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Half the Sky: Showing the Orphans of Huazhou They Matter

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Children who've spent their lives in Chinese orphanages often lack the resiliency of their little sisters and brothers who receive loving attention through Half the Sky programs from the early years. Our Youth Service Program for school age children and teens attempts to make up for a lifetime of institutional neglect by offering such children caring mentors.

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Based upon each child's own interests, aptitudes and challenges, the mentor can recruit tutors, language, music, art or computer teachers, and most importantly, provide personal guidance and close friendship during years that can be challenging, even for more advantaged young people.

A major focus of youth mentor training is what we call "responsive listening." Teacher Wang, a former primary school teacher and the new mentor for the older children of Huazhou, says: "I like one sentence in the textbook, 'response is a mirror and you have to let people see themselves in the mirror.' When I first came to Huazhou, the older children had no adult to talk to them or listen to them. There was no one to take care of them. They had no books, toys or games."

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Each afternoon during my training, I started my work with the children by playing games. They knew none of the games that children always play. Most were very shy and seldom spoke. But through the games, they began to open up. One of the girls, though, 9-year-old Zhiling, was the opposite of shy. For such a little girl, she was a bully. She sometimes made other children cry with her teasing. I watched her carefully and I began to realize she was a very smart girl. She just had no one who cared about her.

I decided to appoint her to be the team leader, responsible for keeping harmony in our beautiful new activity room. I told her that when I'm not there, I'd like her to help take care of the children and remind them to keep the room clean, be polite and not call others insulting names. Now this little bit of power I gave her rules her own behavior. She watches how I talk with the other children and she is beginning to follow my example. I see great changes already.

Zhiling, who is indeed exceptionally bright, talked to us about how her life is suddenly different, "I am so happy! Every time I have difficulties, I can turn to Teacher Wang. There is a person who cares about me, and would like to pat me when I am going to take a nap in the afternoon. Sometimes she is strict with me, but I still like her, and I don't know why."

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In the days before the training ended, even bigger changes were happening in the Infant Nurture Program.

"Untouchable" Wenting, the ever-smiling baby girl with congenital syphilis began receiving medical treatment. And soon she had even more reason to smile: Somebody loves her.

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Her new nanny says:

When I approached her and talked to her, she would raise her head and smile at me and I could see her two teeth. I gradually [began to] like this little girl and I want[ed] to hold her even though I was nervous if her condition was contagious. Then we got a new medical document showing Wenting's negative results. This is such a mind relief. I had no burden when holding Wenting in my arms. I kissed her face and she giggled again. I kind of fell in love with Wenting, and so I applied to Chen Hong, the nanny mentor, that I take care of her. Yes, it's true, I want to take care of the girl no one wanted to touch. Now, I have another daughter -- Wenting. She has become my beautiful little sunshine girl.

In her new memoir, Wish You Happy Forever, Jenny Bowen told the story of Half the Sky Foundation's failed attempt 12 years ago to help children in Huazhou, a small orphanage in southern China. Now, as she relates in Part 5 of a series, Huazhou is becoming Half the Sky's 53rd children's center and is representative of a national initiative to reimagine child welfare in China.

NEXT: A child once called "autistic" emerges from her shell.