When a spark lights a fire

A volunteer project in an Aboriginal village in Wufeng Township, Hsinchu County, transformed a defunct credit cooperative into a community center where Atayal youth learn about their cultural heritage

By Carina Koen  /  Staff reporter

Thu, Apr 18, 2013 - Page 12

The village of Cingcyuan (清泉, clear springs), located in the mist-shrouded hills of Wufeng (五峰) Township in Hsinchu County, clings precariously to steep slopes on both sides of a verdant valley, through which a sparkling river noisily tumbles on its way to the plains far below.

Here live a small group of Aborigines of the Atayal people, as they have done for centuries, and who are known for their hunting prowess. These skills, like much of their rich culture, have largely been lost under the oppressive rule of different colonizers and the indifference of successive governments, which has left them poverty-stricken.

Although a greater sense of their cultural identity has been restored to the people of Cingcyuan in the past three decades through the efforts of churches, volunteers, schools and some government workers, it is clear to the first-time visitor that this village, like so many others in Aboriginal areas, has been neglected by the authorities and that its inhabitants have few opportunities to earn a decent living, develop their talents and work to secure a future.

It is against this backdrop that the Wufong Project (五峰計畫進展史) was born. Aptly subtitled Restoring Hope, the community project is the brainchild of its founder Malinda Schultz. Her collaboration with Father Barry Martinson, a Jesuit priest and 37-year resident of Cingcyuan, has resulted in a new community activity center, standing where a derelict building that used to house a long-defunct credit cooperative once sagged.

Their ongoing efforts to help the children of the village, and indirectly the community, are an example of what can be achieved when people work hard to help others, instead of waiting for government authorities to act and serve the people.

Schultz said on a recent visit to the village that she discovered the beauty of the area and its people on a chance visit a few years ago. A performance by an Atayal children’s choir struck a chord deep within her and she became inspired to act to help improve the lot of the populace.

Her first aim was to help the children there, as they had little education and some had drifted into drug and alcohol abuse, while the poverty-stricken, isolated village offered them little opportunity to succeed.

The goal, Schultz said, was to boost the children’s confidence by showing them that they can achieve something through hard work. This she proposed to do by teaching them art and developing their creativity.

Schultz approached Father Barry, who as resident priest at the Catholic Church has for years played a leading role in the community and has worked extensively with the youth.

They agreed to start raising funds to build a community center as a safe gathering and learning place.

Schultz proceeded to gather a group of volunteer artists, writers and photographers to guide the children through three art workshops. Here the children learnt to take photographs and create artworks, which were sold at a massively successful auction in October 2011. Through the auction and a large donation by a wealthy family who were inspired by the project, they raised the NT$2.1 million needed to start construction of the center.

“The most wonderful thing was the expression on the children’s faces when they saw the amount of money bidders were paying for their artwork,” Schultz said.

“A very deep thing has been planted with this project. These children now realize that they have a leadership role to play in their community. They have been energized by the success of the project,” she said

At this stage the project came close to getting derailed, as the unused, derelict credit cooperative building where they had started the building process was, unbeknownst to them, on land belonging to the local government.

The authorities tried to stop construction because the defunct credit cooperative was deeply in debt, among other things. However, Father Barry, who is an accomplished artist in his own right, forged ahead and sold many of his personal paintings and his stained-glass, at auction — a process he said was at times deeply emotional, but also spiritual.

Through his efforts Father Barry managed to raise enough funds to pay off the credit cooperative’s debt and secure the land for the center.

“It was a miracle,” he says.

The center was inaugurated in late November last year and now provides a safe space where the children of Cingcyuan can learn about their heritage.

Resident Atayal teacher Laling instructs the children on different aspects of their culture, including teaching them the traditional art of hunting and traditional Atayal songs, as well as the Atayal language.

“We need more volunteers to help teach our children. Anybody who can lend a hand is welcome,” Laling says, as he hurriedly disappears into the center with three of his charges in tow, ready to present an Atayal vocabulary lesson to an eager and appreciative audience.

For more information on the project, including volunteering opportunities, please visit the Wufong Project Web site at: thewufongproject.wordpress.com.