I subscribe to the school of thought that it is almost impossible for the indigent to be involved in philanthropy, however on the flip side, I have been convinced otherwise by the thought-provoking story of Chen Shu-Chu, a vegetable seller in Taiwan. 

In eastern Taiwan, 63-years-old Ms. Chen works 18 hours a day selling pepper, taro, mushrooms, and vegetables after which she uses the money to support the poor. She was not born with a silver spoon neither did she have a smooth upbringing. As a matter of fact, Chen lost her mother who died after a difficult childbirth while she was still in primary school, because her family could not afford a proper treatment.

Life has not been a smooth sail for Chen who has been dedicated to helping creating access to health and education for the poor over the past two decade.

According to BBC, she has donated over 10 million Taiwanese dollars ($350,000; £210,000) to the building of a school library and a hospital wing. She has also given to a local Buddhist organisation and orphanages.

In a world where philanthropy has been tagged to be the rich man’s game, Chen believes that no one is too poor to give.

“Everyone can do it. It is not just me. It is not how much money you make that matters, but how you use your money,” she says.

“I do not see money as being that important. After all, you cannot bring it with you when you start life and you cannot take it with you when you leave this life.”

It is amazing how in the midst of the hustle and bustle all over the world, while people are working enough to gather for themselves and their unborn children, we can still find souls who are living for others and most likely people they do not know. 

Although Chen struggled with poverty for most part of her youth, having had to quit schooling to work at the family’s vegetable stand in the Taitung Central Market, in order to support the family, these situations motivate Chen towards giving. 

Life did not get any better after her mother died and she had to quit school. Few years down the line her younger brother came down on a flu. Again her family was struck with another impossible situation and because of their inability to raise enough money to pay for his advanced medical care, he died.

The loss of her brother was a difficult situation for the family but for every incident that caused Chen pain, she turned it into a motivation to give back so that others do not have to pass through what she has suffered. 

“I feel I owe people a lot. I feel I have to make more money to help others,” she says.

“I feel very happy after donating money. I feel like I have done something right. It’s a feeling that comes from the inside. It makes me so happy that I smile when I go to bed.”

She is an amazing personality, whose acts of kindness raise so many eye brows including that of the director of an NGO, Kids Alive International, who after he receiving a donation from Chen, was further convinced that truly, you do not have to be rich to help others.

According to the director, Mr. Daniel Lu, “She is a vegetable lady, alone and single. It is not easy for her,” he says. “I thought if she gives T$5,000 that would help.”

“When she gave me T$1m, I was surprised. [I said:] ‘Wow, you give me T$1m? What can I do?’ She said: ‘Whatever you had planned, you do it; you help the kids.””

I have heard people say that good deeds can be likened to pregnancy, which means that it cannot be hidden from the public knowledge for too long. Same with Chen, her loving acts of kindness has not gone unnoticed. She has attracted both local and international attention through her rare philanthropic activities. Once her news began to spread across, it got into the ears of the media and in 2010, Times Magazine selected her as one of the 100 most influential people. Also the Reader’s Digest named her “Asian of the Year” and Forbes Asia selected her as one of their “48 heroes of Philanthropy”.

Few years back, she was also named one of six Ramon Magsaysay Award winners for helping the poor and given a $50,000 cash prize.

She portrays what philanthropy should be like and spurs the hearts of others to do same, an example was when she donated the entire $50,000 cash prize to Taitung’s McKay Memorial Hospital, this particular act was mind blowing and it prompted many people to support the hospital in building a new medical wing.

She is unbelievable and her story has moved people from far and near to visit Taiwan just to see Chen the vegetable seller. On one occasion a visitor from Hong Kong who has been inspired by Chen left her a note of admiration amongst her vegetables.

Chen is unmarried and has no children. She is a Buddhist and a strict vegetarian who lives on easy diets like cured tofu and rice. Being an unmarried vegetarian has helped her save so much. She is also Altruistic and has little desire for material things. Having attracted the media, she is unwilling to be in the public scene, she has said that she will only want to engage in media activities such as being interviewed if the reports will motivate others to be kind to people.

Although Chen has health problems, she has no plans to retire, saying she hopes to “do this forever.”

“My wish is that I can work till the day I collapse. Money is only useful if you give it to people who need it.”


By Miracle Nwankwo

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