Sunday, March 9, 2014

Wish You Happy Forever

I have written here often about my gratitude to Half the Sky for the loving care Jingju received while living in two orphanages in China. And so it was with great interest that I read Wish You Happy Forever, the new book by Jenny Bowen, founder of Half the Sky.

Watching her adopted daughter, Maya, out her kitchen window one day giggling and playing in the yard, Bowen decided she had to find a way to bring “family love” to the children she couldn’t bring home. Her daughter had been home a year and had blossomed in the care of her new family. It was a simple idea—“I would find the way to bring a family’s love to children who had lost theirs. I’d bring Maya’s miracle to China.”

At the time, Bowen was working as a screenwriter and filmmaker and admittedly knew nothing about starting a not-for-profit organization or very much about China. Nor was she an expert on child development, but she believed that she could ameliorate the negative effects of institutionalized living on children by giving them love. Wish You Happy Forever is the story of an impossible dream coming true. One orphanage at a time, Jenny brought her Half the Sky program to children who would otherwise be left to unimaginable deprivation. She faced significant challenges along the way, forging partnerships with Chinese officials, navigating around government bureaucracy, and multiple roadblocks along the way to ultimately redefine a philosophy of care for institutionalized children. Bowen envisioned babies being held and stimulated where they had before been left alone in cribs due to staffing shortages and other issues. She developed the Infant Nurture program, which pairs infants and toddlers with nannies who provide care such as a parent would give. The Little Sisters program provides early childhood education preparing children to eventually be able to enter Chinese schools. Older children and children with special needs who might not ever be adopted all receive care and attention in the Half the Sky programs.

My own daughter’s journey to a family might have been a very different one without Half the Sky. In May of 2005 Jingju was transferred from her orphanage in Beihai to one in Wuhzou in order to enter Half the Sky’s Little Sister’s preschool program. She later returned to Beihai in August of 2007 when the Little Sister’s program was established there as well. Even though I know how Jingju’s story turned out, I noticed myself keeping track of dates as I read Bowen’s book. Half the Sky was born in 1998, just 5 years before Jingju was born. The preschool program came to Wuzhou when Jingju was 21 months old. How different might Jingju’s life have been were it not for Jenny Bowen’s amazing, impossible dream? I have an idea from her description of the conditions in the orphanages she visited before she took on their rebuild. I wish Jingju had never had to experience life in an orphanage at all, but at least I know that while she was there she was loved. An excerpt from Jingju’s Half the Sky progress report reassures me of this and is an example of the success of Bowen’s philosophy:

“When she first came to the program, she would make childish babbling sounds but
could not yet talk or express herself. She rarely smiled and did not cling to adults or
Jingju May11, 2005
whine to get her way. She could walk, but could not walk down the stairs by herself.
She wasn’t able to take care of herself very well for a child her age. Judging from her
situation, I think that giving her family love and increasing her ability to do things on
her own are the most crucial things to focus on. Every day, I would hug her, talk to
her, pat her lightly and potty train her—in essence letting her have a sense of
security and trust around me. After a week, she began to smile more. She wanted me
to hug her when she sees me everyday, and was very welcoming of my presence. I
think receiving such family love is putting her on a stable road, and she is beginning
to develop abilities to take care of herself.”

The title, Wish You Happy Forever refers to a letter Bowen received from a child whose life she touched. But it is clearly Bowen’s wish that every child without a family know love in order to be happy. Thank goodness she looked out the window that day.

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