On a recent trip to China, Holt’s China regional coordinator visited a group home Holt supports for children living with HIV. Here, she shares some of their stories — which, though heartbreaking, are edged with hope.
We first became aware of HIV group homes in southwestern China because of a video broadcast through a Chinese news outlet. The report told the story of a 6-year-old boy whose parents had passed away, and who lived alone with his dog because his extended family and community were afraid to contract HIV. The news segment showed an overwhelming outpouring of material support after a wider population found out about the little boy’s situation, but the support he received was measured in bags of food and hand-me-down clothing left outside his door, not care and affection. His life changed dramatically when he finally moved to an HIV group home.
During a recent trip to China, I had the opportunity to visit this group home, which Holt began supporting financially this year to keep the children in school, bridge gaps in daily living expenses, and find them loving homes through international adoption. This particular group home is operated by a local organization that supports children throughout the region. The children who live here are particularly vulnerable in China. They are children who were born with HIV, whose parents have passed away, and who face discrimination in their cities, towns and villages because of their status. Extended family are afraid to care for them, landlords won’t rent to them, and public schools don’t want them in their classrooms.
We arrived at the group home mid-morning. Holt Vice President of China Programs Jian Chen had already been there for some time, talking with the director about recent developments and setbacks they were experiencing. We had heard that the home had moved several times — that one by one, landlords had evicted them because they served children with HIV — but that reality hit home that morning. The director explained that the children had lived in this compound for only three weeks because yet another landlord found out they had HIV, and they had been driven out.
As we walked through the courtyard, we were greeted by the shrieks and smiles of playing children. We met so many children that day, and so many with touching personal stories, that it’s hard to point to just one or two to represent the whole group. After all, this is a group home that houses and cares for almost 30 boys and girls aged 2-17, and each of these children has his or her own unique story.
One by one (or two by two if they were siblings), the caregivers brought the children into the large, high-ceilinged room that serves as their living room, play room and many other purposes. The children were quiet at first. Some of them were scared and didn’t want to talk to us. We tried to encourage them gently, asking them simple questions first to gain their interest. Some of the children opened up, some didn’t. Some were afraid of talking to a group of strangers, and I couldn’t blame them one bit.
One of the first girls we met, a girl named Fen* who wore a lovely pink dress and matching bow, was so shy that she started to cry silently as she sat next to one of her favorite caregivers. She would nod or shake her head when her caregivers asked questions, but would not vocalize her answers as fat tears rolled down her cheeks. We only kept her with us for a few minutes before sending her back to her friends. Being in a room full of strangers, even smiling strangers, was enough to make her cry.
It wasn’t until later in the day that we were able to see Fen smile.
Later we met Ju.* Ju has a little brother who is also at the group home, and by our estimation a lot of work needs to happen before her paperwork is even ready. This may be a problem, as she is already 12 years old and Chinese adoption law doesn’t allow international adoption of children over 14. Her caregivers described Ju as the smartest girl in the group home, who gets high marks in school and has many hobbies. She was quiet and well behaved when she met us, shy to speak but showing kind affection for her younger brother.
When they left the room, the caregivers were able to share more about Ju that they preferred not to say in front of her. Like many of the children in the home, Ju and her brother have living relatives. Their uncle and grandmother are not willing to take over guardianship because the children are HIV positive. Ju understands that this is the reason why her relatives will not parent them, and feels uncomfortable going back to see her family. She experiences prejudice in the community and understands that her HIV status is the cause, and this makes her very sensitive. At 12 years old, Ju has already internalized the prevalent notion from her home community that being HIV positive means that others do not wish to care for her or her brother.
Ju is not the only girl in the group home who feels this way. Likewise, she is not the only one whose parents have passed away from HIV/AIDS and whose living relatives are not willing to care for her. The caregivers shared story after story about the children we met, explaining which relatives were still alive. They described how one young girl had tested negative for HIV and was still left in the group home by her relatives because of stigma in the community. They described how children had been sent from place to place for so many years that they had trouble trusting that they would not be forced to move again. They described the sorrow that one girl shared with her caregivers once they had earned her trust by showing her care and compassion. This girl had watched her parents slowly die of HIV.
Many of the stories were heartbreaking, but edged with hope. One boy in the home would be adopted soon, and his new family would be traveling from the U.S. before too long. The children had heard stories about other children who had been adopted, and even knew of a few themselves. They were able to go to school despite the challenges and expense of private education. And even though they’d frequently needed to move from place to place, they always had a safe place to live with loving caregivers.
After we finished talking, the caregivers ushered the group of curious children inside from the courtyard where they had been playing (or just taking turns peeking in the window). I watched as a few of the boys and girls we had interviewed skipped up the stairs to their bedrooms, smiling and laughing with each other. A few of the children stayed behind to chatter among themselves and play with their caregivers.
In walked Fen in her pink, frilly dress, not exactly looking happy but at least looking less frightened than she had before. With her friends around her, surrounded by comforting people, she went straight over to the group home director and sat on his knee. As he talked to her, I watched a smile start creeping onto her face. The reassurance of this trusted caregiver, as well as the support of her friends around her, had removed Fen’s fear and shyness and left over was a laughing little girl in a pink dress with a matching hair ribbon.
Moreso than any one interview, this image of Fen sitting with the director stays in mind, demonstrative of the power that this one special adult has had in her life. Hopefully, someday soon, she will have another one or two trusted adults in her life, and hopefully she will be able to call them Mom and Dad.
Samantha Gammons | China Regional Coordinator
* To protect the children’s identities, all names have been changed.
Many of the children Samantha met at the group home will be released for international adoption soon, and your family could be the one to provide the love and care they need! To learn more about adopting a child with HIV — or a child specifically from this group home — contact the China program at [email protected]. For more information on the group home and providing support for the children who live there, contact Samantha Gammons at [email protected] or Rose McBride at [email protected].
In 2007, Terri and Brad Roback brought home Sachi, the first child with HIV adopted from India. Today, their daughter is a bright, busy, healthy toddler thriving in the love of her parents. Click here to read their story.