Making plans to rebuild and move the Starfish foster home in Xi’an, China, and changing an occasional diaper in between – this is a regular day in Steven Willekens’s life. At the end of 2009, he and his partner Roshney made the decision that led to this situation; in June 2010, they quit their jobs and left the Netherlands to do humanitarian work and travel for nine months, or perhaps even longer…
Breaking away from everyday life
Before this decision, Steven – a 2002 SBE Economics graduate – had worked in management consultancy for seven years, at a Dutch strategy and organisation firm, Magnitude Consulting. Before that he was a tutor at Maastricht University (after finishing his Economics degree). “I found management consultancy to be highly fulfilling with respect to impact and learning curve, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I continued in that field later on”, says Steven. “But first, we had to act upon a growing urge to change our daily routine, to take some risk, to live life a bit more intensely, to do something for people who need it much more than we do, to explore the world and hopefully to experience some adventures along the way.”
Preparing orphans for a second life
Steven and Roshney found what they were looking for in China: “After passing on several commercial organisations that charge unethical amounts for doing volunteer work, we found the Starfish foster home in Xi’an, China, through a friend of ours. Starfish, a privately owned foster home that was founded in 2005, takes care of orphans with special medical needs. Its founder, Amanda de Lange, brings the orphans to the home, usually at a very young age and often with mental or physical disabilities. Starfish then gives them the special medical attention that they need, so they can survive, gain strength, and develop. When the kids are two or three years old, they are adopted and get a second chance for a good life.”
“When we read about Starfish, we knew this was the place we wanted to go”, Steven recalls. “We’ve now been here for over three months and it’s been quite an experience. We’ve experienced so many extraordinary things. In the first month we were mainly fixing broken things and so gained ‘handyman’ plumbing and building experience on the way. On another occasion we were travelling to Hangzhou by train with 17 kids in need of surgery and got stranded on a train for 52 hours because of flooding. More recently, we arranged 15 workers from the street to demolish parts of the new building that Starfish will move into in a couple of months. Let’s just say that no day has been the same and new, beautiful, Chinese challenges surface every day.”
Is the help that Steven and his wife are giving making a difference for Starfish? Steve: “Starfish depends fully on donations, and is not subsidised by any governmental organisation or funds. So every contribution is valuable. For example, now Starfish needs to move to a new place that is being rebuilt as we speak. The rebuilding and the move bring with them a great deal of work. Meanwhile, lots of adoptions are going on and new babies have been brought in recently, so the organisation’s core process also needs to run smoothly. Roshney and I decided to stay another month, but we need more help! Maastricht University grads or students who can spend a month or more working here are more than welcome to come and add value. Being trained in Problem-Based Learning is naturally a great advantage! I promise you a life-enriching experience and a free course in Mandarin – and while we’re at it, a course in flexibility and endurance.”
Steven Willekens, alumnus Economics 2002, currently working as a volunteer for the Starfish Foster Home in Xi’an, China.
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