A sunflower sprouts from healed wounds

A girl affected by the 2008 earthquake remembers her happy time at a child-friendly space

Lamei, 22, is photographed at the Chengdu University of Technology in Chengdu, Sichuan Province.
UNICEF/China/2020/Ma Yuyuan
26 February 2021

After the Wenchuan Earthquake in 2008, UNICEF China and the Office of the National Working Committee on Children and Women under the State Council introduced the Child-Friendly Space (CFS) model to earthquake-affected regions, to provide psychosocial support to children. After more than a decade, some child-friendly spaces have transformed into permanent centres to provide community-based child protection and welfare services to children and families.

Lamei, from Mianyang, Sichuan Province, spent much of her childhood at a CFS in her hometown, along with many of her friends. Now, as a college senior student, she wrote down her memories of the CFS, which she fondly refers to as “home”.

In the winter of 2008, following the footsteps of my parents, I went back to Chaping, a small town devastated by the massive earthquake on 12 May. A few months after the earthquake, the toppled buildings and rubble were already replaced by foundations of new homes.

I remember that by summer, our new home – a prefab house – had been erected, and I had to make-do with an army style fold-up bed.

To make ends meet, my parents left our hometown to find jobs as migrant workers. I stayed at home, watching armies of ants marching by with their food time and time again. Occasionally, a big orange cat would flash past the woodpiles, and a chorus of insects and birds filled the corn fields.

Lamei (right) and her freind are photographed at the site of the old child-friendly space of Qianfo Town, Sichuan Province, in 2009.

At some point in the summer – I can’t remember exactly when – a big white tent and several prefab houses appeared in the square opposite my house. Ms. Jia, a lovely lady with a warm smile, told me and my friends that this is a child-friendly space (CFS), and enthusiastically invited us to go inside and play. Shy and curious, we hesitated at the doorstep, stepping in but then pulling our feet back right away, staring at the toys in the room with longing. The green stools were calling to us, the handicrafts on the desks were tempting us, and Ms. Jia gave us encouraging looks. The next second – I can’t remember who went first – we poured into the room.

From then on, the CFS gradually filled the days that otherwise would have been long and dull. During many summer and winter vacations, my friends and I immersed ourselves in the CFS for days. We would draw pictures for an entire day, make handicrafts for an afternoon, kick shuttlecock for a while, play jigsaw puzzles, and build a toy castle. Gradually, we became acquainted with the staff, as if the boundary between adults and children were blurred there, and they became a leader in our gang, just like our bigger friends.

Back then, I liked fashion design, so my friends and I made cute small skirts out of recycled bags and used playing cards. I even completed science assignments from school at the CFS. In the scorching summer heat we drilled holes in water bottles to turn them into water guns, and had water fights.

When I look back at my childhood, those happy moments at the CFS stand out vividly. In those days the children who had been left behind by their parents were welcomed and embraced by the CFS. Filled with children’s laughter, the CFS at the small square healed many wounds and made up for many unmet needs in our childhoods.

Lamei helps the staff of child-freindly space organize games at the child-freindly space of Qianfo Town, Sichuan Province.

When I had grown a bit older, I started taking my younger brother to play at the CFS. I taught him to put books back on the shelf after reading. I did jigsaw puzzles and played badminton with him, and taught him how to fold paper cranes and flowers, time and time again, just as the CFS staff had taught us.

I would help the ladies running the CFS by moving stools and pumping up balloons, and I gradually gained the trust of the smaller children. I started to make friends with the children, just like how I had made friends with the staff before. It was almost like all my past years of recklessness were dissolved by the friendly callings of “sister, sister” from all these young children.

Lamei, 22, shares her experience with children at the child-friendly space of Qianfo Town, Sichuan Province.

Even after I became an adult, I always had the urge to go back to the ‘home’ (the CFS) for a visit. The activities there had become more diverse and interesting, attracting increasing numbers of parents to come and take part in quizzes about child safety, seminars on parenting, and a variety of recreational parties. Staring at the handicrafts I helped make when I was young, I saw both my growth and the development of the CFS.

Lamei helps the staff of child-freindly space organize games at the child-freindly space of Qianfo Town, Sichuan Province.

In the hard days after the earthquake, the CFS, just like that big white tent with four sides fully open, held up a worry-free and fear-free blue sky for children. It started as a nice space for play and fun, soothing worries and making busy adults feel at ease about their children’s wellbeing. Then it served as a cradle for growth and development. Like a big friend, it guided us in our development, with love and warmth. It is just like a sunflower that has grown from healed wounds, blooming right at the hearts of big and small friends alike.