In the summer of 2007 I was offered the opportunity to go to Xian, China and volunteer at a foster home that takes care of infants and toddlers who are approximately 4 years old and younger, as well as having life threatening medical problems such as spina bifida, cleft lip and cleft palate, and different heart conditions. I have to say that although I really wanted to travel to other countries, I never would have put China down as my number one country to visit first. But I didn’t exactly have multiple options, and I was not about to let the opportunity pass itself up.
If you were to ask me how the opportunity arose, you would probably regret it. It was one of those “mother’s, friend’s, brother’s wife’s, friend” type of a thing. See, I told you not to ask. But it was a wonderful opportunity where I would be able to volunteer at the Chinese starfish Foster Home (www.thestarfishfosterhome.org) in exhange for free rent in a 3 bedroom apartment in a high rise condo. I paid for my plane ticket and any additional costs like cab fares and extra spending money. I did some research on China and checked out the foster home’s website and before I knew it I was on a plane headed to the other side of the world. Oh, did I mention that I had only traveled to two states in my entire life at that point? Yeah, Being 17 and heading over to the other end of the world completely alone was a little scary. Okay-it was completely terrifying! I spent twenty minutes at the San Francisco airport begging my dad to let me stay in the U.S. But he had just forked out $1,000 for a plane ticket and he was not about to let that money go to waste. My dad standing his ground that day was probably one of the best things he ever did for me.
After a 16 hour flight to Beijing, where unexpectedly another volunteer from the foster home found me in the airport (and thank god because I fell asleep and would have missed my connecting flight if it was not for her!), and an additional 2 hour flight to Xian, after a 4 hour delay of course, I arrived in Xian at 3 am. I went straight to the foster home where a “nanny” showed me to a room where I could sleep in for the night, and I would be shown the apartment I would stay in for the rest of my trip the following day. I woke up at 6 a.m. to the crying of a baby that was in a crib next to me. My volunteering had officially started and I groggily got up to give the baby her bottle.
Spending four weeks in a 3 bedroom high rise apartment with 17 toddlers and 8 “nannies” (and none of them spoke any english) was more than a handful, but something that will stick with me forever. Amanda De Lange made sure to always keep me busy. Between feeding the babies, teaching me how to cook and having the nannies laugh at my horrible excuse for pancakes, taking the children on walks around the city, bathing them, and running to the local grocery store at least 3 times a week, Amanda made sure I always had something to do. The children loved to get attention from me, or anyone else really. Most of them start calling you “momma” by day 3 and it is the most adorable thing to hear, and it lets you know that you really are making a difference in these kid’s lives.
All of the kids were extremely well taken care of. Most of them were chubby, full of smiles, and spent most of their day playing with toys, watching The Wiggles, and overcoming all of the obstacles that have been thrown their way. Although most of these kids were happy, their past was much more horrific than many can imagine. Many of the kids looked to be about six months old when they were about a year old. Because of their medical problems many of them could not drink milk properly and lost weight and did not hit those critical developmental milestones like most others would. But it was obvious they did not let that stop them! Fortunately, all of the children get medical help through the donations sent to the foster home as well as doctors and surgeons donating their time to help the children. No child goes without medical care at the foster home. Because of that there were many times when Amanda would take three or four babies and fly to shanghai or Beijing to get them medical attention and I would stay behind with the other nannies and help them take care of the rest of the kids.
Although a great majority of my time was spent with the kids, Amanda made sure that I got out to see the sights. I was very fortunate to make friends with people who lived in Xian, and they sort of took me under their wing to show me the city the way someone who lived in China would see it. From riding bikes on the Xian wall, to shopping and bargaining with the local shop owners in the Muslim Market, I was fully emersed in the local Chinese culture. I ate at many of the small, local vendors and thoroughly enjoyed every bite. I had the opportunity to see some of the more tourist filled areas such as the Terra Cotta Warriors, the bell and drum tower, and a famous hot spring that was once frequented by emperors and their families.
Amanda, being the very generous lady that she is, allowed me to eat any food I wanted in the foster home. the nannies would cook lunch everyday, which was not the type of lunch you get in the U.S. They did not stop by McDonald’s on their way to work. They would start early in the morning and make noodles by hand, and they would have fresh picked vegetables and they would take turns caring for the kids and cooking lunch for themselves, Amanda, and me. For this I was very grateful because it only immersed me in the Chinese culture that much more, and saved me tons of money!
For the last week of my trip I flew to Beijing and stayed in a hotel. I spent every day going to the sites frequented by tourists. I had the opportunity to climb the Great Wall, explore the Forbidden City, watch people fly kites in Tiananmen Square, and see the way emperors lived in the Summer Palace, and where they were laid to rest at the Ming Tombs. My last full day in China was spent at the Great Wall and it truly was a life changing experience. The strength it took to get to the highest part of the wall in the area was incredible. The stairs are not even or smooth, and the railing was no help because sometimes it would be down at your ankles and at other times it would be next to your shuolders. The trek down was a painful one, considering I had just used all of my strength to get me up the wall. To top off the day we drove past the buildings that, the following year, would house the 2008 Olympics.
I met interesting people who also had a love for travel that I had discovered in myself during this trip. We spent a lot of time on buses going through the the country-side and the heart of Beijing, as well as all of us using our very small knowledge of Mandarin Chinese and our handy English to Chinese translation books to tell our bus driver to pull over at a five-star hotel so we could use the bathroom without having to squat over a grate in the ground.
This trip taught me that you can change someone’s life, just by putting a smile on their face, that people all around the world can overcome language and cultural barriers to help people in need, and that traveling to foreign countries can be exciting, cheap, and a huge learning experience that will never be forgotten.
Some more information about The Chiense Starfish Foster Home:
- Amanda De Lange started the foster home in 2006 with six babies. It has grown since then, and the foster home has taken care of more than 100 children and had over 15 adoptions.
- The foster home is run off donations and volunteers. Amanda does not get paid to run this foster home and she does it solely for the kids. Many families that adopt from the home end up doing fundraisers to assist in the surgeries and daily care of the kids. Some companies send over donations often and people send over items that are in-demand at the home.
- As well as the link I provided in the blog towards the beginning, Amanda also has her own blog where she posts updates on the kids currently in the home, and she also posts updates on the children that have already been adopted. chinesestarfish.blogspot.com She includes pictures and letters written by the parents who have adopted. The blog is always heart warming and lets you have updates often enough to see the progress in the kids as well as how fast they grow and develop!
- The link posted in the blog goes to the Foster Home website where donations can be made, information on volunteering is listed, contact information is on the website too, and a list of needed items is on the site too.
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