The Children of Alenah’s Home

Story and photographs by Juliet Ercolano

This summer, I traveled to China for the second time in as many years. My purpose was to volunteer as a temporary “ayi” (caretaker) at Alenah’s Home for a two full weeks alongside my mother. For those of you who don’t know, Alenah’s is a Beijing-based non-profit foster home run by Children’s Hope International to provide between 20 and 30 babies from orphanages all over China with medical care (including surgery) that they need. The children’s medical issues range from cleft lip and palate to heart conditions to small birth anomalies.

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Working at Alenah’s was an incredible experience! My mom and I lived in the foster home and ate most of our meals with the regular workers in the home’s bustling kitchen. (It seems there is always steam coming from the big rice cooker, and vegetables being chopped on the big, round, wooden cutting board.) The meals are prepared by the foster home’s excellent chef, a young man with a beautiful smile and a wonderful way with the children. In fact, “Gege” – “elder brother,” in Mandarin — was an orphan himself, so he has a special bond with Alenah’s children.

The fact that my mom and I knew hardly any Mandarin – she can say a few words, such as “hello,” “I like Chinese food,” and “I love you,” and I have just a year of college Chinese under my belt – did not prevent us from bonding with the children and the staff of 15 devoted ayis who care for them night and day. It’s kind of amazing how much you can communicate with a smile, a touch, and even some energetic pointing!

Juliet

Juliet

As a Chinese adult adoptee working at Alenah’s, I found myself becoming emotional from time to time, no doubt because I could relate in a very special way to each of those babies and children. Twenty years ago, I, too, was an orphan being cared for in an institution, and needing to rely on the kindness of strangers to get my basic needs met. Although it’s certain that the conditions at Alenah’s are far, far better than the conditions of the orphanage I lived in for five months back in 1994, the realization that these babies and children still need “forever families” sometimes brought me to tears.

In the month since I have come home, I can honestly say that I think about the babies and children there multiple times a day, and long to see them again. Fortunately, Alenah’s staff has created a Facebook page, where I can get frequent updates on each of them and see their photographs.

What struck me the most in my time there (other than how hard the staff work every day) is that each baby and child at Alenah’s that I fed, held, read to, played with, helped walk, sat with, or talked to radiated the simple human desire to be loved. It was a true delight getting to know each ones unique personality.

Although I did not spend as much time with the older children – they go out of the foster home to school every day — they remain my biggest concern and worry. Most families who want to adopt prefer the cute babies and toddlers. But what about the children ages 3 to 8, who need families, too?

One boy, in particular, is stuck in my mind and heart. “Tony” (he told us that was his American name!) is 8-years-old and is paralyzed from the waist down after surgery for spina bifida. He can get around just fine in a wheelchair, and enjoys being the fastest and first at things. He loves to play, to read, to listen to and sing music, and is already a gifted visual artist. Though he and I didn’t have much shared language (he knows some very simple English and I know very simple Chinese), we spent hours drawing together and even writing back and forth in my elementary level Chinese. What came through to me, loud and clear, in every interaction with Tony was his intense desire to be loved and to be adopted by a family in the U.S. (Several of Tony’s best friends at Alenah’s have been adopted by Americans, leaving him behind. It is very painful each time.) I worry about this boy aging out of his eligibility to be adopted. He needs a permanent family in order to thrive and explore all his abilities, especially his ability to love and be loved.

"Tony"

“Tony”

Prospective adoptive parents, won’t you please consider bringing one of these “older” children into your home?

Can you find it in your heart to help the children with a donation?

Please consider a one-time donation to Alenah’s, or better yet, a monthly donation (tax-deductible) of $30 or more. Many Americans spend this much a month at Starbucks or buying lunches at work. That dollar a day could make a huge difference to helping offset the expense of running Alenah’s, including paying the staff of warm, wonderful ayis, feeding the children, their medical care costs, and the rent and maintenance of the home itself. Donating is as easy as going to this link, and you will get a receipt to use on your taxes to prove you donated.

Visiting Alenah’s Home | CHI – Keep Hope Alive

Guest bloggers Lisa and Juliet are interviewed by Children’s Hope International about their visit to Alenah’s Home in China–check it out!!!

Visiting Alenah’s Home | CHI – Keep Hope Alive.

Back to Where She Once Belonged, Part V: The Finding Place

SHE ONCE WAS LOST, BUT NOW SHE’S FOUND

by Lisa DeNike Ercolano

Photos by Juliet Ercolano (photos of Juliet by Lisa)

For years, we’ve had the story wrong. I am not sure whether I heard it wrong or the original information I was given was in error.

Let me back up: The day I met my younger daughter in a hotel room in Nanjing, China in December 1994, I swore I was told by our translator that the baby was “found by a police officer at a station and taken to the family planning clinic. They then took her to the orphanage.”

But, apparently, that’s not what actually happened.

When Juliet and I visited her orphanage on our recent trip to China, at one point the director sat down with us and opened Juliet’s file. (We had sent this special request through our contacts at Children’s Hope International months before arriving and were assured looking at the file was no problem.)

Through Savor, our translator, we were told that one-month-old Juliet was found by workers one early morning in July 1994 at a women’s health/family planning clinic, and was taken from there to the Changshu Social Welfare Institute, from which we adopted her five months later. Not a single station (bus or train) or police officer involved! (I am embarrassed to confess that it took me until earlier this year to discover, online, that Changshu doesn’t even have a train station!)

As Juliet and I recovered from our surprise, the director gave Savor and our driver the address of the clinic, and we headed out.

On the way, I once again found myself feeling a little nervous. What would the place look like? How would Juliet feel when she saw it? Would we both dissolve in tears, knowing we were staring at the spot where she was left by her birthmother one summer morning?

We got those answers very quickly, as the clinic was not far away. On the way over, Juliet and I held hands in the backseat of our driver’s car and didn’t say much. Instead, we peered out the windows, both lost in our own thoughts.

About 10 minutes later, the driver pulled into the driveway/parking area of a large, modern, sand-colored building with brown marble steps and an aqua sign saying世代服 Shidai Family Planning Service. 

We hopped out of the car, and Juliet and I looked around silently. We immediately noticed that in order to pull into the parking area in front of the clinic, we had driven through an open metal accordion gate and past a little guardhouse.

Juliet and I were walking over to it when a middle-aged woman wearing worn jeans and a flowered blouse came out of the clinic’s front doors, curious about who we were and what we wanted.

Speaking Chinese, Savor explained and a big smile broke out on the woman’s face. Apparently, this woman worked at the clinic back in the summer of 1994, and remembers “a few baby girls being dropped off here.” She proceeded to tell us that birthparents would wait until dark and then climb over the gate (closed and locked at night, and much higher than the one there now) so they could place their babies carefully up on the steps of the clinic’s front door, safely away from passersby on the street and any danger.

“We would find the babies when we came to work in the morning,” she said, through the translator, “and bring them to the orphanage.”

Juliet asked me to take her photograph with the woman, and commented afterward “Is it weird that I am smiling? I just feel like smiling knowing this lady was there when I was found!”
I told her that there were no “shoulds” when it came to her feelings. I snapped a few shots of the worker and Juliet, as well as some of Juliet in front of the building. Then I handed the camera to Juliet, and she took a few for herself.

I admit that I had a feeling of unreality while clicking the shutter: It was almost impossible to envision my daughter, now a beautiful, healthy and strong 19-year-old, as a helpless, month-old baby wrapped in a blanket and left on that stone step landing. The disconnect was just too much for me.

And later that evening, over dinner, Juliet told me that she felt the same way.

“I am glad that I got to see where my parents put me, but honestly, Mom, it doesn’t seem real,” she said. “One thing that made me feel good was hearing that she climbed over that high gate to make sure I was safe. All this time, I was picturing myself on a train station platform, with lots of people just walking by, maybe not caring or even not seeing me. At least, this way, I know they wanted me to be safe and go on to a better life.”

Read about the trip Lisa and Juliet too to China in Back to Where She Once Belonged, Part I

Read about the monuments in Back to Where She Once Belonged, Part II

Read about Juliet’s foster home in Back to Where She Once Belonged, Part III

Read about Juliet’s orphanage in Back to Where She Once Belonged, Part IV

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For Lisa’s story about picking up baby Juliet from China, read this post and then this one.

Back to Where She Once Belonged, Part IV: The Orphanage

Story by Lisa DeNike Ercolano

Photos by Juliet Ercolano (photo of Juliet and Lisa with the director and ayis was taken by Savor)

I woke up with a slight case of the nerves the morning of our scheduled visit to the Changshu Social Welfare Institute, aka “Juliet’s orphanage.”

Juliet, on the other hand, was cool as the proverbial cucumber. Dressed in a festive green flowered sundress with her long black hair spilling down her back, she looked simply eager and happy.

“I can’t wait to see the babies and kids and play with them, the way we did at Alenah’s,” she said.

Two hours later, we arrived in Changshu, a city of 1.1 million people.  Minutes after we arrived in the city, our driver pulled up to the gates of the SWI. A low-slung building made of light-colored stone, the orphanage looked tidy, neat and friendly. (Note: This was my first visit to the orphanage, too. Back in 1994 when we adopted Juliet, some orphanages did not permit adoptive parents inside, so I had met my daughter for the first time in a hotel room in Nanjing.)

Accompanied by our translator and guide, a Nanjing resident who used the English name “Savor” (she said it had the same meaning as her Chinese name), we entered the orphanage’s cool, shady foyer and were greeted by several officials.

When Savor told them who Juliet was – that she had been cared for as a baby there, and was adopted at the age of 6 months in 1994 – they became very animated and smiled. They eagerly looked at a photo album I had brought, filled with photos of Juliet as a baby being held by her orphanage ayi and surrounded by several orphanage officials. (I had taken this photo during adoption proceedings in China in December 1994, at the hotel.)

The current orphanage director, a kind-eyed, middle-aged woman in a colorful flowered dress, told us she worked at the SWI back then, and that Juliet’s ayi had retired a few years ago. No one had any personal anecdotes about Juliet: clearly, too many children had come and gone for them to remember one female child who had been cared for there for five months back in 1994. It was good enough, to us, to meet some people who had been there when Juliet found herself in their care.

Juliet and Lisa pose for a photo at the orphanage with the director (in flowered dress) and some of the “ayis”

The director invited us to go outside to the courtyard playground, a large, rectangular area covered in green indoor-outdoor carpeting, where the children were having their playtime. As soon as they saw us, the 10 children (ages four to about 14) stopped dead in their tracks and stared.

Thinking fast about how to best make friends with them, Juliet asked Savor to ask the director if we could give the children some lollipops that we brought. She was told it was OK, and we handed the treats out to the children, all of whom are considered “special needs.”

In the years since Juliet’s adoption, this orphanage, like many others, has converted to one caring for children with a range of issues, from Down syndrome and cerebral palsy to blindness, deafness and heart disease. We were told that the supply of healthy girl babies has dwindled, due at least in part to the central government’s slight relaxing of the One Child Policy, combined with the fact that many young urban Chinese of childbearing age don’t want to have more than one child. Now, most of the children who are found abandoned have special needs like the ones we were seeing.

Within minutes, I was playing a rowdy game of catch with four children (one absolute pixie of a girl with flashing eyes and achondroplasia kept stealing the ball from me and running away!) and Juliet was in the center of a crowd of six or 7 others, taking photos and showing the kids how her camera worked. Every time I looked over, a different child was in her lap!

Watch the slideshow of the children goofing around with Juliet and Lisa–photos by Juliet.

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The kids didn’t know English (except one clever boy who kept saying “Thank you!” loudly and clearly) and we didn’t know much Chinese, but the universal language of play, smiles and eye contact got us through OK. A half hour later, when it was time for the kids to go back into the classroom, we felt like good friends and were sad to part.

Next we visited the nursery, where Juliet held a very chubby baby boy who did not want to get back in his crib afterward.

Then we were escorted to a lovely luncheon with the director and several nurses, all of whom kept urging us to eat more. (My ego demands that I mention here the director’s amazement with my deft use of kuaizi, or chopsticks!)

In addition to a delicious fish and lots of rice, we were served chicken and zongzi (a huge lotus-leaf-wrapped, dense rice dumpling traditionally eaten at Duanwu, or the Dragon Boat Festival, which fell this year on Juliet’s birthday, June 12.)  During the luncheon, Savor helped us communicate with the director and the ayis, and we learned more about the children and their challenges (One little girl has a cancerous tumor in her eye, and needs surgery badly). The director also invited Juliet to come back “anytime, a lot” and live at her house for as long as Juliet wanted to stay.

The visit ended with Juliet being given a beautiful glass desk ornament by the director and a hearty round of picture taking.

That evening, I asked Juliet how she was feeling about the visit.

“I loved playing with the kids and getting to know them, but seeing the babies in their cribs just lying there made me sad,” she said. “It doesn’t seem real that I was once one of those kids.”

Read about the trip Lisa and Juliet too to China in Back to Where She Once Belonged, Part I

Read about the monuments in Back to Where She Once Belonged, Part II

Read about Juliet’s foster home in Back to Where She Once Belonged, Part III

Back to Where She Once Belonged, Part III: The Foster Home

Read about the trip Lisa and Juliet too to China in Back to Where She Once Belonged, Part I

Read about the monuments in Back to Where She Once Belonged, Part II

Part III: The Foster Home

Story by Lisa DeNike Ercolano
Photos by Juliet Ercolano (photo of Juliet was taken by Lisa)

I still dream at night about the babies and children we saw at Alenah’s Home.

The big sunny playroom at Alenah's

The big sunny playroom at Alenah’s

Tucked snugly away amongst a series of other traditional Beijing hutong houses, sunny, well-scrubbed and cozy Alenah’s is home to about 20 orphaned babies and children with special medical needs.
This spirited little boy was very friendly and loves visitors!

This spirited little boy was very friendly and loves visitors!

There’s the baby girl with big, serious eyes and a rosebud mouth. She has a congenital heart condition and needs surgery, and all she wants is for someone to hold her and sing to her. (Juliet did — for about three hours!)

Juliet holding one of the babies at Alenah’s

And then there’s the six-year-old boy who is paralyzed from the waist down from a previous surgery to repair the meningocele he was born with. Certain that others will reject him, this clever boy puts up a defensive front whenever approached. But if you show him you are really interested in him, he opens up like the sun coming out from behind the clouds.

These children and more come to Alenah’s from orphanages and other sites throughout China to receive expert medical care available in the capital city.

But just as badly as they need medical care (surgeries, medicine, therapy), they need love — and lots of it. And they get it at the home, which is staffed by 14 gentle, caring “ayis” (the Chinese word for “auntie” or “caregiver”) and a series of loving volunteers.

The ayis and some volunteers in the back courtyard at playtime

The “ayis” and some volunteers in the back courtyard at playtime

Alenah’s is run by Children’s Hope International, the wonderful adoption agency that brought Juliet into our lives. (CHI is headquartered in St. Louis in the US and in Beijing in China.) Melody Zhang (Zhang Wen) is the director of Alenah’s and of the Beijing Office of Children’s Hope there. Deeply committed to children’s rights, Melody and her team at Alenah’s have managed to care for more than 70 of these children since the home opened in 2004, and 20 of them have been adopted.
Meal time is a very happy time at the foster home

Meal time is a very happy time at the foster home

Juliet and I fell in love with the children there and are looking for ways to help them. We would love to be able to return next summer and spend a few weeks helping the caretakers.

If you want to know more about Alenah’s Home and its mission, watch this little news clip about it:

http://www.adoptblog.childrenshope.net/2013/05/a-visit-to-chi-foster-home.html

Back to Where She Once Belonged, Part II: The Monuments

Read Back to Where She Once Belonged, Part I

Part II: Forbidden City/Tiananmen Square/The Great Wall

Story by Lisa DeNike Ercolano

Photos by Juliet Ercolano (photo of Lisa and Juliet was taken by Tim, their guide; photo of Juliet was taken by Lisa)

Of course, for years, we’d seen it in pictures and on TV: Tiananmen Square, the 4.8 million square-foot plaza that was the site of the 1989 pro-democracy movement and subsequent government crack-down.

“Oh my gosh, there he is: Chairman Mao! Ni hao, Mao Zedong!” I said excitedly to Juliet, as we stood in the square and looked at the giant portrait of the infamous leader hanging on the scarlet-wall of Tian’anmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, that leads into the Forbidden City. “Remember when you were a little girl, and thought his name was ‘German Mao’?”

The afternoon before, we had arrived in Beijing, the capital city of the People’s Republic of China, bleary-eyed and jet-lagged after a 14-hour flight from Washington International Dulles. (Juliet slept a lot, and I watched every episode of “Louie,” “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation” that they offered on our United Flight.) By the time we got through customs and security and made our way to our hotel, we were beat, and happy just to walk the streets of Beijing near our hotel, enjoying watching passersby and poking into shops and restaurants.

On the morning of our first full day, our guide, Tim (his chosen English name) and a driver picked us up in our hotel lobby and we set out on the first item on our itinerary, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, to be followed by a chance to spend the afternoon climbing the Great Wall.

I was almost awestruck standing before Tiananmen, or the Gate of Heavenly Peace, knowing that it dated to the Ming Dynasty in 1420 – years before Columbus discovered America! You could feel the history! We had hoped to view Mao’s remains in the crystal coffin inside of his massive mausoleum, but our visit fell on a Monday, when it was closed, so I had to satisfy myself with looking at the building from the outside, and snapping photos of the imposing sculpture of China’s workers that stands outside. We also posed in front of the Monument to the People’s Heroes, and saw the Great Hall of the People – all edifices that we had read about for years.

We spent about three hours inside the Forbidden City, which was home to China’s emperors for more than 500 years. Again, the sense of history was palpable. Our guide helpfully pointed out the symbolism inherent in the architecture, as we gaped and took photos. I loved stepping over the traditional Chinese thresholds as we went from section to section, and was delighted when Tim informed us that Chinese thresholds are thus designed because “ghosts don’t have knees, so they can’t walk over.” We viewed the Hall of Supreme Harmony and the golden throne in the Hall of Preserving Harmony, and my imagination flashed back to film “The Last Emperor,” which told the story of Puyi, China’s last emperor, which was filmed there.

While I was captivated by the sense of history and the architecture, Juliet enjoyed snapping photographs of the other tourists, which not only included other waiguoren (foreigners), but also thousands of Chinese tourists from all over that vast country. We found especially darling the small children wearing traditional Chinese split pants, which allow the wearer to relieve himself freely, anywhere and anytime!

In the afternoon (after a quick buffet lunch where we learned that the Chinese don’t believe cold drinks are healthy, even on 90-degree-plus days!), we tackled the Great Wall. Tim wisely chose to get himself a cup of tea and stay behind while Juliet and I headed up the surprisingly steep, worn stone steps to the first fortification in sight. Again, we were awed by the knowledge that some sections of this world famous landmark date back to 221 BC! Almost equally awe-inspiring was the fact that so many Chinese women were scaling these steep steps in high heels and platform sandals!

Before leaving, Tim helped us bargain for tee shirts proudly proclaiming “I Have Climbed the Great Wall of China.”

Next up: Our visit to Children’s Hope’s Foster Care Home

Back to Where She Once Belonged

by Lisa DeNike Ercolano

I had only been Juliet’s mother for a few hours before I started thinking about how my husband and I would have to help her stay connected to her Chinese heritage.

“We have to pledge to take her back to China every few years, so she knows and understands her place of birth and the culture,” I said, solemnly and with every good intention, to my husband on the fuzzy, long-distance call from the hotel in Nanjing where I first met the tightly swaddled six-month-old with the bright red cheeks and a bristly mohawk of black hair.

My husband had remained in Baltimore with our homemade daughter, four-year-old Olivia, while I traveled to the People’s Republic, accompanied by my father, Bob, and a group of other adopting parents, to adopt our younger daughter.

She was handed gently to me in a Nanjing hotel room by the smiling, middle-aged Chinese woman, an ayi, who took care of her in the orphanage.

Sadly, good intentions notwithstanding, that is not what happened. As John Lennon famously said “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” And our lives — as the working parents of two active, busy, growing girls — didn’t include the time, or the money, to make those intended trips. Added to the time crunch was the fact that, as a ballet dancer, Juliet had to spend every summer in training — just like an athlete!

So as Juliet entered her senior year of high school, we decided it was time to bite the proverbial bullet and make that dream of returning to China a reality. We put money aside, and contacted the wonderful agency that brought her into our lives — Children’s Hope International in St. Louis, Mo. — to help us plan the actual trip.

It seemed to take forever to get here, but eventually the calendar turned to June, and Juliet and I took off from Dulles International Airport for Beijing. (We decided, in the end, for various reasons that this would be a mother-daughter trip.) In future blog posts, we will be privileged to share some of the things we saw, the emotions we experienced and the things we learned, with readers of this blog.


Lisa and Juliet

Lisa and Juliet at the moat around the Forbidden City

 

Follow us to Part II of Back to Where She Once Belonged for a visit to China’s monuments

 

 

 

Gifts to the World by Juliet Ercolano

JULIET ERCOLANO, PHOTOGRAPHER

Juliet Ercolano, photo taken by a friend

When asked to describe herself, Juliet always answers the same way: “I am a people person.” Now a senior in high school, she plans to study psychology or human services in college so she can become a therapist or counselor to either elderly people or kids who have been adopted trans-racially.  Her favorite pastimes, other than hanging out with friends, are photography, dance and listening to music. Her iPod is running out of room!

Juliet has been accepted to her first choice school–Elon University.  She will be attending Elon next fall.

Last summer, Juliet exhibited her photographs at the School of Creative and Performing Arts’ showcase at the Parsons The New School of Design in New York City, and served as a counselor-in-training for girls ages 9 to 12 at Holt International‘s Adoptee Camp, which brings together several hundred adopted kids each summer in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

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DWLA loves Juliet’s photography for both its technique and radiant expression of Juliet’s own interest in people, human emotion, dance, art, and music.   She specializes in capturing intense moments of human communication and focus.

A Sampling of Juliet Ercolano’s Photographic Art

SELF-PORTRAITS

Self-Portrait 1

Self-Portrait 2

FULL COLOR

BLACK & WHITE

Best wishes to Juliet Ercolano as she winds down her high school career and moves on to her college experience at Elon University.

She has a bright future ahead of her!

A Blessing in Disguise

by Juliet

At first, it was just a twinge or two, so I ignored it. As a dancer, I was used to pain, from blistered toes to cramped muscles. But after 15 performances of The Nutcracker in December left me limping towards the wings of the stage after each dance act, and as I continued to feel random bursts of sharp pain and stinging even when I wasn’t moving, I knew then these “twinges” needed to be seriously looked at by doctors.  One exam and two MRIs later, I got the bad news: both my shins were dotted with stress fractures that would take months to heal. I was supposed to spend much of the summer at the American Dance Festival at Duke University in North Carolina, but the doctor said it would take months for me to heal. It was clear I wouldn’t be able to go.

So what now? I couldn’t just sit around all summer moping, though I wanted to at first, believe me!  I knew that, as a dancer, it was extremely important to keep moving. That’s why, since middle school, I have spent every summer at dance intensives. I’ve never had what you might think of as a “normal” summer camp experience, where I would ride in a canoe, swim in a lake and sing around a campfire. So when I got the bad news, my mom jumped at the opportunity to expose me to a real American kid camp experience. But I didn’t like the sound of any of them, until a friend told her about Holt International Adoptee Camps. The idea intrigued me.

At Holt, kids who joined their mostly white families from other countries such as China, Korea and Russia (like me: I was born in China) come together for a week in the summer to share their experiences and just have fun in a country setting.  I asked my mom to look into it and we found out that I was too old to be an actual camper, so I would have to be a Counselor- In-Training (CIT).  Mom made the point that it would be a good experience because I was considering majoring in psychology in college with the idea of someday becoming a therapist or counselor, so working as a CIT would be a good start to see if that was the right direction for me.

All I can say is, thank goodness I listened to my mom; they say that “mothers know best!” and I sometimes don’t like to admit it, but my mom usually ends up being right. (Don’t tell her I admitted that!) So I signed up.

So the big day came. My family and I drove up a bumpy road in Pennsylvania and were greeted by enthusiastic group of counselors jumping up and down and welcoming each car that drove by.  The first thing that struck me is that everyone was Asian! It was overwhelming at first, because I have never before been surrounded by so many people at once who looked like me. I have always been one of a handful of Asian kids at any school I have gone to. But the shock soon wore off , and I began meeting everyone. One of the most amazing things about this camp is it is actually easier to make friends because we can relate to each other on a deeper level because we have shared many of the same experiences. We talk about being adopted into a family that is a different race from us, for sure, but we talk about regular stuff, too!

Though a typical day consists of tons of regular camp-type activities (the kind I missed all those summers in the dance studio!), we also had sessions where we talked about issues that are special to people like us. I loved the time I got to spend with “my” kids, listening to stories about their lives, expanding on their own adoption stories, sympathizing with them about the hurtful things people can say (whether they mean to or not) and just being there to provide support. It quickly feels like you are one big family.

Hopefully I have helped kids with their problems by not only sharing my story, but also being able to relate to them and offering new ways I’ve dealt with people when they ask certain questions. I have learned so much from the kids, too.

Even though the adoption sessions were aimed towards the campers, I benefited from them as well.  Since a very young age, I have always struggled with trusting people, but since I started coming to Holt, that’s eased up somewhat. I think that is because Holt gave me a place where people truly understood, at a very deep level, my personal story. I noticed that even my friendships with non-adopted people have gotten stronger since I have been going to Holt.

Holt changed my life – and me — forever. I have attended for the last two years, and I feel like a little kid waiting for Christmas as I wait for August to get here!

So even though injuries are bad news for us dancers, this one did me a real favor, because they landed me at Holt. At camp, I not only discovered people I can truly connect with, but also how much I love working with people. I am now seriously considering majoring in clinical psychology in college. Those fractured shins were a blessing in disguise.

Juliet and newfound friend Grace at Holt Camp

Guest blogger Juliet Meiying Ercolano was born in The People’s Republic of China and joined her “forever family” in the United States when she was six months old.  She is now a high school senior and getting excited to begin a new phase of her life next year at college.  This is her second piece for Don’t We Look Alike?; her first piece, “Why I Forgive,” can be found here.

Why I Forgive

by Juliet Meiying Ercolano

[Juliet is our first guest blogger.  She was born in The People’s Republic of China and joined her “forever family” in the United States when she was six months old.   A rising senior at Baltimore School for the Arts, Juliet is a dance major.]

When I was only one month old, I lost my first family. I lived for five months in an orphanage in China sharing a crib with two other babies. Because of the shortage of food, the nannies or ayis (pronounced “eye–ease”) thickened our bottles with ground rice to keep our stomachs full. (I was so small when my family adopted me that I only weighed 11 pounds at six months old.)  I am told that we were kept tightly swaddled in blankets to keep us warm and to take the place of someone holding us because the orphanage, or “social welfare homes” as they are called in China, were understaffed.  We babies obviously spent many hours trying to entertain and soothe ourselves, because when I was adopted I had a bald spot in the back of my head from rubbing back and forth against the mattress from trying to comfort myself. My parents told me I cried the first time I saw a rattle shaken in front of my face because we did not have toys in the orphanage and seeing and hearing it scared me.

Orphanage babies in China

Babies waiting for adoption at an orphanage in China

Juliet and aunties

Orphanage “aunties” holding Juliet before she goes home with her new mom

Of course, I don’t remember any of this myself because I was so young when it happened, but I’ve heard these stories so many times and each time, they have left me feeling angry and confused. To make me feel better, my parents often reassured me that my birth mother must have loved me very much, indeed, because the orphanage told us that I was left at a crowded train station. This showed that my birth mother wanted me to be found and wanted me to have a better life, they said.

It makes me feel sad that I don’t know anything about my birth mother. I don’t even know the simplest facts that most children (even other adopted children) know, such as my mother’s name or age, or what her favorite food is, or if  I resemble her in any way. I don’t know if anyone really understands how much I wish I knew those things that most children take for granted. For years, thinking about my birth mother caused me a lot of inner turmoil, and I blamed myself a lot of the time for my birth mother abandoning me. Maybe I did something wrong that caused her not to want me, but I will never really know.

Baby Juliet

Baby Juliet

I know that if I ever had a baby, I wouldn’t separate from her for any reason at all. I would make it work, somehow and some way, no matter what. I’d  remind my precious baby girl each day how much I love her and how important she is to me and how I’d never let her out of my sight. The feeling of not being good enough still haunts me to this day. If I am not “perfect,” I fear that people will walk right out of my life. That anxiety – of being left – is something I’m still working hard to overcome. It was particularly bad when I was in kindergarten. From the time one of my parents dropped my off at the classroom to the end of the day at pick up time, I would worry: What if they don’t come back? I remember crying every single school day, terrified  that my mom or dad would forget to pick me up and would end up leaving me and never coming back to get me, the way my birth mother left me that day in the train station.  The other children in my class didn’t understand and couldn’t reassure me. I felt different from the rest of them and thought something must be wrong with me. I made myself feel sick every morning, just anticipating the end of the day. I was taken to a child therapist for awhile, but it did not help much. I was too shy to talk and all I can remember during those sessions was she made me draw and play a bunch of games.  Luckily, a year later, my older sister joined my school and I felt a sudden sense of security knowing she was in the same building I was in and I no longer cried at school. My attachment issues with my parents got better year after year and I no longer was afraid to go to school.

Juliet standing at the wall

18-year-old Juliet today

The good news is that now that I am older, I don’t think about my adoption as an upsetting thing at all. Of course, at times I wish I had more information about what led to my being adopted and about my birth family, but mostly I don’t think about it. I don’t feel any different from a girl living with the parents who gave birth to her. My adopted parents are my parents, not my “adopted” parents.  I have two mothers—one who gave me life and the other who let me live it. My family is the one in America. I no longer associate feeling anger with my birth mother.  I find myself feeling more grateful and happy (that I ended up in a family with parents who really wanted me and could take care of me) than upset.

Though I have struggled with my adoption at times, especially as a young kid, I now honor my birth mother’s choice. If she hadn’t decided to give me up, everything as I know now would be altered dramatically including all the people in contact with me. I would be living a completely different lifestyle. I thank my birth mother as often as I think of her for giving me a loving family and safe place to live.

In short, I have forgiven my birth mother for the hard thing she did.  It was hard for me,  of course, but I am now mature enough to realize that it must have been very difficult for her, too. I realized at some point that I was embracing my negative feelings as a way of staying attached to my birth mother, who I never really knew and whose circumstances I could never really understand.  I recognized that it would be foolish not to let go of those bad feelings, which were hurting me and making it harder for me to appreciate and enjoy the life I had now. Forgiveness was a letting go of the bad and a letting in of the good.  And that is why I forgive.

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