I’ve been missing my Shanghai friends and decided to visit them this past weekend. I told my friends Hannah, a Brit I met several years ago when she came to Lin’an to teach, and she happened to mention that she was going to the grand opening of an orphanage she helped design the same day I’d be there. A couple days after she told me I texted her back, “Can I go with?”
So last Saturday we found ourselves in a suburb of Shanghai on an amazing clear and sunny day. The orphanage was located in a development meant to mimic a suburban neighborhood. The houses were cookie cutter designs (verging on McMansions) with well landscaped roads and paths, guarded by 2 guys that actually did their job. Pretty much the last place you would expect to find an oprhanage, much less one that helped sick kids.
Hannah explained to me how she got involved. At a clothing swap she started to talk to a woman nearby. Somehow, the orphanage came up, and Hannah had been wanting to get her company involved in some pro-bono charity work. (I should mention that Hannah is a rare foreigners who is not an English teacher. She works for a large international company that specializes in landscape and design.)
The organization had found the house, but it needed a lot of work before it could be a suitable place for kids. So Hannah took control, became the project manager, and got different departments of her company to help out. It was like being a rock star as everyone at the orphanage kept thanking Hannah again and again for everything she did.
This orphanage specializes in sick kids, especially kids with cleft palates. These kids go to the ‘normal’ orphanage but have a lot of trouble getting enough nutrition to maintain a healthy weight. The big orphanages are packed and the caregivers can’t give the kid the special attention they need. So even if someone gives money for surgery, the baby is too thin and is refused for surgery.
So, this place takes those malnourished kids and, well, fattens them up. Not for the slaughter, but for the surgery. The place is small, only 12 kids at a time, and 7 staff, so each kid gets a lot of attention. Then, when they’re at the healthy weight this same orphanage pays for their surgery. This is a key point.
You’d think they could just play up the sympathy and get a little pro-bono surgery. But they don’t want to. The director said not only do they pay full price, but every year the directors of the orphanage wine and dine the surgeons taking very good care of them. That’s because most hospitals use orphans for experiments, or for training new doctors (and in both things can go very, very wrong.) So they keep good guanxi, relationship, with the top surgeons to ensue their orphans get good treatment.
Then, after the surgery the orphanage continues to nurse the babies back to health until, about a year after they arrived, they go back to the orphanage where 90% get adopted. They concentrate on babies with cleft palate problems but they also help other kids like a baby with spinal bifida, and a young boy with no hands.
Pretty amazing. And now they finally had a building that matched the good work they were doing. We got a tour of the house and it was amazing. Hannah had seen it a few times in the beginning, but hadn’t seen it all during the construction phase. The place had high ceilings, fresh white walls and was painted in bright, fun colors to give it a cheery atmosphere.
They had a room for all the babies filled with cribs, each one with a name card (with picture) of the baby who was staying there. The staff slept in bunk beds in another room (with a crib for the sickest baby who needed 24-hour care. While we were there we saw a tiny little girl who not only had a severe cleft palate but heart troubles as well. She was the sickest and someone was always nearby her.)
Everything was suitable for kids, big sinks with rounded corners, a safety barrier than ran up the entire 3-storey staircase so the kids can’t fall down, blocked off area with foam floors where the kids can play. Everyone had to take off their shoes (or put protective coverings over them) and wash their hands with hand sanitizer before entering the house.
The orphanage isn’t run by the government, but rather by a charitable foundation out of Hong Kong called Starfish. As it was the official grand opening people had come from all over for the party; Honk Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, America. English was the language of choice and I’ll admit it was a little funny to hear two Chinese people speaking english to each other. (Hong Kong people speak Cantonese, while mainlanders speak Mandarin. The two languages are totally different.)
The organization is a religious one, Christian, and there was a lot of god talk during the speeches. I’ll admit I’m not a fan of overly zealous people, but these guys were using religion in the right way. As an American I am used to hearing bible quotes to degrade or speak against a group of people (usually gays, or pro-choicers), so it was really refreshing to hear a positive bible quote that talked about helping people, not hurting them.
During the speeches the director and head ladies knew that not everyone in the room was religious. “Even if you don’t believe in God, God worked through you. You did His work without even knowing it was for Him,” the director said at one point. Then she turned to us. “Like you, Hannah,” the woman said pointing.
“Oooh,” I whispered to Hannah after the attention went back to the front of the room. “You were just called out as a heathen in front of everyone!”
It was the first time I had ever been to an orphanage in China and the whole thing was a really interesting, humbling, experience for me. I live in a world in which students whine about writing papers and I complain when I have to work 18 hours a week. But spending time with kids who were abandoned by their parents because of birth defects, and watching the people who dedicate their lives helping them (for peanuts) puts things in perspective.
I’m not affiliated with them, nor did I do any research into the charity but I am going to share their link here. They seem like really good people and they need donations to keep not only this orphanage but others up and running. Starfish Charitable Foundation.
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