Now Or Never

When Yollanda Zhang lost her grandmother she gained a purpose

Yollanda Zhang's grandmother was one of the most important women in her life. When she passed away, Yolanda used her grief as motivation to start a Mandarin language school that also focuses on empowering young girls and women.
Grandma and I, the first time I got to visit China after moving to Canada at the age of 16. (Yollanda Zhang)
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By Yollanda Zhang

Many things in life make more sense when you look back in time.

It's been nearly two months since my amazing grandma, Kang Zhi-Min, the woman who practically raised me from birth to three and a half, passed away. After she died I was overcome with motivation — but I had no idea why.

Just weeks after losing my grandmother, I decided to start a girls empowerment program called Girl. Strong. to honour her.

I realize now that I needed to create the program to help me grieve.  

Three generations. Me, my daughter and grandma. (Yollanda Zhang)

Grandma didn't have an easy life

My grandma had a hard life, like many other women from her generation. But hers had a few twists and turns that made everything tougher.

Her dad died when she was two, leaving my great grandmother to raise her alone. Because she had to work to make a living (which was incredibly unusual in those days), my grandma was placed in the care of her aunts and uncles. There, she was abused as a child.

She didn't have access to education and married very young. Her husband was the youngest son in a large family, and she says she was always made to feel inadequate by her older sisters-in-law. As a result, she always put herself last and she lacked confidence in her own incredible abilities.

Learning to use the abacus with grandma. She always valued education and wanted her family to be exposed to knowledge. (Yollanda Zhang)

A gentle, kind, life-long learner

Despite all these adversities, she became the most gentle, kind, selfless and loving woman I have ever known. She made sacrifices to ensure that all her children received an education and grew up to be strong and loving adults.

Even though she would never believe it herself, my grandma was incredibly smart and she loved to learn. She was illiterate until adulthood. But she attended night school after working a 10-hour shift at the yarn factory and also taught herself to read.

She was the only grandma I knew who was an expert iPad user and also on all the social media platforms. She gave me a wonderful childhood and showed me by example how to be kind and loving. I've never met anyone else like her and am forever grateful for everything she did for me and my family.

I love that my daughter is able to speak Mandarin and could build a real connection with her great-grandmother. (Yollanda Zhang)

Giving young girls the opportunities my grandma never had

My biggest regret is that she never really saw herself the way we all did – as smart, kind, and beautiful, inside and out. I always wondered what other amazing things she would have done if she was given more opportunities when she was younger. I don't want to ever wonder about this for my daughter.

So now, I want to help give other young girls the opportunities my grandma never had. I want Girl. Strong. to honour her memory and continue her legacy.