Joining her to save the forgotten orphan children is a big-hearted Australian businessman, and their unlikely partnership is doing some wonderful work.
What looks like any other apartment block in downtown Beijing actually hides an entire floor that’s home to 40 very precious residents.
Seeing a Chinese orphanage is a rare privilege, granted courtesy of Guy Russo, the dynamic Kmart Australia CEO.More stories from Today Tonight
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In the words of Half The Sky Foundation’s founder Jenny Bowen, Russo, the organisation’s chairman is “the most amazing man. When he comes into our institutions he's just family - it's Uncle Guy, down there with the babies,” said.
Ffiteen years ago Bowen turned her back on a successful Hollywood screen writing career in a bid to change the lives of China's million orphaned children. Her journey began when she adopted a little girl called Maya.
“She was almost two years old and she was developmentally delayed in every way. She couldn’t walk, she had no language, she was emotionally just vacant. She completely shut down,” Bowen said.
After twelve months loving care, Maya's transformation inspired her mother to found Half the Sky - an organisation now boasting fifteen orphanage centres across China.
The difference to the orphanages of old is that every child is given family-like loving care 24/7.
Babies and toddlers like Zhan Boyan come to Half the Sky's China Care Home to wait for life changing surgery.
“He's fifteen months old and the good news is he's had his operations. He had a bowel condition and so had two operations that he required, and they're both been successful,” Russo said while cradling the toddler.
Another resident is four-year-old Zheng Yiyao who has Down’s Syndrome, a heart condition and a smile to melt you hear. She was left at the gate of an institution in rural China.
“Certainly the one child policy has had an effect on child abandonment. There was certainly a traditional preference for, if you could only have one child, to have a boy, so that the child can carry on the family name or work the land. That has changed a lot,” Bowen said.
“I would say that now it is much more an economical problem. Medical costs have skyrocketed, and if a poor family has a child with special needs, special medical needs, they very often feel that they have no alternative but to give the child up in order to get the child some help,” she explained.
Bowen insists these are not throwaway babies. Once abandoned in laneways and rubbish tips, these babies and toddlers are now left where they will be found - outside hospitals and police stations, their parents knowing full well they’ll be discovered and taken to the nearest orphanage.
Nineteen years ago Hu Tian or ‘Sweet’ was found in a garbage dump with no name, no birth certificate and no hope.
“She was abandoned, fostered, then put back into an institution, then bought back out again to fostering, then put back into another institution. She has the most amazing, positive approach to life, and I'm just glad that HTS was part of that when she was about fifteen to now. We help her do her Masters in Biology at university,” Russo said.
“I’m a freshman in college and I now live in dormitory in school. Sometimes I will come to the institution because this is my family,” Sweet said.
At a glittering Hong Kong gala, Russo works the well-heeled crowd, extracting much needed funds from local business leaders.
“I always say to people when I’m asking for money for HTS, I say ‘I want you to give until it hurts, because I can guarantee you every dollar that you give to HTS, I'm watching it and I know that where that money goes – it is really looking after these little babies, and hopefully to turn those dreams of those children into a reality’,” Russo said.
It’s about giving back to a country that has enabled Kmart Australia to turn its flagging fortunes around.
“For Kmart it is our first connection to giving back to communities where we operate in China, so that relationship with HTS in China is so, so important. Our next step will be looking for a genuine partner so we can help give back to communities both in India and Bangladesh,” Russo said.
Since the Half the Sky Foundation formed in 1998, 9000 caregivers have been specially trained and 70,000 children's lives transformed.
“In the early days many, many babies died in the institutions, there was just nothing to live for, no one cared about them. By the time Half the Sky has reached saturation point - which is coming in the next few years - we'll have reached a million children,” Bowen said.
“Right now the Chinese Government has united with us and asked us to train every single care giver in the country, to actually help them overhaul the entire child welfare system.”
Russo feels incredibly lucky to work with Bowen. “I think of Mother Theresa when I think of Jenny - she is so special.”
Now Bowen is also becoming mum for little Anya. As for Maya, the child who started it all, “she's a dynamo, she’s just amazing,” her proud mum said. “She's a straight A student, she’s an athlete, she plays music, she has tons of friends - she is so, so happy.”
Bowen laughs off any comparisons to Mother Theresa. “I just feel like I’m the luckiest person on the planet. I mean how great is it to wake up every morning knowing you're going to spend your day making life better for children? You know that’s as good as it gets, I'm sure it is. I'm sure I'm the luckiest person ever,” she concluded.Contact details
- Half The Sky - www.halfthesky.org
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