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 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

A Korean Adoptee Speaks to PAPs About a China Adoption

Here’s a thoughtful discussion of adoption and race and their intersection.

Adopted from China

Adoption is so complicated—there are so many different ways to look at it. Until recently, the subject was only in the back of my mind because it would make me sad to think about my birthparents. I also felt that my adoptive parents were enough for me; where I am now is where I am supposed to be, and the fact that I am adopted is not important as long as our family loves each other. As I am beginning to understand myself more as an adult, I am realizing just how prevalent adoption is in my life. I am an Adopted Asian American. Adoptees can only relate to other adoptees when it comes to certain experiences and thoughts. This is what makes us different from Asian Americans, and sometimes this can make us feel isolated. We have our issues like other Asian Americans, but we have extra baggage. With…

View original post 1,372 more words

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

 

 

 

Pain on Every Page

By Adoptive Parent

I logged onto Amazon.com a few weeks ago, searching for some good guidebooks about my child’s birthplace: the People’s Republic of China. As I perused the offerings, I glanced down at the section “Recommended for you” and saw an intriguing title Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Love and Loss by Xinran.9781451610949_p0_v1_s260x420

Reading the summary, I learned that Xinran not only is the author of several other books about the lives of Chinese women, but also spent time as a radio journalist, whose show Words on the Night Breeze told the true stories of women in China through their letters and interviews.  In addition, she founded a charity called “Mothers Bridge of Love, “ aimed to help Western families who adopt Chinese children.

Xinran’s book offers sometimes harrowing but also often heartbreaking stories of Chinese mothers “losing” their daughters, mostly seemingly because of the centuries old belief that until a woman gives birth to a son, she is not fully a human being. When combined with the One Child Policy that was instituted in 1979 by the Communist Party as a way to control the country’s burgeoning population, this preference for boys has meant the pressure on women to have sons has gotten even more intense, and has led to thousands of baby girls being abandoned and sometimes even killed.

The stories in this book are not for the faint of heart: in one chapter, Xinran watches as a newborn baby girl is thrown out with the afterbirth in a slop bucket. When the author expresses her dismay, she is told that “It’s not a child … it’s a baby girl, and we can’t keep it.” In another chapter, she chats with an apparently doting father dandling his toddler daughter on his knee as the train they are on speeds along. Later, though, as the train starts on its way again after a short stop, she sees the little girl sitting alone on the platform. It turns out the man’s wife is pregnant and they need a boy, so they have left their beautiful daughter in the station, trusting someone will take her to an orphanage and she will be adopted by someone who can give her a better life.

Several other stories involve women who work in the orphanages slipping their daughters into the populations there, in order to allow them to be adopted by “wealthy” couples in the United States or Europe. These mothers aren’t heartless: they believe they are saving their daughters from lives of hard labor in the countryside.

The one common thread running through all of these accounts is the pain and heartbreak of the mothers involved. Read it.

Xinran

Xinran

“But how are you going to understand her when she starts to talk?”

by Lisa Ercolano

Juliet had only been part of our family for two weeks when I got my first introduction to the confusion and curiosity that international/trans-racial adoption can spark in some people.

My little daughter was bundled like a burrito in a puffy red snowsuit and slung on my chest in an infant carrier while I went about the task of doing the weekly grocery shopping. As I placed the Romaine lettuce, bananas, yogurt, milk and other foods onto the conveyor belt, the middle-aged cashier craned her neck toward Juliet and peering hard, said bluntly “Is that YOUR baby?”

Proud as could be that this gorgeous six-month-old was, indeed, part of our family, I patiently explained that Juliet had been born to her first parents in China, but they were unable to raise her, so our family had adopted her and would have the privilege of bringing her up. As the cashier scanned and bagged my groceries, we continued to chat about adoption, and the many female children in China that were in need of homes.

“There’s just one thing I don’t understand,” said the cashier, as I was paying and getting ready to be on my way. “How will you guys understand her when she starts to talk? Do you speak Chinese?”

That may have been the first time someone asked me a silly question, but it sure hasn’t been the last! As any Caucasian parent of a child of color knows, the questions and comments come at you hard and fast – and from seemingly every direction – when you are out in public together.

During another trip to the supermarket, a well-meaning but ignorant older woman stopped to admire the baby and pronounced “She must love the color red, coming from a Communist country the way she did! And rice. She must love rice. All Chinese people do.”

I forced a smile, muttering something to the effect that Juliet was only a baby, and hadn’t tasted rice yet, and certainly hadn’t expressed preference for any colors. Then I went on my way as fast as my legs could carry me. I wasn’t sure whether I was going to laugh, or cry.

If I had a dollar for every person who told me that Juliet would someday be great at math, the violin, and martial arts, I’d have a nice nest egg. Those kind of  comments were especially difficult to deal with, as the people making them seemingly meant well. Yet they reflect certain stereotypes about Asians and were offensive to me in that way.  My daughter was, and is, an individual.

So my stock response was to say “That’s very nice of you, but she’s certainly too little right now to do math, play an instrument, or take self-defense classes. It will be fun to see who she is as she grows up.”

And it has been fun.  As it turns out, Juliet is pretty good at math, but doesn’t like it much. She definitely loves rice and Chinese food, but also digs into a Chipotle chicken burrito, cheese pizza or sushi with equal gusto.

Instead of choosing to play a musical instrument, she began begging for ballet lessons almost as soon as she started to talk, and has spent most of her non-school hours in the dance studio since then.  She doesn’t have a favorite color; her preferences vary from day to day, depending on her mood and what she is wearing.

And, to my knowledge, she has never set foot in a karate dojo, though she continues to be asked by classmates and peers if she is a black belt. She’s heard that one – and so many others – so many times that she just sighs in response.

Gifts to the World: Animal Art

DWLA Introduces

Teen Artist Cadence Moffitt

Cadence Wren Moffitt was born in China in March 1998.  She was adopted in October 1998. She lives in Alaska with her mother and sister, where she enjoys volleyball, digital art, and photography.  Cadence also is a writer.  She has been an artist for most of her life.

Marisha and Luanne love Cadi’s bold work.  This piece highlights the wildlife indigenous to Alaska, where she lives.  It’s wonderful how she uses the world right around her for her inspiration.  We are looking forward to seeing Cadi pursue her artistic dreams!

Native Wolf by Cadence Wren Moffitt

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