In Jenny’s words …
What inspires you? The children. I never fail to be moved by their magical transformations – shattered, emotionally vacant children become the curious, smiling children they were meant to be after they receive the simple gift of nurturing that is taken for granted in loving families. Those transformations keep me fighting to improve the lives of the children we haven’t yet reached.
Best advice: Don’t be afraid to learn something new and start something new. And when you do, don’t be intimidated by the ‘experts’ or by people telling you that what you’re trying to achieve is impossible.
Tears still spring to Jenny Bowen’s eyes as she remembers walking into her first Chinese orphanage. Row upon row of toddlers sat motionless, their scrawny legs tied to their chairs with rags that bit into their flesh. Silent babies were tied to the railings in their cots, some desperately trying to suckle from bottles that had fallen from their reach. The older kids were not tied. But they too sat still, silent, with dull eyes staring from sunken faces.
Jenny felt as though she’d been punched. Her very being ached at the sight of these kids, all girls, unwanted, unloved. And this was just one orphanage among hundreds in China. Upon returning to her hotel room she collapsed. “I just completely fell apart,” Jenny recalls. “The anger, the frustration, the helplessness. I had an overwhelming urge to sweep them all up and take them away from here.”
But Jenny realised this would be nothing but a band-aid solution. What about the thousands of other kids in orphanages across the country? She needed to work with the Chinese to improve life’s lot for its unwanted children.
And work with them she did. Through her charity Half the Sky Foundation, recently renamed OneSky, this once-Hollywood film director has led a revolution in the Chinese child welfare system. Over 18 years the charity has trained 14,000 caregivers in 700 orphanages across China to help 130,000 orphans. Most significantly, it has highlighted the importance of one single ingredient to a child’s development – love.
Row upon row of toddlers sat motionless, their skinny legs tied to their chairs with rags …
Saving one life
Jenny would never have dreamed her life would pan out this way. She lived a fast-paced life, as a Hollywood film director. Her two kids had grown up and left home. Her husband Dick was just as busy as a cinematographer. But a news item tore them from their frenzied existence. A New York Times article showed a photo of a dying Chinese orphan, one of many of China’s children abandoned simply because they were girls. “It just stopped us cold,” Jenny says. “We had been so caught up in our own little world but this just made us stop, and feel compelled to do something. But what could we do?”
Their solution? Save one life by adopting a child. What started as an altruistic notion morphed into a deep personal desire for a Chinese child. So, by the time they eventually travelled to China to meet the 20-month-old girl selected for them, Jenny and Dick were fully invested into the notion of a new daughter. “It was so surreal,” Jenny recalls. “This little girl was placed into my arms and we were kind of in a stupor – and so was she. She was just dazed. It was amazing holding her. I knew she was my child but I knew this little girl was in a world of trouble. She couldn’t walk, she was full of parasites, she was covered with sores, thin as can be but with a big pot belly. And the scariest thing was that she was emotionally vacant. She was a little shell. She didn’t know how to accept love.”
“… the scariest thing was that she was emotionally vacant.”
Determined to make up for the love she’d missed out on, Jenny showered the young girl, Maya, with love and affection. Slowly her sores healed, she put on weight, she started to walk, to talk, to accept cuddles.
But it wasn’t until Jenny spotted her outside their home window a year after Maya’s adoption that she realised how far Maya had come. “I just looked out and there was this little child romping around in the garden so full of joy,” Jenny says. “Looking through the frame of that glass she looked like a child who’d been loved from the very beginning. So I said to my husband ‘well, that was easy, let’s do that for the rest’.”
Importance of love
She wasn’t joking. As if preparing for a new film, Jenny threw herself into researching ways of ensuring Chinese orphans received the love and affection so essential for their development. She came to learn about the science behind how lack of love at an early age can stifle a child’s growth. She discovered that holding and stroking an infant stimulates the brain to release growth hormones. Without such interaction, a child will fail to thrive.
Jenny also came across an educational approach called Reggio Emilia – a child-centred approach to learning – which she believed would help nurture China’s orphans. But how to bring such knowledge to the Chinese, with no contacts, no Chinese language skills and absolutely no understanding of Chinese culture?
She discovered that holding and stroking an infant stimulates the brain to release growth hormones.
Doggedly determined, Jenny eventually wrangled her way into a meeting with government officials in China. She cajoled and pleaded and negotiated her way into receiving permission to develop a pilot program in two Chinese orphanages – which led her to the orphanage with the children tied to their chairs in the year 2000.
It was here she realised the importance of working with the system, rather than fighting against it – a realisation that has become the hallmark of OneSky’s success. “I realised the only way I could change a broken system would be to find a way to work with the people, to be their partner and that realisation has led me every step of the way since,” Jenny says. “And I learned along the way that they are just people – the government bureaucrats were just people, the ladies that were treating the orphans so badly were just people – no-one had ever talked to them about this. No one had ever tried to find a solution.”
Winning over government
To win over the government and appeal to their sense of pride, Jenny realised the importance of creating beautiful spaces filled with international-standard toys in the orphanages. “All I really wanted to do was get caring people in to look after these children but the government really wanted to see international standard and state-of-the-art facilities,” she says.
With a team of volunteers from America, most of them fellow parents of adopted Chinese children, Jenny set to work cleaning, painting and refurnishing the pilot orphanages into swanky childcare rooms.
Forming loving bonds
Then came the most important part – recruiting local women to come into the orphanages as carers. At the time, many state-owned factories had closed down, leaving many woman aged around 40 deemed too old to work elsewhere. Jenny started hiring these women, most illiterate and untrained, and instructing them on the importance of attachment and bonding to the development of a small child. These women became nannies for the children, forming individual bonds with the children in their care.
Jenny and her team also sought out teachers from Chinese schools to work in the orphanages and taught them a whole new way of teaching, where children are encouraged to think for themselves, to be creative, to share their own ideas about the world.
Jenny remembers watching the volunteers on OneSky’s first trip to the orphanages. “As I watched the volunteers, with tears in their eyes, lifting tots free, tickling and dancing and crooning, I saw how it would work,” Jenny says. “Every day, we would come back. We would come back with reinforcements – nannies and teachers and foster mamas and babas, and before long this would become a place where babies were cuddled instead of trapped and tied, and every single vacant-eyed toddler and scrawny six-year-old would know what it feels like to be the apple of somebody’s eye.”
“… before long this would become a place where babies were cuddled instead of trapped and tied, and every single vacant-eyed toddler and scrawny six-year-old would know what it feels like to be the apple of somebody’s eye.”
Another life saved
Around this time Jenny also first set eyes on her second daughter. Xinmei, now called Anya, was 28-months-old, with a mass of blood vessels bulging from her neck from a hemangioma. When she eventually received permission to adopt Anya, Jenny discovered two years of wet nappies tied tight with rope rags had caused bone-deep scars on Anya’s hips. Her tiny feet were thick with scars. And spite filled her eyes as she slapped and spit her new mother like a wildcat. It would be a long journey to transform Anya into the warm and successful young woman she is today.
While Jenny embarked on the long process of healing Anya with love, the kids in the orphanages were also blossoming with the new affection and attention. Light crept into their eyes, smiles spread over faces, and individual personalities began to shine.
It wasn’t just the kids who transformed. Jenny was amazed to witness the carers and teachers come alive as they realised the power they had to make a positive difference to a child’s life. “It showed them that miracles can happen,” Jenny says. “The transformation for young kids in the first six months is miraculous. And these women were witness to these miracles.”
Within a year, Jenny had permission to extend the program to another two orphanages, then more, and more. Amazed by the results, the Chinese came to realise the importance of providing such care to its children. And, when Jenny heard the director general of the child welfare agency give a speech using the words she herself had once explained to him, she knew how far they’d come. “I just thought, there’s no stopping us now,” she says. “We can do anything. Now I knew we could move the government; now we could really transform the system.”
Light crept into their eyes, smiles spread over faces, and individual personalities began to shine.
Love – a universal healer
It wasn’t until Jenny reflected on her journey while writing her book Wish you happy forever that she realised the universality of what she was doing. People flocked to her book signings, begging her to start such a program in their own home countries across the world, even in New York City. Jenny realised the deep human need for love was universal – no matter what a child’s nationality or background.
The realisation sparked a new movement within OneSky, which is now transitioning its management to the Chinese to run across their entire child welfare system. It ignited a move outside of the orphanages to also help young children left behind in rural Chinese villages when their parents leave to find work. OneSky is now training grandparents, the children’s primary caregivers, in the art of valuing young children, it is launching village childcare centres operated by loving carers like the ones within the orphanages and it is training local mothers to stay in their home villages and become early childhood educators under the OneSky model.
Next year OneSky will also start operating in Vietnam for the children of migrant factory workers. Jenny dreams of such a model one day taking over the globe. “It’s all about taking children, these poor little victims and burdens to society, and starting to value them for the potential in them, and planning for their futures,” Jenny says. “These young kids who’ve overcome adversity have access to something the rest of us don’t have – that depth of character, spirit, resilience and inner strength. They have a quality that kids born into privilege don’t have. Imagine what they could go on to do in the world if they’re just given the chance.”
“Imagine what they could go on to do in the world if they’re just given the chance.”
Get involved …
You can support OneSky’s work by making a donation. Visit the website at www.halfthesky.org to find out more. In Australia, you can receive an Australian tax receipt by donating to Half the Sky Foundation Australia’s Orphanage Projects at www.halfthesky.org.au.