Early in 2000, a German family of four was killed by four 18 to 20 year olds in a burglary gone wrong in Nanjing. The entire Pfrang household—father, mother, daughter, and son—were all murdered, and the perpetrators were later sentenced to death. But Julia Gueston decided to remember her departed friends in an unconventional way—by starting the Pfrang Association, carrying on the Pfrang family name’s charitable legacy by solving the fundamental cause of the crime: lack of education and opportunities. The Pfrang Association helps students in need from the same region as the four murderers in northern Jiangsu. The association has since expanded to include children in Anhui, a neighboring province where poverty has excluded many rural students from education.
HOW DID YOU DECIDE TO RESPOND TO THE MURDER WITH CHARITY?
Jurgen (the patriarch of the Pfrang family) was working for a joint venture in Yangzhou, and the two children were students at the international school in Nanjing. Fifteen years ago, the foreign community in Nanjing was quite small, so we knew each other quite well. Jurgen and I had a work-based relationship. Their daughter Sandra, 15 at the time, and I worked on fundraising together for the premature baby of an African family here. That was how I got to know Sandra more deeply. I knew that this was a family that liked to help other people. After the murder, we were all shocked. Everything seemed so senseless and scary. We all felt helpless. It seemed to me that a family that liked to help others would appreciate
us using their name to do something positive like this. People come and go, and ten years later no one would remember them in Nanjing. Of course, their family in Germany would remember them, but they lived their last few years here—and it just didn’t seem right for them to be forgotten. I started talking to other people and said I wanted to keep the family’s memory alive. A lot of people immediately said they wanted to help. This idea of education came naturally because the four boys that did it didn’t have a proper education. I thought that if the boys had a chance to go to school and make money in another way, maybe they wouldn’t have ended up in that house that night. Maybe the Pfrang family would still be alive.
WHAT KIND OF PROBLEMS DID YOU ENCOUNTER STARTING THE ORGANIZATION?
The main problem was that the barrier of the amount of money you need to for starting a registered foundation is quite high. We began as an association and have actually never changed our legal form. After talking to a lot of lawyers and looking at the possibilities, we realized that it would be almost impossible for us to become a foundation. So, we decided to partner with an already registered foundation, and we found the Amity Foundation (爱德基金会), also in Nanjing, which processes all the legal technicalities and the money raised.
HOW DO YOU KNOW WHICH STUDENTS NEED HELP?
We work with Amity, who has local partners. They talk to the schools, who submit a list of students that need help, and we check via home visits to determine whether the students or the family need help or not. Most of those on the list are real cases. Once a year, we visit the schools where they study. Around 15 to 20 schools, five to 15 students at each school. We talk to the kids, make sure the money is going where it’s supposed to, and also remind ourselves why we are helping. We sponsor junior and senior middle school students, but 15 years ago we started with grade one. Then the government initiated free-compulsory education. So, we moved to focus on middle school. The government covers junior middle school fees by compulsory education, but students from the countryside had to go to boarding schools because a lot of the schools were centralized. They couldn’t afford the boarding fees and textbooks, which we support. High school students receive more because it wasn’t compulsory anymore. Currently, we help around 250 students. However, we have not been able to track the total number of students funded because some of them drop out or leave.
WHAT CAUSES THEM DROP OUT?
Some go all the way to grade 12, some drop out at ten. When a lot of families move to cities to become migrant workers, many take their children with them. Then they just drop out and we don’t know where we go. To some students’ parents, grade nine is good enough, and they need the students to come back and work on the farm. We don’t have much control.
BECAUSE OF GENDER INEQUALITY, DOES PFRANG GIVES GIRLS PRIORITY?
Definitely. We always go for the girl. A lot of families in the countryside have more than one child, and they can probably afford to send one child to school, which is always the boy. That’s why we feel girls shouldn’t be left behind. Just last year, we visited a family we are supporting. (The woman) has three girls: first she had one girl, then they tried again hoping for a boy, and then they tried for a third time but got another girl. Her husband went crazy because of the pressure. She ended up with a husband who’s a mental case, unable to work, and three daughters to support. A lot of her problems come from the region, which insists she produce a son. In that environment, if you’ve got resources, you’d use it on the boy. despite that, the number of boys and girls we support are around the same.
WHO ARE YOUR DONORS USUALLY?
When we started, exclusively the foreign community in Nanjing, mostly those who knew the Pfrangs, some of whom gave very generous donations that helped start us off. Then people left and our donors became more anonymous and we started approaching companies. Over the last few years, we’ve gotten a lot more Chinese (donors). That’s a new thing. Fifteen years ago, a lot of them weren’t in a position to give. It also takes time for people to realize: “I’ve got a lot already, I can share”. We see the change happening.
DO FOREIGNERS AND CHINESE RESPOND DIFFERENTLY UPON HEARING YOUR CAUSE?
I think so. If you’ve read the published pieces on us, one thing that keeps coming up and has fascinated Chinese, who have been asking me throughout the years, is how we can respond positively to something so horrible. This is something I only get asked by Chinese. Chinese keep asking me “why don’t you hate China? Why don’t you hate us for this? Why do you do something nice?” This is interesting because no foreigner has ever asked me that.
HOW DO YOU HOPE THE ORGANIZATION WILL GROW?
I’m happy we have been expanding over the last 15 years, especially since we rely solely on volunteers. I wish for more stability, because of the high turnover rate. This year we actually have a new pilot project. Last year, a student from northern Jiangsu was invited to the opening of the Youth Olympics in Nanjing, sponsored by a German company. Prior to this, I’ve always been very careful about inviting students to Nanjing. We never knew how this would impact the children from the countryside, maybe overwhelm them. But after I saw this boy, I became convinced it would be great. For him, it was the first time he’d left his home town. He’d never been to a bigger city, never been on a train…All this was new to him. It opened the world to him and a new perspective of life outside his region. This year we will try to invite a group of students and have them hosted by students at the international school. For both sides I think it’d be a fantastic opportunity.