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 children 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.
This article is the fifth and last in a series by Bowen: “Millions of Forgotten Children, No Longer Forgotten“, “Half the Sky Foundation Founder and CEO Talks About ‘Wish You Happy Forever’“, “Half the Sky: A Rainbow for China’s Children” and “Half the Sky: Taking Our Solution to Scale“.
When Xia Hongying visited the Siping orphanage in China’s Jilin Province for the first time, she saw a caregiver chasing a little girl around, trying to feed her some rice porridge. When Xia asked why, the caregiver responded: “She’s autistic. She can’t learn.” Xia knelt down, held six-year-old Yuqiao’s hand to guide the spoon into her mouth, and gently encouraged her over and over. After a half hour, Xia could see that Yuqiao had the desire to feed herself. She recommended that the caregiver break down the feeding process into a series of slow movements to give Yuqiao time to observe and remember. She showed the caregiver how to hold Yuqiao’s hands, offering her steady encouragement. Six months later, Yuqiao, once completely alone, now sits down to eat with the other children, plays with them, dresses herself, and follows directions. Her amazed caregivers now reject the autism label because they have seen that with their patient, loving care, Yuqiao is not only learning, she is thriving.
Xia is one of fifteen senior staffers at Half the Sky who’ve been named by our government partners “Child Development Experts” (CDEs). Chosen for their inspirational teaching skills, their ability to connect with and recognize the potential of each child, and their years of experience navigating the complex child welfare bureaucracy, each of the CDEs is permanently based at a Half the Sky Model Children’s Center in provincial capitals across China. The CDEs, initially funded by the visionary Peter Bennett Foundation, are responsible for fulfilling the promise of the Rainbow Program (a multi-year effort to transform the child welfare system from within by training every child welfare worker in the country) after the initial direct training sessions have concluded. Along with a government counterpart, the CDE travels throughout her province or region, giving workshops, helping willing orphanages to implement Half the Sky–inspired programs.
Three years into the Rainbow Program, the inroads our CDEs are making clearly demonstrate the wisdom of that approach. Perhaps our CDEs’ most impressive feat is that they have been able to transfer their excitement about each child’s potential not only to caregivers but also to the government training partners they work with. Government trainer, Bo Long, who works closely with our Hunan CDE says: “I am a Rainbow trainer now. I have the courage to speak out for our children, which I didn’t dare do before!” Bo Long’s eyes sparkle when she talks about the phone calls she’s received from orphanage directors after she and our CDE have conducted joint trainings. They tell her about the changes they made right after the training, the newly energized caregivers, the administrators and caregivers clamoring for more training, and most important, the children who are developing in ways no one at the institutions thought possible.
Not only is she enthusiastic about upgrading care for the children, Bo Long has jettisoned the traditional Chinese training style, which meant sitting in front of a classroom away from the trainees reading from notes, in favor of Half the Sky’s interactive teaching style that all of our CDEs have mastered: walking around to make eye contact with every trainee; asking questions; using a variety of tones of voice; citing many examples from her daily work; and relating the curriculum to the experiences of the trainees.
Though our CDEs’ passion for their work has proven to be contagious, it is also challenging. Armed with her long experience as a supervisor for our Family Village program in Chongqing, where she had developed a close working relationship with institution staff, Xia Hongying was excited to take on new challenges as the CDE of distant Jilin Province. She also told herself that she could handle moving from southwest China 2,300 kilometers northeast to Jilin’s capital city, Changchun, leaving her husband and teenaged son behind. But Xia quickly learned that developing relationships with officials in a new province requires patience and persistence. The very first institution she approached refused her offers of training but wouldn’t say why. Faced with constant similar roadblocks, Xia, who has always prided herself on embracing new challenges, soon wasn’t sleeping or eating well, was homesick, and even had thoughts of giving up and going back home to Chongqing.
Instead, at a regular CDE advanced training at the Half the Sky offices in Beijing, Xia received plenty of advice and support from her supervisors and peers. Armed with their concrete suggestions, she returned to Jilin and soon was able to help resolve the issue (which turned out to be a misunderstanding about funding) that caused that first orphanage to reject her: “It was a turning point. The institution finally welcomed me, and together we began to explore more ways for their staff to learn and make changes. Suddenly, where I once felt weak and helpless, I was strong.”
In addition to hard-earned optimism about her work, Xia has learned that despite its cold winters, she likes her new home in Changchun. When she traveled back to Chongqing for Chinese New Year, she felt chilled because even though the weather is warmer in southern China, there is often no indoor heating. And, ironically, from a distance she’s also learned how close her family is. One day, Xia’s eighteen-year-old son, who resides at a vocational school, called and told her he missed her. Tears filled Xia’s eyes. “Chinese people are reserved and shy about expressing themselves, but my leaving forced my son to express how much he missed me.” Though they miss her, Xia’s husband and son voice more and more support for her move as they hear her stories about children like Yuqiao. Recently, Xia’s son, speaking for all of us at Half the Sky as well, said, “I am so proud of you, Mom. My father and I are touched by what you have accomplished.”