THE BLOG
03/11/2014 02:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

I Am Not the One Making Change Happen in Huazhou

I've received many kind notes in praise of the dramatic change that Half the Sky is bringing to places like Huazhou. Our work is indeed transformative, but I want to be sure you understand that, although I founded Half the Sky, I am not the one making change happen. It is the Chinese who are transforming their own child welfare system. And without full government support, our 1300 caregivers, teachers, foster parents, trainers and support staff -- all of them Chinese nationals -- could not change a thing.

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Teachers Lin and Chen

The first step toward transformation must be gaining trust.

Teacher Lin: "I am from Huazhou, but before Half the Sky training I never saw this place. Now I saw longing eyes through the window. The sorrow and grief hit me then. I never had it in my life before. Immediately, I firmly believe I belong here and should be with these children. But how can I make their sad lives full of sunshine and joy? For that, I gave myself a question mark."

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Teacher Chen: "I am only 19 years old. I am so glad and honored to take part in Half the Sky training for preschool teachers, but I was a little nervous on the day we met the children. They live behind bars. They sleep together on a bare steel bed. They were dirty and smelled bad. And even though they smiled and waved through the bars, when we came close and tried to talk with them, they became frightened.

"I was assigned to Aoshi. She is already six but cannot walk. Her file says she has epilepsy, but no one has ever seen her seizures but it is said she cries all day and all night. After I introduced myself, I carried her in my arms and went downstairs. She looked around and then she began to cry. When we arrived at the classroom, I put her on the mat. She was still crying, lying on the mat, and clenching her fists. I tried to give her toys to comfort her but she pushed them away. But then, when I tried to put shoes on her, she stopped crying.

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"I took her small hands and she held mine. I could sense that she also made much effort to stand up. I held her hands and helped her walk step by step. She was so happy when we walked together. Aoshi has the sweetest smile."

Teacher Lin: "On the second day of training, Teacher Du showed us how to play games of trusting others and how to make toys out of recycled trash. It is very different teaching method from the way I was taught! In the afternoon, she let us take the children outside. She introduced me to Jing, a curious girl of six years. I touched Jing's hands and she pulled them back immediately. I squatted down and told her, 'I'm your teacher, Miss Lin.' She looked at me, no emotions, but then she followed me downstairs.

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"Outside, when she saw the other children running with excitement. I saw a slight smile slipping from her lips. I touched her head, 'Come on, Jing, come to run! Let's see what's interesting there.' She kept her head low and said nothing. Teacher Du told me maybe she needed more time. I could start from giving her a sweet smile and a warm hug every day, but not to push her too fast."

And slowly it went, day by day. The teachers would learn that, despite difficult beginnings, all young children are phenomenally resilient and the need to form human bonds goes deep. When given loving attention and stimulation, every child will eventually respond.

As Wen Zhao, the teacher responsible for crafting Half the Sky's preschool curriculum -- a blend of Italy's Reggio Emilia approach and the best of Chinese methodology -- always tells her trainees, "Do you see? We can be much, much more than we were taught at teachers' college ... more than a stern lady at the front of the room who teaches children to recite by rote. We can be, we must be -- learning partners, champions, observers, explorers, friends -- and, for these special, hurt children, we need to be family."

NEXT: An update on the babies. And older children learn that they too deserve to dream.

In her new memoir, Wish You Happy Forever, Jenny Bowen told the story of Half the Sky Foundation's failed attempt twelve years ago to help children in Huazhou, a small orphanage in southern China. Now, as she relates in Part 4 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.