One wouldn’t usually associate strawberry picking with visiting a home for children, but that’s exactly what Sun Village offers. Founded in 2000, Sun Village is a Shunyi-based foster home for kids whose parents are in prison.
Currently, there are more than 500 children living in nine Sun Villages across China. Founder Zhang Shuqin, now 66, was a newspaper editor for 12 years in the Bureau of Prison Administration before she started the first Sun Village in Shaanxi Province in 1996.
The non-profit, non-government organization relied heavily on donations in the beginning. However, in the past few years, Sun Village has found another way to support itself: by running a business.
The thousands of jujube and peach trees planted by the children and staff now form a significant part of Sun Village’s income. When I first visited the home six years ago, the place had just started a program to have the public “sponsor” their fruit trees. By paying RMB 100-500 to sponsor a tree, you will have a name tag placed on the tree and receive its fruits during harvest season.
Besides its tree sponsorship program, Sun Village has found other ways to earn an income and keep visitors coming back, such as strawberry picking, a weekend farmers’ market, and more. The vegetables they grow not only enable them to grow a sustainable business, but also help feed the children.
Before we set off for Sun Village on a sunny Sunday morning, my friend had excitedly packed clothes and toys for the children. The foster home accepts donations of any kind, but we would later learn that some of their most-needed items include small appliances, rice, cooking oil, shampoo, medicine, and curtains for the dormitory.
Sun Village is located next to the Jingcheng Expressway just outside northeast Sixth Ring Road. From where we live in Wangjing, it only took us about 20 minutes’ drive.
If you plan to go in a large group, it’s best not to drop in unannounced. Call Sun Village first and they will arrange to have a volunteer or staff member guide you. If you’d like to visit with your family, the farm and market are only open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays when the children are off school.
There was ample space to park inside Sun Village. Walking to the reception room on the other end of the parking lot, we passed several colourful houses – the children’s dormitories – scattered among the peach trees. Each dorm is home to 12-14 children, with a shared living room and an ayi they call “mom” to look after their daily lives. We looked in on one; it was clean and neat, but where were all the children? We soon got our answer.
At the reception desk, a teenage girl greeted my friend and had her register the items we were donating. She also briefly introduced their tree sponsoring program, pointing to a price list on her desk. After she had dealt with a phone enquiry, I asked if she was a volunteer.
“No, I am one of the children,” she replied. She was nice enough to tell me more about herself while busily giving people directions and responding to general inquires. Fifteen-year-old Zhang Meng came to Sun Village four years ago and now attends Beishichao Middle School with the NGO’s support.
Impressed by her maturity, I looked around and spotted a younger boy selling strawberries to visitors. We asked him if the strawberries were organic. He replied that they were “not organic, but definitely green and pesticide-free.”
We bought a half-kilo box for RMB 20, washed the strawberries at a nearby sink, and ended up finishing the whole box on the spot. I don’t remember the last time I had such soft, sweet, juicy, and yet ordinary-looking strawberries.
Like Zhang Meng, all the children above age of 6 at Sun Village attend public school. Most go to Banqiao, which is within walking distance. When they turn 18, Sun Village no longer supports them. However, the organization ensures that they’re well-equipped to support themselves by supplementing their regular education with practical life skills.
It was obvious that many of the children learned how to care for the trees, flowers, and vegetables on the farm. Every weekend, entire stands of beautiful potted plants (RMB 20-30) are on sale. If you have access to your own transportation, consider taking some of them home.
The farm is located around 200m away from the dorms; this is where most of the children work on weekends. If you didn’t spot the farm on your way to Sun Village, ask Zhang Meng for written directions.
By the time we reached the nearest greenhouse, it was almost time for lunch. The canteen is located at the end of the first greenhouse, which houses vegetables such as spinach and cherry tomatoes. We also passed a small vegetable market where two children were serving as cashiers. We bough a half kilo of tomatoes (RMB 5) and ate them during lunch. There were ripe and delicious.
When we reached the canteen, we saw more children working on various tasks, such as making dumplings, washing vegetables, and transferring food to plates. At one of the stands, a young girl was working with an elderly man whom she called “Grandpa Chen” to fry different types of dumplings. Grandpa Chen called the big flat dumplings chiburekki, a Russian dish whose name I had to ask twice. The 66-year-old retired chef had worked more than ten years in Moscow and spoke fluent Russian. “Why did you come to Sun Village?” we asked. He said he felt happy around the children.
Half-full after having fresh tomatoes and chiburekki, we decided on the bun set meal (RMB 10 per person) with cold noodles. The buns tasted great, but their sizes varied a lot. Our best guess was that the different children had their own, idiosyncratic ways of making them.
After lunch, we went to another greenhouse to pick strawberries (RMB 30 per box). It wasn’t crowded since there were more than ten greenhouses dedicated to strawberries alone. We also discovered Sun Village’s “creative market” on the other side of the vegetable market, which sells excess donated items at very low prices to visitors.
The items included toothpaste, stationery, bags, clothes, and shoes, most of which were brand-new. Oddly, there were many large-size shoes (RMB 30) for adults. Judging from the price tags in euros on the label, they were donated from overseas and far too large for the Chinese staff.
After we arrived home, I found Zhang Meng’s story on Sun Village’s website. Several years after her mother abandoned the family, her father went to prison. Zhang Meng never went to school because her father had homeschooled her before he was incarcerated. Like the rest of the children, Zhang Meng visits her father at least once a year and phones him every month with Sun Village’s help.
However, this intelligent girl caught up in a short period of time and started junior high while living at Sun Village. She’s hardworking and positive, and has since taken up many responsibilities such as organizing the children to rehearse for various performances.
Sun Village 太阳村
Banqiao Village, Zhaoquanying Town, Shunyi District (Mr. Zhang, English speaker: 134 6649 4643, firstname.lastname@example.org) 顺义区赵全营镇板桥村
Photos by Clemence Jiang