On Holt’s first vision trip to China, participants visit two rural communities where Holt helps struggling families to care for their children. In one community heavily affected by HIV/AIDS, educational sponsorship has helped many children to graduate high school and go on to college and careers.
by Robin Munro, Managing Editor
At the civil affairs office in Yuncheng, a city in China’s central Shanxi province, a formal meeting between local officials, a group of visiting Americans, and families in Holt’s family strengthening program is underway. The room falls quiet as a young girl stands to speak. She wears her glossy black hair up in a ponytail, revealing the little silver hoops in her ears and the hot pink temples of her glasses.
“Aunties and Uncles, I am 19 years old,” she says. “My parents divorced when I was young. Unfortunately, in 2009, my father died. He was the only person I could count on. At the time, I had no money to go to school. Holt gave support so I could go to school again.”
She has the full attention of her audience, where sitting among several dark-suited officials are seven more casually dressed American tourists. They include a retired social worker, an artist from Chicago, an ER doctor, a young couple from Cincinnati, a Holt adoptee who grew up in Boston, and a young woman who babysits a little girl adopted through Holt. These are the seven members of Holt’s first vision trip to China.
All listen intently as the girl with the pink glasses continues her story. “Over the years, I felt the warmth of family from sponsors,” she says, referring to the Holt donors who supported her education. “With the help of warmhearted people, I have found the strength to go on with my life. Because of your support, I have an appreciative heart now.” She shares that she has now graduated from school and has a good job working in a kindergarten.
“With your help, one day I will help others when I can,” the girl continues. “You sent help and warmth and love and I can feel it. I say thank you – two words that are small but useful to express my heart to you.”
This girl is one of 360 children Holt began supporting in September of 2005 in rural Xia County. Twenty years ago, a tragedy of misinformation hit this poor farming community. At the time, it was a common, though illegal practice, to sell blood to local hospitals. Then the early 1990s, few people in this region had heard of HIV/AIDS – let alone the possibility of contracting the disease through a blood transfusion. Even the local medical staff was ignorant of the dangers, as they extracted red blood cells and re-injected co-mingled plasma back into the donors. Although the practice began in neighboring Henan province, it soon picked up in Shanxi – spreading HIV throughout the population of Xia County.
By the time Holt began serving this population, the disease was mostly eradicated. The blood transfusions ceased once the source of the local HIV epidemic became known, and few new cases emerged.
The wound left by this tragedy, however, remained wide open. With no drugs to treat HIV in the early days of its appearance, hundreds of people died. Children lost their parents, their aunts, their uncles. Some fortunate children had one surviving parent, who struggled to support their family on a single income. Others went to live with elderly grandparents. Sadly, some children were also born HIV-positive.
When Holt’s China staff came to the aid of this community, we focused – as we always do – on the children. With so many families struggling to make ends meet, many children were at risk of dropping out of school to help earn income. “We focused on keeping children in school because they are the hope for the future,” says Jian Chen, Holt’s vice president of programs in China.
Holt provided a living stipend, medical insurance, and funds to cover the fees for the children to attend boarding school. During the week, children would stay at school to focus on their studies and return home on the weekends to visit their families. In that way, families remained strong. And children thrived – finding, like the girl in Yuncheng, the strength to go on with their lives.
As the girl told her story, Patricia Roth – the retired social worker in the vision trip group – started to tear up. Patricia worked for many years as an adoption caseworker and she is also a Holt adoptive mom from Korea. Admittedly, Patricia cries easily. But as she looked around the room, she noticed that others were also wiping tears from their eyes.
Ingrid Keating was also moved by the stories of children and their families in the Yuncheng program. “To continue to have hope in the midst of adversity – that is what Holt has provided for these families,” says Ingrid, who traveled on the vision trip with her husband, John. Although they have three children at home, the Keatings had long considered adopting from China. Ingrid felt particularly drawn to Holt, and when they received an email from Holt about the vision trip, Ingrid thought – “What better way to know?”
While the vision trip would take them to orphanages and foster homes where Holt cares for children awaiting adoption, Ingrid was just as excited to meet families in our family strengthening and preservation programs. “I don’t think of adoption as the root of Holt,” she says. “I think of family strengthening … I think it’s awesome that that’s what Holt thinks of first.”
While in Yuncheng, Ingrid and her fellow vision trip participants visited the homes of several of the HIV-affected families in our program. Their homes were modest, but beautifully cared for. In many of the homes, Patricia noticed that families had posted their children’s scholastic awards to the walls. “They were very proud – those who were able to work – very proud that they could take care of their kids,” she says. “They were also very sad that this had happened. In one or two of the families, the mother had passed away from AIDS.”
Some of the families had invested money earned from selling their blood into their homes. Now, the person who created this beautiful space is gone, says Ingrid.
Those who continued caring for the children – often a single father or grandparent – welcomed their visitors with apples and tea, a small gesture but a point of pride for them. Helping families maintain a sense of pride is central to Holt’s approach, as several of the vision trip participants observed; Holt preserves not just the family, but the dignity of the family.
As a trained occupational therapist, Ingrid saw parallels between her work and Holt’s approach to family preservation. When people are impacted by a tragedy later in life, she explains, a part of the self is taken away. “You don’t want to take away their sense of hope and occupation for life. This is what sustains their sense of normalcy, routine and purpose in the world and within their family unit,” says Ingrid. “Holt empowers these individuals to not only maintain their family identity but seeks to improve their quality of life.” Although Holt provides a living stipend for the families, the program is designed so as not to create a cycle of dependence. In Xia County, Holt supplements families’ income – enabling them to maintain their quality of life, and alleviating the fear of not being able to feed their families. But every able-bodied adult works, and every child attends school.
“Holt is helping people who have skin in the game – who are actually doing things to help themselves too,” says Sally Weiner, the Chicago artist on the trip. During the meeting with officials in Yuncheng, several of the families expressed their gratitude for Holt’s assistance. But they also emphasized their desire for independence. “They want to be on their own feet,” says Sally. “I honestly found that profoundly inspiring.”
Sally also observed how Holt helps families achieve the self-reliance they desire. “If somebody doesn’t have skin in the game – and it’s a ‘we’ll support you for generations to come’ – it kills dignity,” she says. “That’s not what I see Holt is doing. I love what Holt does.”
Like Patricia, Sally is also a Holt adoptive mom. Six years ago, she adopted an “amazing soul” – a daughter – through Holt’s China program. She is now a strong, healthy and happy 8-year-old who Sally believes will, one day, become the mayor of Chicago.
For Sally, the vision trip confirmed many of her beliefs about Holt’s work in China – not least of which is that adoption was the best outcome for her daughter. “I was even more grateful that my daughter, through Holt, was able to have a life,” she says. “Had she stayed there, it would have been extremely difficult.”
Had she stayed in China, Sally’s daughter would have grown up in an orphanage. Unlike the children we support in Yuncheng, she would never have known the love of a family. For her, international adoption was the best possible solution. But for the HIV/AIDS-impacted children we serve in China, the best outcome is to stay in the loving care of their families. Helping these families care for their children is Holt’s sole purpose in this community.
Sally not only embraces our work here, she actively supports it as a sponsor and donor. For the past ten years, she has sponsored children and supported programs in not just China, but Korea, Haiti and Ethiopia as well.
During the visit to Yuncheng, Sally had the rare opportunity to meet one of the children she sponsors – a young boy. “It was really cool to meet him,” she says. “It made it real.”
Sally sponsors both the boy and his sister, who is in college. Although his sister was away during Sally’s visit, she did get to meet the family she has helped stay together during a time of struggle. “It was wonderful to see a loving and supportive family – a family that is pulling out of a horribly tough time, with tremendous hope for future generations,” she says. “Their hope and joy was palpable.”
Eight years ago, when Holt started the project in Yuncheng, most of the children were in middle or high school. Today, like the girl in the pink glasses, the vast majority of these children have since graduated from school and gone on to live independent lives. Only 29 children remain in the program.
“We feel successful because after just a few years, they are on their own and on their feet,” says Jian, Holt’s VP of China programs. “They just needed a little help.”
As the family-strengthening program in Xia County comes to a successful end, Holt has shifted focus to two other impoverished farming communities in Shanxi. In rural Rui Cheng County, Holt is partnering with the local government to help 129 children living in dire poverty. The hardships suffered by this community stem not from the spread of disease as in Xia County, but from a common environmental problem.
“Drought is the real cause of their poverty,” explains Jian.
Rui Cheng lies in a deforested valley between two steep mountain ranges. Families live on one-acre parcels of land given to them by the government, where they mostly harvest wheat and corn crops – and in a good year, apples. But rainfall is sparse, and the area has no underground water source. With no other way to earn income in Rui Cheng, many adults have left the region to find work – leaving children in the care of elderly grandparents.
“These people get stuck,” says Jian of the families who remain in the countryside. “They don’t have an education. They don’t have the means to make a living in the city. And many of them are sick.”
Food scarcity and poor diet has caused a spate of chronic diseases, as well as mental and physical disabilities. According to local officials, more than 30 percent of the local population suffers from some sort of mental disorder.
“The women don’t take vitamins. They don’t eat vegetables,” says Jian, explaining why so many children are born with disabilities. With so little rainfall, the farmland is not conducive to growing vegetables. And with little income, families can’t afford to purchase foods to supplement their diet.
During the vision trip, the group traveled to Rui Cheng to visit with a few of the families and children Holt has begun to support this year. They met the families at their homes, where they live in caves fashioned out of hillsides.
“They had a little firepit in the house and when they cooked, the smoke and heat went underneath their beds to keep them warm in the wintertime,” says Patricia. “They were neat inside, and outside, they had things stacked because it’s just one room and one bed for sometimes three or four people.”
“It’s not an easy place to live by any means,” observes Ingrid. “But they’re doing it.”
During their visits, the vision trip group met an elderly man and his 12-year-old granddaughter. When the girl’s father was injured in a bad motor accident – a common occurrence in this unpaved and mountainous area – her grandfather became the sole breadwinner for the family. But he earns too little to support the whole family, and when the visiting group presented their small gift of cookies and treats – something only wealthy families can afford – he cried.
Here in Rui Cheng and in neighboring Jishan County, Holt is supporting nearly 400 children with medical insurance and funding for them to attend school. Although Holt funding does not directly support the families, investing in children, says Jian, is investing in families.
In July 2012, Holt China staff member Cathy Yu traveled to Rui Cheng to assess the early stages of this new family strengthening program. Here, she noticed a distinction between the older and younger children who she met. “For the children under 10 years old, they keep their innocence and a good spiritual outlook because they still don’t know things,” she writes. “For the children above 10 years old, they have started to look gloomy because they know the hardness of their family.”
But all of the children have one thing in common – they all perform well in school. Like the children from AIDS-impacted families in Xia County, the children in Rui Cheng see the assistance Holt provides not as a meager handout to sustain the same level of existence – but as an opportunity to improve their lives. “They know that studying hard is the only way to make their lives better,” writes Cathy.
On this first vision trip to China, the seven participants got to see the work we do in China. But more than that, they saw our vision for these communities – a vision Sally describes as “so beautiful and so sane.” A vision Ingrid could not truly see until she looked through the eyes of our staff who work directly with the families. A vision of hope – not only for the kids, says Patricia, but for the families.
The 12-year-old granddaughter of the elderly man who cried over cookies and treats is now in the sixth grade. She ranks second in her class. One day, six or seven years from now, a new vision trip group may return to this community and meet this elderly man. But his granddaughter won’t be there to meet them. She will be off at college, creating a better life. That is Holt’s vision – for her, and for all of the children and families we serve in China.