Ruth Jeng, CEO, interviewed by Givology
By Liu Jiang
Giving takes humility.
In my sophomore year of high school, I joined Givology as an intern. Having been born in a developing nation, I searched for an organization that improved education in the part of the world where I came from. After months, I finally found Givology, a non-profit that truly cared about making giving easy and transparent. From development intern to Chapters Manager to now Chief Development Officer, my work with Givology has shaped my philosophy about social entrepreneurship and volunteerism. The stories from our partners and children have been my most rewarding experience. However, it was not until I spoke with Ruth Jeng of the Peach Foundation that I finally found the answer to what giving meant to me.
After her retirement in the Bay Area, Ruth Jeng started the Peach Foundation with the mission of enabling impoverished children in China to complete a college education. Her goal was to help students transcend the poverty cycle by promoting art, education, and community harvest. To date, her foundation has implemented the following programs: college loans, financial aid, small living loan, libraries, teacher training, summer camp, a medical fund, and a clothing fund.
When asked why she began her work, Jeng replied, “The bottom line is that I can’t bear to see other people’s pain. My motivation was to minimize my own pain, which was caused by seeing poor but motivated children unable to receive an education because of their birth. Through helping the children of Peach, I am also helping myself reduce my pain.”
All her life, Jeng had seen people suffer and had felt compelled to do something. Yet, she felt she had done little to help all of those who were in pain. One day, she decided that enough was enough and that she needed to roll up her sleeves and take action by creating her own non-profit.
Jeng chose China as the location of Peach because at the time, she was working with another education organization that was based in China. She felt it was only natural for her to continue her work in China, where she was familiar with the political system and language. China, rather than South America or Africa, was where she could achieve ultimate efficiency due to the lack of cultural barriers.
“Weather translates into efficiency,” Jeng said. “I wanted to go to a province where I could visit any time of the year without high or freezing temperatures and humidity.”
After days of research, she chose Yunan Province.
“To be honest, I did not want to start Peach at first because I knew the responsibility associated with starting an organization. I don’t like to deal with administration; I would rather deal with recipients. I knew that were I to be the head of Peach, however, I would need to work with administrations.”
Jeng was hesitant and in the back of her mind, she wondered why she was looking for trouble. At the time, she had just recently retired and she was afraid to take on an official project, which she knew required responsibility.
Any reservations Jeng harbored towards starting Peach disappeared in2000, when she took 13 rural Chinese children, from another foundation she was volunteering for at the time, to a metropolitan area for a week. One of the kids, Jeng remembers, had said that his dream was to visit Chongqing. He had never gone to a city before, although he only lived four hours away from one. Another child was near-sighted but had no glasses. Jeng decided she needed to go to China to fulfill the boy’s dream and take the other child to get eyeglasses. The following year, Jeng returned to China to spend time with the same 13 children.
“It was a harsh trip. It was extremely hot on the bus ride to Sichuan. People were vomiting, and in the hotel, mosquitoes were everywhere. Looking back, I realize the hardships I went through to see those children again. But at the time, I did not feel like those were hardships. All I knew was that my love for those children overflowed the bathtub.”
After the trip, Jeng knew she was ready to start Peach.
“I did not know how much I had to give until the trip. I told myself that I was ready to start a foundation on my own.”
When she first started Peach, Jeng traveled to China at least three times a year, each of the times for a month at least. During her visits, she worked closely with the Peach children and walked six to eight hours just to visit them. In the evening, she made speeches to the children and encountered many pathetic and sad children. Understanding their situation in greater depth than before, she felt her pain increase as she saw the children suffering so. To her surprise, the more she did for Peach, the more pain she felt.
“I had started Peach to minimize my pain, not to increase it. I became depressed the first two years after the founding of Peach. But I had faith in myself that I could get out of my depression.”
Her faith comes from her volunteer experience at the Suicide Prevention Center (SPC) a few years prior to founding Peach. She carried the pain from her job home; she felt she could not continue working at SPC any longer.
Once the three-month suicide prevention training was over, she threw a party and invited ten peers from her training session. She told them about her struggle with depression. To her surprise, her peers said they were experiencing the same desire to quit. They shared stories of their depression and cried together. The following week, she returned to the suicide prevention center and then snapped out of her depression.
“The first year I worked with Peach, I carried the children’s suffering on my shoulders and in my heart. I became depressed but then I remembered my work at the suicide prevention center and I knew I could snap out of my depression once more.”
The second year, she knew she needed to do something more constructive to get over her depression.
“I began going to church for a few times. I accidentally ran into a Buddhism book.”
The third year after starting Peach, she realized a repeating pattern in her emotions.
“The first two years when I was in China, I did not want to stay a day longer and do any sight-seeing. I was so sad that I could not wait for my trip to be over. Yet, when I came back to the United States, I missed my kids so much. That was the cycle.”
After reading the Buddhism book, Jeng felt that the book’s philosophy spoke to her and relieved her suffering.
“I felt like I was a fish on the shore being thrown back to the water.”
The Buddhism book taught Jeng to approach her children’s problems in this fashion: recognize them, solve them, and then move on.
“Before reading the book, I did not know how to put down my problems; I just carried them on my back.”
Jeng experienced several problems while she was expanding Peach. When she found new school sites in Yunnan to work with, she encountered much resistance from the principals.
“People don’t like us there. They don’t welcome us because we are here to help poor children. We give money directly to children’s’ bank accounts so that the school cannot touch the money. Each child has there his or her own account. We have signed contracts with the schools that state that we do not need free meals or free lodging from them; we would just like full cooperation. The principals say they welcome us, but their demeanors and actions show that they do not want to work with us. To teachers and principals, we bring only inconvenience.”
Jeng’s foundation goes to China three to four times a year to make home inspections. Jeng and Peach’s volunteers have overcome challenges in the form of school principals, who sometimes do not welcome them or even ignore them.
“Some principals have distorted lives. They don’t care about children; they care only for their career. Keeping that in mind, our volunteers should no longer be upset. I tell my volunteers to find a constructive way to accomplish what Peach seeks to achieve. Are the recommended children’s academic performances satisfactory? Do the children’s home environments meet our requirements? If so, Peach has all it wants and needs.”
“What do we need respect and pride for? Respect and pride are irrelevant. I need to find poor children and give them money directly. I will not let the attitudes of principals impact me because I have a higher goal. Principals are just small bumps on the road; I will not let selfish people influence my dreams.”
Jeng’s vision continues to be helping poor yet motivated children acquire an education so that they can become financially independent and help their poor parents, most of whom are illiterate and attain their sole income from farming.
“It is a social crime committed by a country or a government when they fail to educate their children. In the United States, parents who do not send their children to school are sent to jail. In China, children cannot go to school because parents cannot afford the tuition. The crime the government committed, then, is not helping parents send their children to school.”
“We are unique. I don’t know all the foundations in the world. But I know quite a few in the Bay Area that also focus on education. But I think we are the only ones that reach into kids’ hearts. To me, money is not the issue. If the problem can be solved by money, then it is no longer a problem.”
“The biggest problem is low self-esteem. All their lives, children have been stepped on by their classmates, teachers, and relatives. Teachers tell kids that if they don’t have money for tuition ready by next week, they should not bother coming to school. Some teachers even humiliate their children in public.”
Jeng never sets boundaries and always tells her students to do whatever they like.
“Knowing how insecure our children can be, we have summer camp every summer to tell our kids how much they are loved and how unique they are. People will ask, what can you do a week? People can be changed in a week, however, if they haven’t been loved before. We try to assign a mentor to every child so that the mentor can write to child and encourage him or her. During summer camp, we invite kids and reinforce our love for them.”
“Summer camp started in 2004. Peach foundation started in 2001. In the first 3 years, I noticed that the rate of children dropping out of school was very high. So money is not the only problem. Before children did not have money. Then we gave them money. Yet, students still dropped out. Why? Neglect, abuse, and torture. Neighbors will tell girls, ‘What a waste of money your education is. Just get married.” Girls hear these statements, feel guilty, and then drop out. Neighbors tell boys, ‘Your family is so poor, and your parents have to borrow money to give you an education. You should work, not be in school.’”
“I tell the kids that the people who don’t like them are the ones that tell them to quit. Our drop-out rate is now much lower. The hearts of children are what matters to us. Kids are very competitive because teachers make them feel that way. I tell our kids that it doesn’t matter how well they perform academically because as long as they try their best, they are number 1 in my heart. I want kids to swear to me that they won’t drop because as long as they don’t drop, they have a chance even if they score the lowest.”
Peach, Jeng says, helped her find her calling. Peach told her that she found the purpose of her being.
“I was a self-made millionaire before I retired. I feel like everything before Peach was to prepare me for Peach.”
Jeng shared five lessons and preparation tips for those who want to start their own non-profits:
1. Giving money does not give people the right to impose their values on others.
One time, a volunteer walked into a classroom and found it dark because the teacher did not turn on the light. The volunteer lectured the teacher and said that despite the costs of electricity, she should turn on the light to avoid harming the students’ eyes. As long as we did not donate money to the electricity bill, we are not in the position to judge. When donors do inspections, they return telling me tell the principal to do this or that. I tell them that I won’t tell principal to do anything as long as our money is not involved. I also see donors go to kids’ homes, see parents smoking, and then lecture the parents that smoking is costly and bad for their kid’s health.
2. Remind your donors that they are recipients too.
Some donors have this mentality that they are the giver, which they are above their recipients. But the givers are recipients too. Everyone who gives receives so much treasure that they are not aware of them all. The givers are the fortunate ones.
3. Donors should not discriminate.
We have donors who request to sponsor two kids. Two very pretty kids. I say, “My pardon? All my kids are beautiful.”
4. Be respectful of employees.
Some donors treat my employees like they are maids. First of all, if donors sponsor kids, 100% of the money goes to our kids. Our employees’ salaries have a different source of funding. Even if the donors give money towards employees’ salary, they should show respect towards the employees. Without our employees, we could not have come this far.
5. Walk into your job with an open mindset.
We have donors on the very first day give advice to me on how to run my foundation. I tell them, if you buy 100 shares of Google stock, will you call the CEO of Google to tell him what to do? I will take into account their suggestions after they learn about our foundation. Donors have this mindset, “How hard can it be to give out money?”
Boys and girls singing at the Elementary Summer Camp in Lijiang, China Summer 2012.
Students reading aloud at the English Summer Camp in China Summer 2012.
Letter from Deng Shen (High School Second Year)
"I have one wish. When I become successful, I want to repay my parents for their love. I am also very thankful for your [Peach Foundation's] help. If it wasn't for your kindness, I would not have had the opportunity to sit here and share my feelings. I also have one thought, and that is when I become successful, I would like to support other children through school, allowing more people the opportunity to obtain an education."
A photo from one of Jeng’s first visits to China in 2001. The poorest people of China live in these flat houses.