China Daily - May 31,2003
It was a Saturday afternoon in early May. As Beijing's early summer grew hot and stuffy, many local people stayed at home, protecting themselves from SARS infection.
But on the second floor of 21st Century Hotel, a group of people of all ages and races gathered in a meeting room to prepare packages, and create cards and posters.
The care packages, which contain foods such as cookies, muffins, instant noodles, juice, candied fruits, books and greeting cards, were destined for SARS patients and hospital staff as well as quarantined students on campus.
The people who put them together are all volunteers with Beijing's International Christian Community.
Two thousand expatriates from 60 countries are members of the Together SARS Support Centre, founded by Bryan Lee and Dr Larry Gee to help China fight the new disease. Since late April, the support centre members have offered their aid, love and kindness.
Lee has lived in Beijing for eight years and works with a marketing company Pancon. "Many left but we've stayed, for we saw the need," Lee said.
"We believe that every crisis is an opportunity to learn and grow. All the volunteers are showing to the people of China that we care," he said.
Dr Larry Gee, who worked at the United Family Hospital and Clinics, said: "We see the SARS epidemic as a way to deepen our commitment to serve, not as a reason to flee."
The centre's motto is "perfect love drives out fear" and the volunteers believe true love is not self-seeking. Instead, it always hopes, always protects and never gives up.
Dr Gee, who came to Beijing in 1999 with his family, also teaches at the medical school of Peking University and Capital Hospital (?).
"As a doctor, I came to China not only to work here but to serve the Chinese people," said Gee.
Most of the volunteers come from Beijing's diplomatic, medical, student and corporate communities. In addition to their demanding day jobs, they have undertaken four tasks: Sending care packages to SARS patients and health care workers on the frontline of the SARS battle; working to obtain and deliver medical supplies from abroad; establishing a SARS information hotline; and e-mailing a daily SARS information newsletter.
"We have all been inspired by the health care workers who risk their lives to save others," said Thng Elaine, a Singaporian volunteer at the centre who works as an accountant in Beijing. "This has motivated me to serve my community and play a more positive role while I am here in China."
Due to the nature of SARS, hospital visits have been impossible. However, the packages express love and solidarity.
"SARS has given me a few days off work and I wanted to do something to help out. This seemed like a great opportunity," Thng said.
"In the first few days, we worked in a mess, for nobody had previous experience of this type of work. But we soon got to know how to handle it efficiently. Some people gather in the hotel to pack, while many do it at home," she added.
Gee recalled that, on May 1, he sent the first packages to Ditan Hospital, taking with him his three children, his twin 11-year-old son and daughter, and another son, 9.
"All the people there were surprised. It seemed to be a great risk to bring with my little kids, when people were panicking and dared not go close to a hospital," he said.
"But I intended to do just that. Actually, my children also drew the cards in the packages. I just want to let my daughter and sons know that as we face death, we can deal with our fear of dying and often find more reason for living," Gee said.
The family medicine physician is also interested in the effects the SARS scare has had on families.
Gee said: "The decreased travel and time off work has allowed many families and couples to spend more time together than they have in the past. Because of this, marriages and families have grown stronger."
His wife Mary Gee, who teaches English at Fangcaodi Primary School, also puts together care packages and does other volunteer activities.
Until May 17, 40 to 70 volunteers gathered daily to prepare the packages and cards. But last weekend, they reduced their shifts to once a week on a Saturday afternoon because the number of infected patients had fallen and most volunteers had returned to work.
So far, more than 7,000 care packages have been delivered to seven SARS specialist hospitals, including the Ditan, Sino-Japanese Friendship, You'an, Haidian, Xuanwu, PLA 402, and Jiuxianqiao hospitals as well as the Haidian SARS support centre and Huairou Red Cross.
About 1,000 care packages have also been delivered to quarantined university students. Some 12,000 face masks were delivered to Ditan Hospital and 6,000 masks to Haidian Hospital.
Recipients have been touched by the concern and love that the volunteers have shown. One health care worker in Haidian Hospital, who did not want to be named said, "At this difficult time, their packages are of great spiritual support to us all."
Besides the care packages, the volunteers have also distributed posters to SARS hospitals expressing their appreciation and support of health care workers and their patients.
The support centre members continue to seek donations for Beijing's hospitals from both in and outside China.
The SARS information hotline is another important service that Dr Gee and his fellow volunteers provide to the community.
Since May 5, they have operated the hotline from 10 am to 10 pm, providing advice in English, Chinese and Korean.
"The fear and panic generated by the SARS epidemic has been incredible. Some medical volunteers feel there is a tremendous need for accurate information and good counselling," said Rob Mekelin, 41, who serves as a counsellor.
He, like all the others at the hotline, has undergone training so he can provide medical advice and psychological support to callers.
"We comfort them and let them know somebody cares about them and they are not alone," Mekelin added.
Lee said: "Our goal is to provide information that emancipates people from fear of the unknown and prepares them to deal with the reality of SARS in a rational manner."
The members also send out a newsletter providing medical advice, statistical updates and messages of encouragement.
The newsletter helps people adjust their behavior to reduce the risk of infection while addressing the fear and anxiety caused by SARS.
Many volunteers have commented that helping those in need has given them hope during the crisis.
Singaporian Richard Tay, 48, vice-president of the German-American company Daimler Chrysler, Beijing Office, said, "Being involved with the team has helped me to put this all into perspective. While I am still taking precautions, I worry less and am happy to know that I am helping out."
Mekelin said, "This is a chance for everyone to re-evaluate our lives and priorities and think about what is really important."
The support centre has been endorsed by the China Charity Federation and relies on their expertise to direct their donations. Other organizations in Beijing's international community, including the International Academy of Beijing, International School of Beijing, Yew Chung International School, have helped source items for the care packages, according to Gee.