Charity gives China's abandoned, disabled children a second chance
SecondCharity's shared apartments offer China's abandoned, special-needs children a new beginning, writesVivian Chiu
Hunan native Li Shi was born with cerebral palsy. His father had to take on a number of jobs to raise him, but became seriously ill and died. Unable to support Li, his widowed mother abandoned him in the city when he was five years old.
For several months, the boy survived by running with a gang of beggars in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, until a concerned stranger took him to an orphanage, the Changsha Welfare Centre.
In 1997, he was finally placed in the care of International China Concern (ICC), and now lives semi-independently in a home run by the group. Now 25, he sells newspapers and has a cleaning job in the afternoons. He even preaches at a local church and dreams of entering the seminary.
Li's experience is just one of several of the organisation's success stories.
The ICC, founded in 1993, works with the mainland government to provide care services for disabled children who have been cast out by their families. Through its work over the past two decades, the Christian organisation has shown how disabled children, with proper care and guidance, can develop their potential and integrate into society.
Today, ICC has eight offices worldwide, which raise funds for projects, and recruit sponsors and volunteers with a passion to serve in China.
ICC's founder, David Gotts, quit his banking job in Britain in 1990 and came to Hong Kong hoping to find his true calling. Three years later, after studying Putonghua in Taiwan, he paid a chance visit to an orphanage during a trip to the mainland.
He was saddened by the sight of the children, blank-faced and hardly interacting with anyone. Abandoned children were taken to the welfare centre every day, leaving caregivers overwhelmed. One worker, with 30 children in her care, could barely meet their most basic needs.
"So many babies were left by themselves with no one to hold or cuddle them. Even though their bodies were alive, their spirits had died," the 42-year-old Gotts says.
When Gotts told friends about the experience, many were eager to help. So he set about establishing ICC and took a team of volunteers to the Changsha Welfare Centre to help care for the children. In just two weeks, children were smiling and becoming more active. The team's loving care had reignited their will to live.
One volunteer took care of an eight-year-old boy who showed symptoms of cerebral palsy. As they spent more time together, it became apparent that there was actually nothing wrong with the child. He smiled whenever the volunteer visited the centre, and quickly learned to walk.
That experience paved the way for ICC to attract more volunteers. In 1995, feeling it was necessary for them to stay in China for longer periods, Gotts negotiated a long-term contract with the Hunan Civil Affairs Bureau for ICC to work at the Changsha centre.
"It was a stressful time and I felt quite discouraged. One night, I returned to the orphanage and started going around praying for the kids. A boy came over, put his hands on me and prayed for me," Gotts says. That boy was Li Shi.
"It was a beautiful moment. It isn't just about us giving to these kids, but it's this mutual relationship of blessing. His prayer reinvigorated me and kept me going.
"When I see folks crouching over the children now, I still remember myself crouching over a crib and Li Shi standing next to me."
Gotts secured a building in Changsha and had it renovated into a long-term care home. Volunteers laid new floor tiles, partitioned rooms, fitted a kitchen and built a playground in the yard. It opened its doors in 1997, as the Oasis House, to 40 disabled children, including Li.
Two years later, another home, Hope House, welcomed 60 children.
In 2004, however, both houses were earmarked for demolition. The crisis led ICC to establish the "community group home" model in which six to eight children live in a four-bedroom apartment with two trained house parents.
The state welfare centre transfers children to the home, where they receive food, clothing and medical attention. Living like siblings, they are able to feel the joy of being accepted as part of a family.
The children learn to take the bus, buy vegetables, cook and do chores. ICC also helps them enter school, a major achievement as disabled children do not always get that chance on the mainland. To ensure permanent housing, ICC has bought a number of apartments, including boys' and girls' homes, and runs care centres in Changsha that house about 100 children in all. It operates two additional care homes, in neighbouring Hengyang city and Sanmenxia city in Henan province.
ICC is committed to taking care of the children throughout their lives. Even as young adults, they will receive support.
Chen Shi, a disabled child who grew up in an ICC home, earned a degree in computer design and now, at age 29, supports himself working for a Shenzhen computer firm.
ICC's work has helped the government recognise the value of caring for these children, and it now finances the charity's projects.
The state is investing more money to improve medical care, rehabilitation and the living environment of children in welfare centres - its term for orphanages. But they still fall short in providing the specialised care needed by children with serious disabilities.
ICC steps in and trains local caregivers, therapists and special-education teachers. More Chinese are also choosing social work as a career path. And by co-operating with ICC, state welfare institutes have learned new methods of rehabilitation and care management.
Orphanage worker Li Xianping says: "It's a miracle to see how ICC made it possible for the children to start walking and talking."
Jiang Lijun, director of the Hengyang Social Welfare Institute, praises the ICC's work. "They even care for children with Aids. It's difficult for ordinary people to understand," Jiang says.
Parental abandonment is still a problem. "I believe Chinese parents never give up their child easily. They struggle with the social and financial pressure to care for their special-needs child. Existing support services are minimal and unaffordable. Often they end up in debt," Gotts says.
"As a desperate last resort, they leave their child in a place that can help them."
To deter this, ICC's Community Outreach Project organises parent support groups, helps pay for surgery, and provides counselling, access to therapy and special education services.
But at least society's view of disabled children is changing. China even hosted the 2008 Paralympics to great success.
"Before, when we took the children out, people sitting outside the shops ridiculed them. Now, they ask questions and talk to the children. They've begun to understand that these are just like normal children who want to have families and relationships," Gotts says.