Who Will Help the Children?

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By Elizabeth Brokamp
December 15, 2006

Our youngest daughter's "birth" into our family started with a phone call on June 28, 2005. The adoption agency's China program director parceled out tiny bits of information about this little person who would change our lives: "Your baby was born in October of 2004 in Jiangsu province, her name means 'beautiful and peaceful,' and she's lived in an orphanage." Then the director added, "Half the Sky has a program there; you're very lucky."

And so began our love affair with our daughter, Zoe, and the amazing organization that helped to transform her life.

Half the Sky had arrived to renovate the Gaoyou Social Welfare Institute, the orphanage where Zoe lived, in April of 2005, when Zoe was just seven months old. The renovation to the physical environment alone was stunning, the effort of a team of volunteers who turned a stark, derelict-looking building into something softer, kinder, and more stimulating. But the other part of the work -- the reason I get tears in my eyes whenever Half the Sky is mentioned -- is what Half the Sky did to bring warmth and nurturing into her life, and what it continues to do to transform the lives of countless other orphaned children across China.

An overwhelming number of children live in orphanages across China, most of them girls, with only their basic needs being met. That's probably how our smart, funny, fiercely loving little girl spent her first seven months of life. Enter Half the Sky.

Named after the Chinese adage "women hold up half the sky," this organization establishes infant-nurturing centers for orphaned babies, Little Sisters preschools for toddlers, Big Sisters programs to educate older girls who have grown up in institutions, and Family Villages, which provide family-style care for children whose special needs preclude them from ever being adopted. In Zoe's orphanage, Gaoyou SWI, Half the Sky worked with the staff to train nannies, the children's caregivers, in child development; to combine Eastern and Western ideas about the need to hold babies and have them on the floor and out of a crib; and, very importantly, to offer the resources to allow this to happen. They do this with unprecedented cooperation from the Chinese government, something Half the Sky's director, Jenny Bowen, has worked very hard to achieve.

For our family, this isn't just the description of a charitable act by a philanthropic organization. It's how we came to have a daughter who could, at 10-and-a-half months old, make some eye contact and turn an expectant little face to mine whenever she mastered a new skill, as if to say, "OK, clap for me!" It's how Zoe, having been institutionalized for her entire life, could arrive at her American pediatrician's office and be pronounced developmentally "on target." It's how she could come to accept the love of a family, something very hard to do if you've never been taught to trust.

I think about the love and warmth I was able to shower on our older two children from the time I knew I was pregnant. My maternity shirts all had circles imprinted on them from where I rubbed my ever-increasing belly; I sang and talked to them constantly those many months. And after they were born, I was able to carry them close to my heart in a baby carrier. For Zoe, I wasn't able to do those things; in fact, no one did them. Zoe's head was actually flattened in the back from having lain in her crib so much during those early days.

But because of Half the Sky, Zoe's story changed when she was seven months old. By the time I met her to bring her home to America, she very clearly knew that someone cared.

On my trip to China, I was able to visit the orphanage, meet her nanny, and watch Zoe's face light up at the sight of her. The two of them -- the daughter I had met only days before and the woman who'd nurtured her -- played together on the floor mats, while in elaborate pantomime her nanny (who knew no English) and I (who knew no Chinese) communicated. I repeated, "Thank you, thank you," as I watched them play, knowing that the obvious joy she took in Zoe was something priceless. When our guides said it was time to leave, you would be hard-pressed to find a dry eye anywhere.

An orphanage, even a great one, isn't a substitute for a family. But orphanage life is a reality for so many precious children in China (and around the world). Until the work is done and every child has a home and family of his or her own, we can only hope that Half the Sky will be there.

To learn more about Half the Sky and support its work, visit its Foolanthropy page.

Fool contributor Elizabeth Brokamp and her husband, Robert Brokamp, editor of The Motley Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter, count Half the Sky as one of the miracles in their lives.