China / Society

Orphaned, but not alone

By Zhao Xu (China Daily) Updated: 2015-03-20 07:48

Adopting a Chinese baby changed Jenny Bowen's life, and prompted the former Hollywood scriptwriter to found a charity dedicated to providing care for abandoned children in China, as Zhao Xu reports.

 Orphaned, but not alone

Jenny Bowen founded the Half the Sky Foundation in 1998, a year after she adopted a Chinese girl. The former screenwriter and independent filmmaker from the US established the charity to improve the lives of orphaned and abandoned children in China. Photo Provided to China Daily


For Jenny Bowen, the distance between herself and her newly adopted daughter began to close when the child, barely 2, slowly began edging nearer on the hotel bed. "She didn't dare to look at me, but as I felt the warmth of her back inching closer to me, I also felt her courage," Bowen recalled in an e-mail exchange with China Daily.

Bowen had met her new daughter a few days before, at an orphanage in Guangzhou, Guangdong province. "Her face was splotched with sores and she was clutching a dried lichee nut in each hand that had been placed there to keep her from scratching her scores. Tired and confused, she was so beautiful and so sad," said the 60-something mother of four, looking back to that hot afternoon in summer 1997. "A smiling woman in a white uniform lifted her up to me, but she arched her back when I tried to hold her. She wanted nothing to do with me."

Back in the United States, it quickly became clear to Bowen, a former Hollywood screenwriter and independent filmmaker, and her cinematographer husband Richard, that despite her one attempt at contact their new daughter would not adapt to family life easily. "She was emotionally shutdown. Vacant," Bowen said. "Her isolation was heartbreaking. She simply didn't know how to accept loving attention. But still, we did what parents everywhere do: We gave her lots of hugs and kisses. And in time, she was transformed by that love."

The girl, Maya, is now a freshman at the University of California, and She harbors ambitions of becoming a teacher. The 19-year-old was also the inspiration for her mother's charity, the Half the Sky Foundation, named for Mao Zedong's famous dictum, "Women hold up half the sky". Founded in 1998 by Bowen and a handful of friends, mostly US nationals who had adopted Chinese babies, HTS now works with about 70 orphanages across China.

"Parents know instinctively that at least one consistent, loving adult is crucial for a child's healthy development. Children who spend their early months and years in orphanages without experiencing that love often have great difficulty forming emotional bonds as they grow older," Bowen said. "In the first three years of life, a child's experiences dictate how her brain is wired. Each stimulus - each kiss, each story, each sunset - promotes the development of brain cells. Holding and stroking an infant stimulates the brain to release growth hormones, without which children cannot thrive."

Later in the exchange, she wrote: "It's our mission to offer loving, family-like care to children who remain in orphanages, no matter what has brought them there."

Enthusiasm and experience

Bowen also enlisted the help of Zhang Zhirong, a former project director with the China Population Welfare Foundation, Zhang, who speaks English fluently, first got to know Bowen during a telephone conversation. "She called to say she wanted to help the children," Zhang recalled. She later joined Bowen on visits to child welfare institutions across China, and joined HTS when she retired in 2000.

Looking back, the 70-something said her enthusiasm was fired by her deep knowledge of Chinese orphanages, and the sense that change was in the air. "Determination and perseverance aside, Jenny arrived at the right time," Zhang said. "In the early 1990s, the Chinese government started to focus on child welfare. In 1995, the World Women's Conference was held in Beijing, which drew even more attention to conditions in the country's orphanages.

"In the following three years, the government built or refurbished many orphanages, making the spaces bright and beautiful. By the time Jenny arrived, the buildings and other infrastructure were already there. All she needed to do was focus on the software, and help the government to build effective programs with trained caregivers," she said.

Emphasizing "responsive care", Half the Sky encourages caregivers to pay close attention to their charges' needs and interests, even during routine activities. By recognizing that even the youngest child needs human interaction, the nannies help to stimulate and cultivate attachment and growth, curiosity and confidence.

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