FEATURE — Winter 2006


Giving Children Hope

As associate director of Children's Hope International, alumna Melody Zhang finds purpose in helping children from China and beyond obtain permanent homes and medical assistance.

By Judy H. Watts

When Melody Zhang first stepped inside a Chinese orphanage in June 1992, she was horrified. Babies—two and three to a metal crib—cried and rocked themselves in sweltering summer heat, reaching out to her as she passed. "Their arms were covered with mosquito bites," recalls Zhang, who is now associate director of Children's Hope International (CHI), an accredited, Christ-centered nonprofit international adoption and humanitarian aid agency. "Paint was peeling from the bars, and there were bamboo mats in place of bedding. The rooms were filled with these cribs. They looked like little prisons."

The babies wore bundles of coarse diapers made from men's trousers and tied with rope. Rubber pants covered the package, and "the diapers weren't changed often. The smell was very bad." From time to time, "the babies would get popped a bottle, and then it would go from one to another. All are 'no-no's,'" Zhang says. "It was so hard to watch that."

In addition to adoption services, Children's Hope International helps children with transformative medical services.

She didn't stand by to watch for long. By the time she left that day, she had arranged to take a 6-month-old infant with her. "I took her home to my auntie. I said, 'Keep this child! I'll find a family for her.'" A neighbor then provided foster care, adoption arrangements transpired, and two months later, the baby girl's "forever parents" took her home.

Three years before her visit to the orphanage in China's capital, Zhang had graduated from the People's University in Beijing with a degree in journalism—a profession she entered because she wanted "to write about everything and know the truth. But when interviews end," she says, "you have to leave, and that is very hard."

One interview though proved pivotal to her life and career: an interview with Dwyatt Gantt about his work as then-director of an education exchange organization. Through Gantt, now director of CHI, Zhang learned of the orphanage. Although she had been born and raised in Beijing, Zhang had no idea orphanages existed in her homeland. "No one talked about it," she says. "And, of course, I assumed that communism meant that everyone takes care of everyone else."

Creating an international agency

As China opened to international adoption in April 1992, Gantt and Zhang seized the opportunity to help thousands of abandoned children. (They count the adoption of the baby Zhang carried from the orphanage as CHI's first.) Gantt moved to St. Louis to establish the new agency's headquarters, and Zhang worked through an orphanage in China. In all, 14 Chinese children found homes through CHI that first year. In 2005, CHI finalized adoptions for 744 children from seven countries: China, Colombia, Guatemala, India, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Vietnam. Nearly 500 were from China.

"Let us all go beyond the boundaries of nationality and race and class, and help the people who really need us," Zhang says. "That is fulfillment in life. We are then blessed more than the people we help—and we find our purpose."

The recipient of nearly $993,000 in private support (excluding adoption donations) in 2005, CHI is also expanding its humanitarian projects in affiliated countries. It builds playgrounds in Russia; sponsors career training for youth in India and Vietnam; provides emergency relief; ensures that children in orphanages receive healthful food and other necessities including social services; and makes building improvements to orphanages.

In addition, children in families with meager incomes receive transformative medical services that include surgeries for congenital heart disease and other life-threatening problems, repairs to deformities, skin grafting for severe burns, and rehabilitation after brain injury.

Filling an acute need

Melody Zhang brings to her work the passion for social justice she demonstrated when she joined hundreds of thousands of students in 1989 in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. She had just graduated; one of her classmates was among those killed on June 4—the second and final bloody night the government pitted the People's Army against the people. "That memory will stay with me forever," says Zhang. "We wanted the government to listen to us, to show concern for our people—not just the privileged."

Melody Zhang lives what she believes through her own family. She and her husband, Kevin Lee, have five children: (from left) three adopted daughters, Zhen-Zhen Li, Ting-Ting Min, and Lan-Lan Min, and two biological children, Angela Wen Lee and Lian Mei Lee.

Today, she says, her country is "capitalistic without the name," and that 80 percent of the people—"the mothers and fathers of the country, the farmers who feed us"—reap little of the benefits of China's rapid economic growth. Unsubsidized and disrespected, farmers are taxed heavily, while their families have no medical care, insurance, or access to education. "To this day, they are obedient and have very little sense of the value of their own lives."

And so it is that Zhang, M.S.W. '97—who framed her social perspectives and her vision of possibility at the Washington University George Warren Brown School of Social Work—helps the poor by helping their children. "I realize now that most progress is gradual. I am hopeful though. And as a strong Christian, I think my country needs God, more than anything."

In 2004, after working through CHI's headquarters in St. Louis for several years, Zhang moved with her family back to China, because of the acute need for social services. She notes that relatively few people in China abandon their children: An estimated 10 million babies are born each year; in a country of 1.3 billion people, about 700,000 children are without parents. "But in the United States," she says, "which has a population four times smaller than China's, half a million children are in foster care awaiting adoption—and that's in the wealthiest place in the world."

The children in China have been abandoned primarily because of the government's policy of one child per family, Zhang says. The law is often overlooked, but in a culture that values boys as the ones who will look after their parents, some families that only have girls finally drop off one at a hospital or police station. Other children are left because of severe physical or mental problems that require costly treatment.

In two or three years, Zhang will begin to work with older orphaned children at a new vocational school CHI plans to build in Beijing. There, teenagers will receive job training in everything from giving facials and cutting hair to providing day care. "We'll also provide social work training [so that Chinese young adults can become] ground-level children's workers who will help orphans. Jobs are so scarce in China that children who have no hope for a college education would otherwise become street kids, prostitutes, and gangsters."

Living beyond boundaries

Zhang lives what she believes through her own family as well. She calls her husband, Kevin Lee, "a really, really wonderful American guy, who moved to China with me and found himself a job at much lower pay just to be there for me and for our girls." The girls are the three teenagers adopted in 2002 and 2004 and the couple's two biological children born in 2003 and 2006. To introduce the treasured group: Zhen-Zhen Li is 19; Ting-Ting Min is 19; Lan-Lan Min is 17; Lian Mei Lee is 3; and Angela Wen Lee is less than a year old.

"Let us all go beyond the boundaries of nationality and race and class, and help the people who really need us," Zhang says. "That is fulfillment in life. We are then blessed more than the people we help—and we find our purpose." It is a call, a self-comment, and perhaps a prayer for humanity.

Judy H. Watts is a free-lance writer based in Santa Barbara, California, and a former editor of this magazine.