Help for China’s AIDS Orphans
by Peg Helminski
I like to keep informed. I subscribe to two local headline services. Most days, I scan The Washington Post, The New York Times and the BBC News online. I don’t read these publications in entirety. Rather, I scan headlines and search for topics of interest. As I have adopted two children from China, I almost always scan for news items related to China. That is how this Minnesota Mom read an article in The New York Times by Elizabeth Rosenthal in August of 2002 about the AIDS epidemic decimating impoverished rural villages in Henan province.
The article focused mainly on one small village, Donghu. As in other small villages throughout China, the farmers and laborers supplemented their meager income by selling blood. At roughly $5 a bag, it provided a windfall-especially when whole families donated together to pool resources for needed home repairs or to meet other major expenses. They could do this every week as they sold only plasma, not whole blood. A few people went from one blood collection station to another as often as daily.
Unfortunately, in a move that perhaps demonstrates how widespread a lack of AIDS awareness was throughout these rural areas of China, the blood from several donors was collected into a common pool, then centrifuged to separate the plasma. The remaining red cells were indiscriminately transfused back into the sellers. It turned out to be a lethal recipe for the rapid transmission of blood-borne diseases, including hepatitis and AIDS. It is estimated that before these less-than-sterile blood collection practices were halted in the mid 1990’s, over a million Chinese people had become AIDS infected.
Now, nicely updated homes sit vacant. Furniture, farm tools and household supplies have been sold to pay for medications to treat those infected by the AIDS virus. As whole families had donated blood together, whole families have become infected with AIDS. In some villages it is estimated that more that 50% of the adults and many newborn babies are HIV positive or suffering from full-blown AIDS. The road to the blood collection stations, once viewed as easy street is now recognized as death row.
As a Mom, the part of this story that tugged at my heart, was the plight of the children. As children were too young to donate blood, most of them were not directly AIDS affected. Some infants, however, had contracted HIV during the birth process or through their mother’s contaminated breastmilk.
But this is not to say that the children were not affected by the worldwide AIDS pandemic now sweeping their villages. Suddenly, in far too many families, all the adults were sick or dying: mother and father, aunts and uncles, grandparents and elder cousins. As each successive person died, family resources were sold to buy medications or pay burial fees until nothing was left. The children were alone and destitute. And there were a lot of them.
As the one child law has been expanded in rural areas to allow two children per farm couple, sometimes two siblings were left to care for each other. Subsisting on whatever the neighbors would give them, they were often left to fend for themselves. Local health officials admitted to being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the need before them.
Not only had these kids endured the tragic loss of every significant adult in their lives, the emotional traumas of watching these loved ones suffer and die, borne the burden of responsibility of caring for these parents and grandparents and the decimation of their lifestyle, they now lacked very basic necessities. Even more, their futures were also precarious. Some schools have barred children from AIDS affected families from attending. Others allow them to attend-if they can pay the fees. Without someone to pay their annual school fee, a mere $65 US per year, these children face a life of ignorance and an inability to secure all but the most menial of work-in effect, a slower death than their parents had endured.
This affected me like no mere news story. It hit me like a dagger in the heart. I could not detach myself from it. I sat and sobbed as if it were a story about my own children.
My eldest child is 13. Although quite responsible, he is still very much a boy. He is intelligent and exhibits strong leadership capabilities. Still, heading a household would overwhelm him. My two younger children are adopted from China. We know virtually nothing of their first couple of years. These orphans I had just read about could well have been my children! And, in that moment, as I wiped the tears from my face, I knew that these orphans are my children. Though I had never seen their faces, just as I had not seen my eldest son’s face before he was born or my adopted children’s faces before their referral pictures arrived in my mailbox, these kids in China had sunk themselves deep into this mother’s heart just as my children had claimed a piece of my heart long before I saw them or knew their names.
Determined not to give into the helplessness I felt, I got angry.
This was an outrage! Wasn’t anybody doing anything about this? Surely there was some philanthropic organization mobilizing to relieve the suffering of these children who had literally lost everything-including their futures!
I e-mailed two US senators. Was there some sort of international effort begun to meet this crisis? I telephoned or e-mailed a couple of folks I knew who were involved in other organizations to aid China’s orphans. “What could be done?” I asked.
I was told several times that, in an attempt to stem the spread of the virus, government health officials had responded to the crisis by closing off all roads leading to affected villages. Only those granted official permits were allowed either in or out of the villages. None of the agencies I contacted had been granted such a permit and none of them knew of anyone who had.
China is a long way away. Our family is not wealthy. We have no international links. We are not politically connected and we seldom find ourselves in social circles with those who are. There seemed very little a Midwest mom could do to change the course of events on the opposite side of the globe-except pray. And pray I did. These children were never far from my thoughts.
Then, in April, 2003, after the kids were all at school, I was reading the local Pioneer Press one morning, drinking my second cup of coffee, and an article jumped off the page at me. The headline read: One Local Man’s Efforts to Fight AIDS in China. Dr. Steven Wang, dermatology resident at the University of Minnesota, along with a small cohort of young professionals had formed an organization to get much needed aid to children orphaned by the AIDS crisis in Henan Province! My heart beat faster as I read the article. Somebody had found a way to help the very kids who had lodged themselves in my heart!
Partnered with the Minneapolis Foundation and a Hong Kong based charitable organization, Chi Heng Foundation which was already involved in AIDS prevention and outreach in China, they were able to get needed permissions and set up a means to channel desperately needed funds to the affected villages. Priorities were to provide school fees for as many orphans as possible, infant formula to AIDS affected mothers and general humanitarian relief to the affected villages.
I had to find this man!
I searched the online university of Minnesota directory and found one Steven Wang in the Dermatology department. I e-mailed him. When he didn’t respond in a few hours, I couldn’t wait. I telephoned the Dermatology Department, explained to the administrative assistant who I was looking for and why. “I am so excited that he has found a way to get help into these areas,” I said. “If he needs any help, I’d be honored to do what I can for him.”
She had no idea what I was talking about but agreed to get back to me. “He hasn’t mentioned anything about this to us, but it sounds like something he would do.” I heard from Steven moments later. Could I come to a meeting in a couple of days?
“Sure,” I said.
Envisioning myself bringing home a box of envelopes to stuff and drop in the mail, I went to the meeting only to leave, not with a box, but a couple of titles: board member of the China AIDS Orphan Fund and Communications Coordinator.
I was so impressed with the commitment and the passion of the people involved in this effort! They are enthusiastically committed to making every contribution dollar reach the children that, to date, most of their operating expenses have been contributed by committee members, all of whom are volunteers. This could not continue.
Currently partnered with the Minneapolis Foundation, they have recently incorporated as a separate organization. They project (quite reluctantly) that a maximum of 7% of collected funds will be used for indirect expenses, such as transaction fees, printing and administrative needs. They are currently seeking grant sources to fund operating expenses so they can assure that as many donor dollars as possible reach the children and their villages.
Perhaps it does take a village to raise a child. But in this case, it takes an international community to raise entire villages of children orphaned by a global crisis.
These are children. What’s more, by a different luck of the draw, they might have been my children-or yours–before we adopted them. Wouldn’t you have wanted someone to help your kids if they had been in such desperate straights before you found them?
Now, when I tell people about the crisis affecting a growing number of orphans in small rural villages in China, in place of despair, I offer hope for the future of these children. Through the China AIDS Orphan Fund we now have an opportunity that did not exist when I first learned of this disaster.
To learn more about the China AIDS Orphan Fund or to make and online contribution go to http://www.chinaaidsorphanfund.org