shan Xi struggled to continue their schooling in the face of increasing financial pressures due to education-related expenses – expenses that families like Serena’s have no problem paying, but which poses serious concerns to those already struggling to support themselves. Serena, upon realizing that not everyone had the same opportunities she did, stated with determination: “These kids should get as good of an education as I do!” The following year, Serena and Evan, with the help of their mother Lily Yin, founded GEST.
GEST started small, with only two kids in Shan Xi being part of the program, receiving donations directly from Lily Yin. But Serena had more ambitious plans. She wanted to help kids get educated everywhere. People told her it was impossible for an ordinary eight-year-old girl like Serena to cause any sort of significant impact to the world. But Serena had said,
“Every child deserves an education, and I’m not going to wait for someone else to provide it. I’m just a kid, but so what? If those kids at Shan Xi, who have so little, still try so hard and achieve so much, then… with all the abundant resources I am fortunate enough to possess, how can I justify not even attempting to help?”
In 2013, GEST was officially founded, collaborating with the China Tomorrow Education Foundation (CTEF) as well as the Little Masters Club. GEST grew, and continues to grow, every year. Fundraisers are organized such that children as young as five or six contribute, such as participating in the Microsoft Giving Campaign, selling various homemade snacks (such as today’s mooncakes), and organizing Goodwill donation drives. Today, GEST supports 68 kids, tripling last year’s count of 22, from five different villages in China, collecting around $18,000 USD. While these counts are still far from Serena’s ambitious dreams of every child getting an education, the GEST program serves as reminder that anyone can make a difference. As GEST’s young founder, Serena Yin, says:
Making the world a better place isn’t something only superheroes can do. It takes only two things: inspiration, and determination. You might think that you can’t do anything significant because you’re ‘just a kid.’ But that’s not true. Anyone, even kids, especially kids, can change the world.