Students embrace teacher whose family lost everything in earthquake

Worried about her family in China
Zhou Caiyn, kindergarten teacher at St. Paul's Yinghua Academy, is concerned for her family in China in the wake of last week's earthquake there.
MPR Photo/Greta Cunningham

When Zhou Caiyn learned about the massive earthquake, she grabbed her cell phone and tried to reach her parents and two sisters in China.

At first she couldn't get through, and the wait was agonizing. Finally a few hours later she learned of their fate. They had all survived.

However, she knew when she talked to her older sister she was not getting the full story. She tried calling friends and relatives in China to get details.

Zhou Caiyun
Zhou Caiyn says the students, parents and staff at Yinghua Academy are a great support as she worries about her family in China.
MPR Photo/Greta Cunningham

"Then my aunt, she told me the truth. She said my sister lost her home. When the earthquake happened she just ran out from the house. The houses fell down. She's lucky to get out, but she didn't tell me that she lost everything."

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Zhou's parents had just finished building a home for their retirement. It suffered heavy damage, and the family has been forced to live in a tent on the street. Aftershocks continue to strike the area.

The school where her father was principal for 30 years has been destroyed -- all of the schools in the area are gone. In fact, the town's post office, bank and gas station were all reduced to rubble by the quake.

A few days ago, Zhou finally spoke to her mother by phone. Zhou, who is seven months pregnant, told her mother that she was disappointed the family was shielding her from the news of their situation.

Zhou Caiyun and Betsy Lueth
Zhou Caiyn and Betsy Lueth stand in front of the donation box Yinghua Academy made to collect money for earthquake victims in China.
MPR Photo/Greta Cunningham

Her mother told her she was worried the stressful news would affect Zhou's pregnancy. Her mother was pragmatic.

"'Now you know the truth. What can you do? You live so far away from us. Right now we are worried about you, worried about your body, worried about your baby,'" Zhou recalled her mother saying. "They know if I know the truth I'm going to find the best way to help them. I want to go home, but that's not going to happen right now."

Her school community in St. Paul has been a wonderful source of support, Zhou says.

The parents and students love the woman they call Zhou Laoshi. Laoshi means "teacher" in Mandarin, says the director of Yinghua Academy, Betsy Lueth. The school has established a fund for Zhou's family and is collecting donations at the school.

"It all started when we discovered she wiped out her own bank accounts to get money over there. And so just as a school community we really wanted to get the money to someone we loved and cared about and get it over there to help those people," Lueth said.

The teachers and staff have been telling the students some basic information about the earthquake, but they're trying not to dwell on it, Lueth says.

Zhou hasn't missed one day of work since the earthquake, Lueth says, and is obviously trying her best to focus on teaching.

"She is trying to shield the children primarily from feeling any stress from it. But in doing that, the rest of the staff has tried to shield her and help her. So we're kind of like one big support system," said Lueth.

Still, children are perceptive and they've been especially tender to their teacher, Zhou says.

"The kids say, 'Zhou Laoshi, I know why you cried yesterday. It's because your family, they lost their home, they have nothing.' I say, 'Yes, you are right.' The kids come and they just hug me. They say 'We love you, teacher. You are here and we will help you.' They are only 5 or 6 years old. I just feel so happy to be their teacher."

So far close to $5,000 has been raised to help Zhou's family.

Her father's friend has a working car, and sometime next week they will travel to the only working bank in the region to get the money via Western Union, Zhou says. She says the funds will be used to buy food and build shelter for the community.