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Danville Teen Leads Program to Teach Job Skills In China

Athenian student Alexander Lam teaches English and vocational skills to youths in China's Yunnan Province.

Alexander Lam, age 16, who is Chinese but was born in San Ramon, has traveled to China every year with his family.

Three years ago, Lam visited the rural area of Shangri-La, nestled in the Himalayas in China's Northwest Yunnan Province, to teach English to seven and eight-year-olds.

The very poor, outlying farming areas in the region do not have schools because the population is so thin. Most children have to walk a half hour to two hours to a school and volunteer teachers are needed.

The experience of visiting Shangri-La inspired Lam to found Youth for Shangri-La in 2008, to help youth learn job skills to achieve a better quality of life. Although Lam enjoys tutoring young children, his nonprofit focuses on helping teenagers.

Lam partnered with the Eastern Tibetan Training Institute, a nonprofit organization backed by the local government, to help his organization take-off. The organization provides three-month training programs in computer, English language and vocational skills for 16 to 23-year-olds.

Tourism has been the main industry in Shangri-La since 2006 for sites like the Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, Pudacuo National Park, and Tiger Leaping Gorge. With that in mind, the program teaches skills that will help land jobs in the tourism and hospitality industries.

At the end of the training program, students are recruited by local businesses, finding jobs in restaurants, hotels, and as tour guides.

Each training program has 10 to 12 students carefully chosen from hundreds who apply from Shangri-La and the surrounding area. With donations from Lam's Youth for Shangri-La, based in Danville, students who cannot afford the program can attend.

Lam recruits people in Danville and worldwide to volunteer during the summers. During the past two years, he has had volunteers from the United States, Australia, Germany and England and more are needed.

There is a committment of a minimum of one-week but Lam says most students volunteer for two or three weeks. Dates are flexible from May through July. The cost is the airfare from their hometown to Shangri-La, room and board in Shangri-La at approximately $250 a month, and personal expenses.

Volunteers teach conversational English and basic skills in computer, accounting, and management. Classes start at 7 or 8 a.m. and run until 2 or 3 p.m. with a lunch break midday. There's time after class for sightseeing around Shangri-La or playing soccer with the students.

Lam says no teaching experience is necessary, as you learn on the job. He knows that from experience.

"On the first night before I was teaching I was freaking out," he said of his first experience teaching conversational English to eight-year-0lds.

Lam is now trying to extend the reach of his non-profit organization by working with UNICEF.

A few months ago, he met with Ann Veneman, executive director of UNICEF, to discuss integrating Youth For Shangri-La into the UNICEF Youth program. He is now working with the foundation's Voices of Youth and Rural Voices of Youth Network toward that goal.

"I'm trying to get more young people involved helping other youth around the world," she said. "The uniqueness of this program is seeing the immediate results of how it changes lives. They now have a way to make an income for their family and can pass the skills to their children. It's self-sustaining."

To find out more about volunteering for Youth For Shangri-La, or to make a donation visit the Web site.

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