The tiny infant snuggled into my arms, enjoying the warmth of human contact. He seemed so perfect – tiny fingers with almost microscopic fingernails, big eyes and a sweet smile.
But this was no ordinary baby. This baby was born 6,700 miles from Washington County. This baby has no parents. This baby will probably not live to see his first birthday.
Seven volunteers from Washington County traveled to China on a mission. We arrived at China Little Flower on a hazy Beijing morning not knowing what to expect. Would this be the most depressing experience of our lives? Would we regret coming all this way? Whatever we expected, it was not what we found.
We were escorted into a modern, western-style house in a gated community, toured the clean, cheerful two-story house and met some of the 61 babies who live there.
The first floor is occupied by a huge playroom filled with crawling toddlers and lots of toys, a bedroom of cribs and a kitchen lined with highchairs. And everywhere there are Chinese nannies who look after the children’s every need.
Diane DiSalle of McMurray shared her first impression.
“These babies are so well cared for. I wasn’t expecting that!”
Tripp Kline, owner of Three Rivers Auction in Washington, agreed. “There just wasn’t any crying. You put all those babies together and you think there would be crying.”
Whenever a child started to cry, someone stopped and picked up the child. The caregivers are dedicated to these babies; they love them.
Volunteer nurse Kate Reak explained why some of the nannies were sad.
“We recently sent a group of babies off to their adoptive homes. The nannies love these children. It’s hard to say goodbye.”
The children come from Chinese orphanages because they have major medical problems. Some need multiple surgeries; many have chest scars peeking out from under their chins, signs of heart surgeries. One toddler has a severe cleft palate. Another has an eye condition that looks like a grey marble jutting out.
And some are true hospice patients, who will live out their days here in relative comfort, receiving all the snuggling and hands-on attention they deserve.
Their disabilities are jarring at first, but within minutes, the volunteers discover that these are children like any other – children with different personalities but who all need the same things: human touch, someone to care and playtime. Kline doesn’t have any children of his own. This is the longest he has ever spent with infants.
“My wife, Suzanne, was surprised how I could deal with them,” he said. “I fell in love with the child with the casts. He has clubfeet and they are straightening his legs. He was so strong, always grabbing at things. He seemed excited to be engaged with – lots of big smiles and fun.”
Surprisingly, 80 percent of these children will recover, either entirely or with some controllable medical issues, and be adopted internationally. The latest group of children nearing recovery will meet their adoptive parents in August and go to a home far, far away.
Suzanne Ewing, Kline’s wife and a Pittsburgh attorney, was also touched.
“What a wonderful way to spend the morning, with kids crawling over you. I wanted to take them all home. I can’t put it into words. I am thrilled they are all happy and comfortable,” she said.
China Little Flower is run by its founders, Americans Brent and Serena Johnson. They came to China nearly 20 years ago, newly married. They took in one foster child and never looked back, today caring for more than 160 Chinese orphans at several facilities. They take no salary from Little Flower; Serena manages it along with taking care of their six children, five of whom are homeschooled.
Brent Johnson explained their mission.
“We’re defining our humanity. Is human life valuable, even the most vulnerable among us? As a human we feel obligated to provide for others in need,” he said. “Infants can die because no one picks them up and feed them. I’m not OK with that.“
The week we spent at Little Flower had an emotional impact on everyone. The babies on the second floor are more seriously ill. Several volunteers spent all of their time there.
“I want that little boy, that preemie,” said Diane DiSalle, a nursing case manager who operates her own business. Despite the fact that he was terminally ill, she inquired about adoptive policies. But adoptions are handled by the Chinese government and it does not allow adoptive parents to choose their own babies. She could not bring him home.
Ewing also worked with the sickest children, and saw Chinese priests perform two emergency baptisms.
“Those babies were in dire straits. They weren’t going to make it,” she said. “Brent told us they can’t save every baby. I thought it would be grim. Not at all. It’s inspiring, not frightening.”
Diane DiSalle’s husband, Washington County Judge John DiSalle, agreed. “I found it amazing how easily we could cross the language and cultural barriers with the children and make them smile, despite their health issues,” he said. “To cajole a laugh and smile of any of the children, I found very rewarding.”
Barbara Barnhart, a retired postmaster from Cross Creek Township, wanted to visit China, but having no children of her own, wasn’t sure she wanted to visit the children’s home.
“It surprised me. I cried the first two days, but it was worth it,” she said. “I would go back. It wasn’t depressing at all.”
John DiSalle bonded with the only older child, their miracle child. He arrived seven years ago as a hospice baby, but just refused to die. The 8-year-old has severe medical issues, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t full of fun.
“I was particularly drawn to him because he was in the wheelchair and could only be a spectator of the other children’s activities,” he explained. “Although his neurological issues limited his interaction, with sounds and a little song and holding his hand I could make him smile and laugh.”
Even in China, and even when surgeons donate their services, surgeries are expensive. The Rotary Club of Washington has helped. When John Tecklenburg returned home to Amity after living in Beijing, he alerted the service organization to Little Flower and its amazing work. Three of the volunteers on this trip are Rotary members, seeing in person the work the club has supported. The Rotary Club of Northern Cambria County added its support as well.
These babies give much more than they receive. The children receive a secure home, food, medical attention, human contact and love. In return, they give us a chance to feel something we don’t feel in our everyday lives. They give us the chance to feel mercy, to feel compassion, to be motivated by something bigger than our busy, harried lives.
The babies give us an important gift. They give us access to the highest qualities of our humanity, qualities we all found within ourselves, qualities that allow us to be fully human. Their gift is priceless.
For more info on China Little Flower visit www.facebook.com/pages/Little-Flower-Projects/230680524654 or http://www.littleflowerprojects.org. Donations are tax deductable. The Tecklenburgs are available to speak to groups about China Little Flower. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.