BEIJING, May 15 -- The young girl talking on stage appeared nervous, but her words attested to the impact that a social worker has had in turning her life around.
"My new aunt helped me a lot in study and daily life," Cun Xiangliu told the audience at a forum held in Beijing on Wednesday to discuss rural social work, an under-developed field in China but one which is getting increasing attention.
The "aunt" is Ban Xiaolian, one member of a small army of "barefoot social workers," an informal position tasked with providing a safety net of childhood welfare in the vast and under-resourced Chinese countryside. Ban is involved with a project that has designated a social worker in 120 pilot villages across China.
Based in Jinghan, of Longchuan County in China's southwestern Yunnan Province, Ban first met Cun in 2010. She found the youngster of the Dai ethnicity to be quiet, sometimes depressed, living a desperately harsh life.
Cun's mother has HIV. Her parents divorced and both left home, leaving behind two children and their sick grandfather.
"HIV is a stigma. Other villagers, even their relatives, stayed away from them," explained Ban.
Cun's family has 0.27 hectares of land, but nobody was strong enough to plough and sow.
In August 2010, however, Jinghan was selected for the pilot scheme being run by the Ministry of Civil Affairs and UNICEF. It was at this point that things began to look up for Cun, now 13, as well as many of her peers.
In Ban's village, there were more than 1,300 children, 180 of whom had special needs. Many were left-behind kids. Others were orphaned, carried HIV or had disabled parents struggling to bring them up.
"I didn't know Cun Xiangliu before, and didn't notice her on my first visit to her house," Ban recalled. But the presence of the social worker lent Cun a glimmer of hope.
Several weeks later, she called Ban, telling the new friendly contact how her younger brother wanted to go to kindergarten. In Yunnan, children aged three are entitled to go to kindergarten, but it is not free of charge. Cun's brother was due to turn five in 2011, but his family could not afford the nursery fees.
Ban went to the local civil affairs bureau and applied for basic living allowances for them. She then contacted the kindergarten, and the young boy was soon accepted.
The other thing Ban did for the girl's family was talk to their relatives. The nephew of Cun's grandpa now farms the 0.27 hectares, with both households splitting the yields.
Other help has been psychological and educating, addressing the discrimination leveled against Cun. Ban began to gather kids together at the children's center she runs. Gradually, Cun made friends there and no longer feels abandoned.
According to Huang Xiaoyan, associate professor in social work and policy with Nankai University, the idea of barefoot social workers stems from China's experience of "barefoot doctors."
In the 1960s, to meet farmers' demand for healthcare, educated locals were trained in medicine and sent to work in villages. In this way, the majority of rural residents were covered by a health network that was low-cost and easily accessible.
More recently, Chinese media have brought increasing attention to the situation with HIV/AIDS in the country. Social workers were selected to work in the worst-hit areas.
But it's not just children affected by HIV who need care.
In the drive for urbanization, migrants have flooded into big cities, leaving behind their kids. UNICEF estimates that across China, 70 million children, or a quarter of the total, don't live with their parents. Many face risks as a result.
"Social workers are not yet common in China, but we cannot let the children wait," said Huang. But who could provide rural children with essential welfare? The answer was someone from their local communities.
"They have similar cultural backgrounds to the kids, they are educated,can speak Mandarin and can use the Internet. And above all, they love children," she said. "With some training, they can play the role."
These barefoot social workers -- offered a monthly subsidy of 300 to 800 yuan (about 48 to 128 U.S. dollars) in lieu of an actual salary -- keep records of their charges' physical condition and education, and are supposed to visit them periodically. They help with birth registration, vaccinations and school enrollment. For those with special needs, they contact government units for specialist help.
Rural social workers' tasks vary from area to area. In Yunnan, Sichuan and Xinjiang, where drug abuse has resulted in the spread of HIV/AIDS, the priority has been disease control.
Elsewhere, problems can be more specific. "In Luoning County of Henan, a big problem was children drowning," said Xu Wenqing, a project officer with UNICEF. The river running through several villages in the county used to claim several lives a year.
Barefoot social workers gave warnings to local people, patrolling when the river was swollen, and set up a protective net along the banks. In the past two years, no drownings have been reported in Luoning.
Daniel Toole, UNICEF regional director for East Asia and the Pacific, told Xinhua that the project from which Cun has benefited has been a success because it "started from community level.
"They recruited local people to do the job, because they know better about the culture and problems in the area."
As barefoot social work gets more attention, one of the biggest improvements has been a change in the status of those caring for rural kids. Though barefoot social work is still not recognized as a bona fide profession, the workers are getting more plaudits.
"I am now one of the most respected people in the village," said Li Zhengchuan, a social worker in Yunnan Province's Guangpa Village. Li is now a representative to the local committee of China's Communist Party.
However, more needs to be done to guarantee the welfare of youngsters away from cities. Toole believes that the number of social workers is not yet big enough.
Ban Xiaolian, for example, is always busy visiting children. The farthest mountainside home requires her to ride her motorbike for 20 minutes, before walking for another 40 minutes. During weekends, she sometimes wants to close the children's center, but only finds her home filled with kids when she does.
Ban said she is not afraid of hardship, but her biggest headache is how to communicate with the teenagers. She worries about cases like that of a 13-year-old son of a handicapped mother and an alcoholic dad. The boy wants to quit school and "won't listen" to Ban's advice against doing so.
When barefoot social workers have problems, they resort to academics like Huang. The latter provide training.
But Xu Wenqing believes that some problems can only be resolved by professionals. "Sending professional social workers to the countryside is our next step," she said. "If we could have one in each county, that would be a big progression."
Maybe Cun Xiangliu could be one of them when she grows up. She has already been helping out in Ban's children's center. Although determined to "work hard and go to a university," she plans to return to Jinghan.
"East or west, home is best," she said. "And I wish I could do something for my hometown in the future."