Editor’s Note: Jenny Bowen, founder and CEO of Half the Sky, is the author of Wish You Happy Forever, which chronicles her personal and professional journey to transform Chinese orphanages—and the lives of the neglected girls who live in them—from a state of quiet despair to one of vibrant promise. Wish You Happy Forever is available for pre-order now and is released March 11.
When Mark Tauber, publisher at HarperOne, told me about the opportunity to share our story by way of a new partnership between the publisher and the Skoll Foundation, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that it should be done.
Half the Sky’s story—the miracle we were seeing unfold in China—needed to be told. I was thrilled. I wanted to see that book. As a former screenwriter, I (or my writer’s ego) figured that I should be the one to write it. I just didn’t have a clue how. But such an opportunity was not to be sneezed at. So I did a quick skills survey, sighed, shrugged, and jumped in anyway. That was pretty much what happened when I set out to change the world.
Of course, back in 1996 when my life-changing adventure really began, I had no way of knowing I’d one day be rocking boats on the other side of the Pacific:
Early one Saturday morning, we were at home in Pacific Palisades, California. Dick, a cinematographer, was shooting a Chevy truck commercial and had a late call. A rare moment to kick back with coffee and the New York Times.
I was sitting at the kitchen table in my bathrobe, sorting seeds we’d ordered from catalogs at the start of the new year. Vegetables for Dick; herbs and flowers for me. This was sanity in our ever-precarious Hollywood existence. Today I was going to plant the first of my seeds in the potting shed. It was probably too early. Just as well, because I never did make it outside.
“Jenny, you’ve got to see this.”
In the newspaper, a photo of a tiny girl—really just the shadow of a child—eyes crusted over, cheeks sunken and dark. Her body, all bones.
“U.S. rights group asserts China lets thousands of orphans die.” The story was about the just-released 1996 Human Rights Watch report, Death by Default: The Policy of Fatal Neglect in China’s State-Run Orphanages.
Based on records smuggled out of a Shanghai orphanage along with a limited set of statistics relating to nationwide orphan mortality, the group claimed that thousands of healthy abandoned infants were dying of severe malnutrition only weeks or months after being admitted to orphanages across China.
And it said that the two thousand or so adoptions by foreigners couldn’t begin to solve the problem. And it said that virtually all of the abandoned babies were girls. Unwanted little girls.
I guess that somewhere I may have heard that children were given up in places like China and India because they were girls. I may have heard it, but somehow, reading it now, seeing the photo of a child nobody wanted, a dying baby girl …
Now we both knew what we had to do. Sort of. “What can we do?” Dick said.
“I don’t know. Send money?”
Isn’t that what we usually did? But who would we send it to? How could our money make the slightest difference? We sat looking at each other, eyes red and throats lumpy.
“We could bring one home.”
He said it. It wasn’t even my idea. But I guess, to my credit, I knew he was right. That’s what we would do.
So we set out on our adoption journey not to build a family—we had raised two lovely children, the nest was empty—but to save one life. That was how we saw it then.
Eighteen months later, there I was, still living a comfortable but not particularly meaningful life. I looked out my kitchen window one afternoon and what I saw changed everything.
There was the little girl we’d brought home from an orphanage in China just a year before—the abandoned, sad-faced toddler who came to us sick, malnourished, delayed, and shut down. The one who didn’t know what to do with a hug because she’d never known love. There she was, romping around in our garden, full of joy and giggles, looking like a child who had been adored from the moment she was born.
It seemed like a miracle, but one that made perfect sense. For the past year, we’d cuddled and cooed to that baby her every waking moment, and with the natural resilience of children, our little girl was now healed, or at least on the road to normal. It was easy!
So I did what I suddenly, instantly, absolutely knew I was put on earth to do. With a few friends and a handful of experts, I created an organization committed to bringing a caring adult into the life of every orphaned child in China. Without knowing a word of Chinese or anything about government relations or China or even much about child development, I set out to convince China to re-imagine its entire child welfare system.
And fifteen years later, guess what? We’ve done it. Today Half the Sky partners with the Chinese government to train every child welfare worker in that vast country.
I never imagined when I founded Half the Sky, the impact we ultimately would have on the lives of millions of forgotten children. What’s happened in China is extraordinary, but anybody who’s met me knows that I’m completely ordinary. Like a lot of ordinary people, I’ve always been a big dreamer. The only difference between me (or dare I say, at least a few of my fellow social entrepreneurs) and the dreamers for whom I wrote this book is: I did it.
I chased a dream. Anyone can. Let’s hear it for the ordinaries!
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