Quake aid: Neither landslides nor Chinese troops stop this volunteer
Frank Dunne climbs hills and crosses streams to bring aid to remote villages in quake-hit Sichuan Province.
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He had one photo taken of himself holding a box of bread, with the baker's name prominently displayed; another showed him in an "Operation Blessing" T-shirt, in a nod to the help that Pat Robertson has given "Heart to Heart"; in a third picture, he was heaving a tent paid for by the American Chamber of Commerce and labeled as such.Skip to next paragraph
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"Pictures are important," he explained. "They keep supporters smiling and giving. This is going to be a long effort, and we don't want them tiring easily."
A 30-minute sweaty scramble later, villagers from Long Zhu (meaning "Dragon Bamboo") appeared to help carry the supplies. They greeted Dunne warmly, clasping his hand. "I'm really touched by the way they remembered us and the smiles on their faces," he said. "We seem to be welcome."
A spirit of adventure
The gathering of villagers at the group of tents that now constitutes Long Zhu's center is a long way from Virginia Beach, where Dunne spent much of his life selling computer software, home improvement supplies, and wastewater treatment systems.
He first came to China in 1995, when his wife saw an advertisement seeking teachers here. "She said, 'We could do that,' " Dunne recalls, and he agreed.
"The travel and adventure spirit was already alive and well in me," he adds. "I was just waiting for her to get on board."
After 3-1/2 years in the northeastern province of Jilin, a spell back in the United States, and the time it took him to set up an English school in Yunnan, Dunne and his wife, with their three children, won official permission to become the first foreigners to live in Batang, a small town on the high Tibetan plateau, at the border between Sichuan and the Tibet Autonomous Region.
"We hadn't a clue what we were going to do there," he laughs, "but it was breathtakingly beautiful and the cleanest place I had ever seen. "And we knew we wanted to do something to promote the idea that free enterprise is a good idea" to Tibetans in a place where ethnic Han Chinese dominate commerce, he explains.
Eventually he settled on a project to use the region's plentiful apples – descended from trees planted a century ago by missionaries – that now mostly feed yaks or rot on the trees for lack of marketing savvy among Tibetans who live in Batang.
A community kitchen making preserves for sale to the booming expatriate community in China, he hopes, could be a seedbed for other small businesses. "At the moment the sharpest Tibetans go away to college and never come back," he explains. "If we can make it fun and exciting and profitable enough to stay in town ... we might help stave off some of the brain drain. I'm still not sure it's going to work," he adds, but I'm willing to invest a few years to see."
It has taken two years just to make the right connections, choose the right project, and earn local people's trust, Dunne says, in a part of the world where trust even among neighbors is in short supply.
"To bring a community together, to see the transforming power of free enterprise, that would be beautiful if it could work," he says. "I just like the idea of seeing people's lives transformed for the better."
Dunne does not expect to be allowed back home until after the Olympic Games, and he says he has lost this year's production cycle, but he is prepared to wait.
"What I am trying to do may be a bit bizarre," he acknowledges, "and it's still a little idealistic, but it's fun and it's challenging, and it's a lot more rewarding than the next software deal."
• For more information on Heart to Heart, go to: www.hearttoheart.org. Frank Dunne's NGO, which runs the apple-jam project is at: REN Group, PO Box 65531 Virginia Beach, Va. 23467