The Gates-funded Peony Project is nurturing China's forgotten blossoms

Date: 
2002-06-16

Nicole Brodeur

LUOYANG, China — Song Tao Liu's parents traveled for miles and spent a year's income to hear a doctor declare him an idiot.

Janice Neilson, executive director of the World Association of Children and Parents (WACAP), traveled across the world, worked for 10 years and got $2.9 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to prove that label wrong.

For more than a decade, Song Tao's cerebral palsy was a shame the Liu family hid within the scarred, cement walls of their three-room house in the Henan province of China, 450 miles south of Beijing.

But four months after starting school at the WACAP Children's Institute of Luoyang, the boy, now 12, can walk unaided. He can comprehend and communicate, revealing a personality and ambition that goes far beyond the limits of a broken body.

Song Tao, and others like him, represents a loving transformation of tradition and culture being powered by WACAP, an adoption agency based in Renton. Since forming a partnership with the Chinese government in 1995, the agency has been seeding a quiet revolution in how China treats its neediest children.

Through WACAP's Peony Project, disabled children are literally being lifted from their beds to be rehabilitated, educated and shepherded into more hopeful futures. For the orphaned and the abandoned, that could mean a chance of being adopted into a U.S. home. For those with families, it could mean another set of working hands in this, the poorest province in China.

WACAP

For more information on the World Association for Children and Parents' Peony Project, its adoption services, or to contribute to its Annual Child Assistance Appeal, please contact WACAP at P.O. Box 88948, Seattle 98138. You can also call 206-575-4550; fax 206-575-4148. The Web site is www.wacap.org; and the e-mail address is wacap@....
"I believe all the people around the world should take care of people with disabilities," says Song Tao's uncle, Xing Hu Liu, 52.

The uncle holds court during a rare visit from the boy's teachers, who have traveled 90 minutes from his school in the city. His status as a tax collector and the eldest brother means Xing Hu speaks for the family in matters of import. And on this day in early June, he does so with relish.

"I am very emotional," the uncle begins, speaking through a translator. "Thank you for all the care you give to Song Tao."

Neilson smiles back: "He comes to our center filled up with love. And that's why he can learn."

Song Tao's father, Zhoug An Liu, 47, squats on the floor across the room with his wife, Mai Gao, 40, who cradles their son and absently pops pieces of fruit into his mouth, wiping the juice from his chin.

The family has set out a bounty of melons, peaches and bananas for guests. A dishpan of water was set on the floor of the courtyard for visitors to wash their hands after the dusty journey here.

Neighbors cluster outside the open door to stare at the visitors and to eavesdrop on proud stories of the boy who once couldn't walk alone.

Parents' struggle

Song Tao was born at home, still, jaundiced and unable to eat. His parents struggled with him on their own for 30 days, then sold fruit and borrowed money to take their firstborn to see a doctor.

The uncle's tone is bitter as he recalls the diagnosis: "Foolish, an idiot."

In a nation that actively discourages couples from having more than one child, disabled children often are abandoned to orphanages while couples try again for a healthy son. But Song Tao's extended family cared for him, feeding him by hand, developing a language of signs and sounds that mean hungry or tired or wet.

Then last year, they read an item in the government newspaper about the WACAP Children's Center. Song Tao was accepted on scholarship.

Where once he had to be carried everywhere, now he can walk alone for short distances. He practices by spotting neighbors, then walking to them. He especially likes to make his way across the dirt road to his uncle's door.

Where once he stayed inside all day, now he boards the bus each week for school. His mother is free to work the farm beside her husband — meaning a significant improvement to the family income.

Where once he was deemed unteachable, now he watches with interest as his sister, Ya Xing, does her homework.

"He wants to learn," his uncle says, tapping his own temple. "He wants a backpack, a pencil box and pens."

With the dream of pens, the family sketches another life for Song Tao.

"I would like his functioning recovered," says his father.

"To eat by himself," says his mother.

Warm greeting in China

Neilson and a handful of WACAP staff members step out of the airport in Luoyang, greeted by a hot blast of Chinese summer — and a green bus so new the plastic is still on the seats.

"Can you believe this?" Neilson says in wonder, her arms spread across the aisle.

A year after being awarded a Gates Foundation grant, WACAP is still opening the gifts it has brought them.

There is the bus that will collect children from rural areas, saving them and their parents hours of costly travel.

There is a six-story building, filled with classrooms, rehabilitation rooms, kitchens, computers and lodging for doctors and therapists who come from around the world to work with disabled children here.

There is even a paved road that leads from the main highway to the front gate, making it easier to deliver the children.

On June 1 — Children's Day in China — the green bus carries Neilson and other dignitaries down that road for the grand opening of the WACAP Children's Center of Luoyang, a marriage of the new school and clinic with the old Luoyang Child Welfare Institute, a traditional government orphanage for 250 children.

The center is home to the Peony Project, named for China's national flower.

"I remember when it was an idea, a dream," marvels Lillian Thogersen, an assistant director with WACAP. "You hear about it and see photographs.

"But until you walk through it, you don't understand the power that is going on here."

The dream was built over a dozen years of patient, painstaking work by Neilson, WACAP and sympathetic Chinese officials. The agency had to maneuver through language barriers, bureaucratic protocol and ego, the realities of Communist China's one-child policy and a traditional cultural preference for male children.

"They learned that we weren't going to hold that against them," says Peony Project director Evelyn Mogster. "And we are very careful in not misusing that trust."

Neilson joined WACAP as a volunteer in 1976, when the organization was founded as a support group for adoptive parents. She was named executive director in 1983.

When she first visited China in 1988, government orphanages were swelling with children — many of them disabled or female. Chinese officials were growing critical of the Western rush to take healthy babies out of the country — leaving the most needy behind.

So WACAP made a pact with the government: it would bring doctors and therapists to help the children waiting at the orphanages. And if families couldn't be found, the children would be better able to care for themselves someday.

"This is a Chinese project, and we're here to help," Neilson says. "There are so many levels of formality, so many differences.

"But once that's done, you've created a foundation for the future. It's all to improve the life of a child."

Neilson recites what is a "deeply held belief" here: "If a child has an imperfect body, that child is unable to improve, function or learn."

Over the years, she saw that belief at work: disabled children abandoned to orphanages, sleeping three to a bed or kept indoors by their families, away from public scorn.

And while the Chinese government offers some help for disabled children in regular and special schools, only a small percentage of the country's massive population can get their children there.

Traditional Chinese treatment for cerebral palsy is cursory and largely ineffectual: Massage, acupuncture and herbal treatments. Many parents are urged to give their child injections that seem to do nothing, yet cost all they have.

Then, when the child fails to improve, the parents "are made to feel that there is hope for something they can't provide," Mogster says.

In 1995, with the help of China's Ministry of Civil Affairs, Neilson began delicate negotiations to expand her adoption services to help disabled children. To prove her offer was sincere, she agreed to start with "the poorest of the poor" in Luoyang.

It took four more years of light treading through the skeptical Chinese bureaucracy. But when Neilson brought her first team of doctors to the Welfare Institute — the government orphanage — in Luoyang three years ago, 100 families were waiting at the gates.

The need far eclipsed the help WACAP could offer.

"I couldn't look into the eyes of those parents and not help them," Neilson says.

She applied for a Gates grant, seeking to add a school and therapy center to the orphanage. The money came through the day before Thanksgiving of that year.

The grant bought the $400,000 school-and-clinic building and spurred the Luoyang People's Congress to fund 80 new positions — doctors, therapists and teachers.

Peony Project was born.

"The common mindset in China is that if a child's limbs don't work, they can't be taught," Mogster says. "But if you can find the right tool, miracles can happen ... "

One miracle came by pairing a boy with a computer.

"No one would ever think that he could write a thing," Mogster says. "But because he has a tool to develop his mind, he is writing and drawing ... We saw it so quickly, it was kind of stunning."

Another miracle is the hope of independence for Gushi, a 9-year-old girl with mild cerebral palsy. Gushi boards at the center five days a week. Her mother, Mei Sa, wants her to attend regular school someday and eventually live on her own — a huge step for a disabled girl in China.

"Even I used to be disappointed by my daughter," she says. "But she has become more understanding and she likes to speak more and sing. Simple songs, ancient Chinese poems."

Happy voices fill air

Sounds from six floors of classrooms shower through the clouds painted in the stairwell. The tinkling of a piano and chatter of small voices is punctuated by thunderclaps of laughter.

Upstairs, children hunch over bowls of noodles and broth — a lunch they made themselves.

"They made the dough, rolled it, cut it, snapped the greens, broke the eggs, sliced the tomatoes," says Dawn Gardner, a special-education teacher on leave from the Highline School District. "They get great joy from this."

The children peer shyly over their noodle bowls. Chinese aides mill about, coaxing the children to smile at their guests.

The marriage of East and West, old and new is evident everywhere here. Two boys sit quietly in a side room, wired cuffs around their arms. The wires send mild electrical impulses to acupuncture points — Chinese therapy called "channel stimulation" thought to help energy flow. Two padded massage tables are parked in the hall, ready for afternoon sessions that will soothe tight muscles and twisted limbs.

The classrooms are bright and sunny, with windows to the ceiling, books, blocks — the same things that fill schools around the world.

But here, in China, small shoes are lined neatly along a wall. And here, at WACAP, wheelchairs and walkers stand ready to serve, balloons attached to their handles.

The door of each classroom boasts photographs of the children who spend their days there.

"We recognize them as individuals," Mogster says. "Some kids had never had their picture taken before."

The celebration has been the talk of the town for months. And now, on Children's Day, the banners, balloons and government band draws a huge crowd.

Inside, the children have been too excited to focus or sleep. This is their shining moment. Perhaps the first of their lives. And it empowers them: Upon hearing that 1,000 doves will be released at the ribbon-cutting, one child asks that they release only 900 and send 100 to the kitchen.

To begin the official ceremony, nine children help cut the ribbon because, in Chinese, nine means "everlasting."

The dignitaries are many, and all demand special attention: Alfredo Barrera, the chief of the adoption unit from the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou; the vice director of the China Adoption Center; the vice director of the Welfare Department, under the Civil Administration Ministry; even the company that put in the center's linoleum floor sent a representative.

Center officials asked donors not to give flowers. So the Hunan Lottery Center sends an air-conditioning unit. Restaurants donate cases of coconut cookies, sugar and drinks. There is a pile of stuffed animals, four 21-inch television sets, bundles of dishrags and industrial-sized bags of laundry detergent.

The speeches drone on, the sun is strong. The children squirm in their new uniforms, light and cottony, like men's pajamas. Some officials on the dais take calls on their cellphones. A few of the children are introduced, and zip across stage on their walkers, smiling for the crowd.

"Children are the flower of our nation and the future of our nation," intones Yan Qingchun, the vice director of the Civil Administration Ministry's Welfare Department. "It is the duty of everyone, including the common people and the government officials, to help children become useful personnel."

Need comes calling

For a few hours on this morning, the people who built Peony Project could bask in a pageant of successes. But for every child it has lifted from a bed, another washes up from China's sea of children. The center gets 10 calls a day.

Even now, in the middle of the festivities, the need comes calling.

WACAP's Barbara Knowles, seated in the VIP area, feels a tug on her sleeve. She looks down to see a woman holding a folded note, who then nods at a boy who has somehow made his way to the front of the crowd. His body is so misshapen it looks as though his arm grows from his back.

Knowles hands the note to a translator. It contains a name, an address and three words: "I need help."

Knowles finds Isabelle Guillot, a therapist referred to WACAP by the World Health Organization.

Guillot leans over the boy. The crowd presses in, more interested in this show than the one on stage. Someone asks for the boy's mother. A small woman emerges from the crowd. Seeing the attention given her son, she starts to cry.

The boy, Gui Feng Gao, is 15 and has severe scoliosis. Doctors initially treated him for polio. He teaches himself at home. Neighborhood children come to him for help with their homework.

"He wants to go to school and become healthy," the mother says.

She had heard about the grand opening of the center, and brought her son 250 miles by bus. Would they take him?

Guillot shakes her head.

Not today. He will have to come back on the day doctors screen new students.

The mother nods through her tears. Guillot rejoins the ceremony — but not before a last word with the woman.

"You are in my memory," she promises. "I will remember you."

Nicole Brodeur is at 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@.... Her column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday in Local.

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