Hsiao Ya-wen (蕭雅文), a young woman of 27, has dedicated herself to helping schoolchildren in remote villages on the east coast with her “Taitung Bear Program” (台東熊計劃).
“Do things with your whole heart. It is the only way you can win people’s support for what you’re doing,” said Hsiao, who goes by the nickname “Ya Ya (芽芽).”
To spread her positive message, Ya Ya has been teaching children in Taitung County how to make hand-drawn greeting cards to sell to the public. For more than a year now, Ya Ya has inspired and stimulated the creativity of more than 300 youngsters.
She is now looking for people to help her expand the “Taitung Bear Program” into other regions.
Explaining the meaning of the program, Ya Ya said that the word “bear” (熊, hsiung), in Chinese is a combination of the characters representing “ability” (能) and “fire” (火, huo). She said this reflected her hope that the children’s cards would be red-hot products.
“It is not a charity program, and we do not depend on subsidies from companies or civic organizations. All our income comes from selling these greeting cards,” she said.
One hand-drawn card sells for NT$40, NT$20 of which goes straight to the children.
A design graduate, Ya Ya, who hails from Changhua County, has put her education to good use. Although the financial returns might not be much, she is committed to carry on with the program.
“When I first came to Taitung three years ago, I got to know A-tung (阿東), the owner of a local guesthouse. I started thinking then about taking on work to help kids in these remote areas,” she said.
To help her realize her dream, Ya Ya taught at a kindergarten in western Taiwan for one year.
“I gave up a stable job with good pay in the west to move to Taitung last year,” she said.
Ya Ya said she thought that schools in Taitung would be willing to help her with her program because she would be offering free art lessons. However, she and A-tung were refused at many places, and at one point, she thought about giving up.
Finally, with the help of some parents at Yongan Elementary School in Luye Township (鹿野), eight schoolchildren joined the program. Now, about 24 kids at the school regularly attend her classes.
Ya Ya continued making the rounds, contacting 10 more schools on the east coast and traveled as far as Lanyu (蘭嶼), also known as Orchid Island, over the past year.
Ya Ya made use of after-school hours and breaks between classes to teach children to open up their imagination and creativity, teaching them techniques to produce card illustrations.
“If you draw pictures with your heart, you can feel the warmth of the image,” she told the kids.
The cards are displayed at her Taitung Bear Store.
“As I see the kids learning and growing up, it has also enriched my own experience. One child only thought of how he could make NT$20 for each card he drew, but later he learned how to save money and accumulated enough to buy a pouch for his meal box. I’ll always remember how much he values that pouch,” she said.
Ya Ya is determined to carry on with the project and to keep offering free lessons. Some schools tried to pay her as a way of thanking her and helping her with her program. Ya Ya graciously accepted, gave them receipts and then used the money to buy stationery supplies, which she gave to the schools. In other instances, she donated the money to children of needy families.
Several tourists have also become friends of Ya Ya, accompanying her to teach drawing classes at the schools. She looks forward to having more art teachers join her program to benefit more schoolchildren and expand the program into other areas.