Seeds of hope





ON JULY 4, 1998, Jenny Bowen looked out her kitchen window in Berkeley, California, and watched her adopted Chinese daughter Maya romping happily with other children in the backyard. It was exactly one year since the family had brought the toddler home from the Guangzhou Social Welfare Institution, and Bowen marvelled at how the little girl, who one year earlier had difficulty walking, had changed. 

'She was in sorry shape when we brought her home,' recalls Bowen. Her daughter displayed the effects of institutionalisation, from poor health to a lack of expression or interest in external elements. 'I thought about the things parents do by instinct, and not by training, and I saw how she blossomed as a result,' says Bowen. 'We did what anybody would do - we held her, played with her, sang to her and read stories to her.' 

The changes made her think of the many other girls left behind in orphanages. 'I thought, what if we could do this for other children in the orphanages who are waiting for families or who will never be adopted?' Bowen admits that at the time she had no background in the problems of institutionalised children. 'I only had a hunch,' she says. 'I wanted what happened to my daughter to happen to other children.' 

The former Hollywood screenwriter began contacting friends who had also adopted Chinese babies. Later that year, a group of five families set up the Half the Sky Foundation, the name taken from a Chinese adage that says, 'Women hold up half the sky'. 

Bowen, now executive director of Half the Sky, liaised with 'hundreds of people', from teachers to educational psychologists and experts on institutionalised children. The experts confirmed that old-fashioned loving care could work wonders for children in institutions. 

Dr Dana Johnson, director of the International Adoption Clinic at the University of Minnesota, says children growing up in institutions often experience cognitive deficiencies. Brain development is often affected, he says. Their temporal lobes, which are responsible for memory, don't work as well as those of children who grow up in normal families, he says. Johnson cites a study which indicates that the longer a child spends in an orphanage, the lower the IQ. 'Two years doesn't sound like a long time to us, but it's life-long for a child,' he says. 

Johnson, a Half the Sky board member, says young children need to be touched, talked to, and made to feel loved. And they need to develop a bond with a caretaker who will be a continual presence. 'If children don't make attachments, they don't learn how to trust.' 

After taking to the experts, Bowen began to visit Chinese orphanages, which she says were doing their best to keep children clean, healthy and well fed. The problem, she says, was that they had limited resources. 

'The system is overwhelmed by the numbers. Providing basic care for the children is a full-time job,' she says. 'There's a row of babies and you work your way down the row, feeding them, changing nappies, and then you start all over again. You can't pick up a baby and give her a hug, or walk her around the room. There are simply too many.' 

Chinese experts were sceptical. 'People in the know said it could not be done,' says Bowen. 'Everyone said: 'You'll get the money, but you'll never get inside a welfare institution.'' 

The first step was to find a national government organisation in Beijing that could 'be on our side', says Bowen. Half the Sky's luck changed when it found a sympathetic ear at the China Population Welfare Foundation. In mid-1999, the government invited Half the Sky to Beijing. A team made presentations to the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA) and to orphanage directors in three provinces. The following January, the organisation was allowed to set up one-year pilot programmes at Changzhou, in Jiangsu province, and Hefei, in Anhui province. 

'Looking back, I think this was evidence of the concern Chinese have for their children, and of their desire to do what's best for them,' says Bowen. 

Half the Sky's main goal was to hire and train nannies to bond with babies, who were accustomed to 'multiple faces' at the institutions, Bowen says. It also trained pre-school teachers to work closely with children aged 18 months to seven years. The initiative started with the Baby Sisters Infant Nurture Programme, in which Half the Sky funded the hiring and training of nannies, called zumu, or grandmother, in Chinese. In the infant programmes, one nanny cares for between three and five infants. In the Little Sisters Preschool Programme, there is an 8:1 ratio between children and teachers. 

Dr Janice Cotton was brought in to train the nannies to care for their babies. Each was instructed to watch the babies closely and interpret what they were 'saying'. They were also taught to provide a loving touch. 'Babies can't be touched enough,' says Cotton, who has made five trips to China to run training programmes. 'The more babies are touched the more likely they are to be independent as toddlers and to be less demanding. These women became the mothers for these babies, and that's what we wanted.' 

In one infant room at the Hefei Social Welfare Institute, several women aged 30 to 50 sit on the floor, each with two or three babies in their laps. A dozen other babies crawl contentedly every which way, creating a sort of infant gridlock. Each looks healthy, happy and loved. When the babies reach 18 months, they go into the Little Sisters Programme. 

Young local teachers are trained in an innovative curriculum that combines American teaching methods, the best of contemporary Chinese preschool education, and the Reggio Emilia system, developed in Italy after the second world war. It emphasises a free rein on artistic expression and a close relationship between teacher and child. Many of the children's activities are documented, including transcriptions of their remarks, video journals, photographs and examples of their work. Each of the Little Sisters thus has a tangible 'memory book' to take with her beyond the institution - creating, in effect, a personal history for children who lack one. 

American volunteers flew to China to spruce up the facilities. Walls were scraped and repainted in cheerful pastels. Carpenters built tables, chairs, bookshelves and puppet theatres. In the infant centres, floors were carpeted and half of the rooms were padded with gym mats. Pull-up bars and developmental toys were placed everywhere. 

Within six months the children were showing big changes. 'All were becoming different people,' says Bowen. 'The institutional behaviour we know about - rocking, scratching, head-banging, and indiscriminate affection - just ceased.' 

Johnson monitored 34 children at four Half the Sky member institutions who had been in the programme for 18 months, testing everything from IQ to physical development and how they functioned in their daily lives. The tests showed that the children had reached the normal range in all areas. For example, their height, which had been lower than average when they entered the programme, was normal. 'In about all the things we look at, the children most behind did the best, and that's what we wanted to see,' says Johnson. 'And it didn't matter if they were younger or older children.' 

The results proved Bowen's hunch was right. 'We had a really good idea about what we wanted to do, but we didn't know if it would be successful,' she says. 'I had a really strong feeling that if we could get into an institution it would work. But we never imagined that it would work as well or as quickly as it did.' 

Zhao Wen, programme director for Half the Sky, says teachers were initially doubtful about importing western teaching methods to China. 

'At first there was resistance, and considerable pain involved in shifting from the traditional Chinese teaching method - with its emphasis on teacher-oriented planning and a structured lesson plan - to the Reggio approach, which begins with the child's interests,' says Zhao. 

'In the beginning we were a bit doubtful,' admits Xie Dao Sheng, a teacher at the Hefei Social Welfare Institute. 'We didn't understand the combining of traditional Chinese education with play.' She says the results convinced the teachers. 'The students are more lively than before, and they have more confidence,' she says. 'They speak more and laugh with the teachers.' 

A visit to a Half the Sky pre-school classroom shows an environment that differs sharply from traditional Chinese classrooms, where the teacher is a symbol of unquestioned authority. In a pre-school classroom at the Hefei institute, teachers sit on stools at eye-level with the children as they work with piles of dried leaves, clay and colorful scraps of paper and cloth. The structure is flexible, and encourages each child to be creative. 

Institute director Sun Kai laughs as she describes how one of her children had pointed out that a teacher in the neighbourhood school had incorrectly written a Chinese character on the blackboard. 'Chinese children never rebut or criticise a teacher,' says Sun, barely concealing her delight in the confidence of her young girls. 'Our children feel equal with the teachers, and this is extremely helpful to their development. They won't be afraid of the teacher or to speak out.' 

Sun proudly describes how the teachers at the local school, who once had little regard for the children from the orphanage, have changed their views. 'Your children are completely different from the past,' she quotes one teacher as saying. 'They're really wonderful.' 

While Bowen initially wanted to focus on pre-school children and those unlikely to be adopted, she soon realised that older girls at these institutions were falling through the cracks. To remedy this, Half the Sky last year launched a Big Sister programme for children and teenagers aged 12 to 18 years, who face an uncertain future without help. 

The new programme maintains a pool of funds to pay for whatever specific help a child needs, from remedial tutoring to middle school tuition, music lessons, and computer or vocational training. Half the Sky now has 375 nannies and teachers on its payroll at 13 institutions. A teacher's salary costs about US$200 per month, while US$50 is enough to hire a nanny. 

Although Half the Sky does not have the resources to begin to reach into all of China's orphanages, it hopes to have a trickle-down effect. In November it used a grant from the Ford Foundation to publish a colourful training manual for its programmes. Three thousand copies of the Chinese edition are being distributed to orphanages around China, and Bowen hopes the MCA will be inspired to print another batch of copies. 

The organisation plans to work with two orphanages in each province with a significant number of children living in institutions. These chosen orphanages - one in the provincial capital and one in a smaller city - will come to serve as regional models and then as training centres for other institutions. 

Watching more than 100 social welfare institute workers from all over China listen attentively as experts talked about the Half the Sky philosophy in a conference room in Hefei last month, it was hard to believe that this wide-ranging project began with something as simple as a casual glance out a kitchen window just five years ago. Half the Sky has come a long way in this short period, hurdling obstacles many thought were insurmountable. 

'In a way, this project was blessed from the beginning,' says Bowen. 'It was meant to happen.' 

For information about Half The Sky, or to make a donation, visit


© 2013 Paul J. Mooney