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Jenny Bowen: Purpose Prize Winner

Her work to change the lives of China's orphans breaks new ground as global community service

Jenny Bowen had already raised two children and built a successful career as a Hollywood screenwriter and director when she read an article in The New York Times that would change her life. It showed heartbreaking photographs of little girls who had wound up in Chinese orphanages simply because of their gender.

See also: Nominate a 2012 Purpose Prize candidate.

Bowen and her husband, Dick, a filmmaker, made an instant decision: They would try to adopt one of these children. In 1997 they adopted a beautiful but sickly 2 1/2-year-old girl with the developmental delays that are typical of institutionalized children. But a year later, with the love and nurture of a family, their daughter had become healthy and happy.

Watching her laugh and play one day, Bowen's thoughts turned to the tens of thousands of orphaned children left behind in China. Suddenly, Bowen recalls, "I knew what I was going to do with the rest of my life" — an undertaking that would earn Bowen the 2011 Purpose Prize for Intergenerational Innovation, sponsored by AARP.

At her kitchen table Bowen sketched out plans for a foundation she named Half the Sky, from the Chinese saying that "Women hold up half the sky." Her aim was to establish infant nurture centers and preschools in China's state-run orphanages and to staff them with trained and loving nannies and teachers, so that every orphaned child had a caring adult in her life.

Jenny Bowen 2011 Purpose Prize winner

Jenny Bowen, winner of a 2011 Purpose Prize. — Civic Ventures

A year later she headed to China, and by 2000 the first Half the Sky Children's Center was up and running, with more in the works. That same year the Bowens adopted a second Chinese daughter.

Today, the Half the Sky Foundation has programs in 51 institutions, and it has helped to transform the lives of some 60,000 children since its inception. It has added a youth services program to mentor older children, set up a series of family villages to give disabled children permanent foster homes and established a medical program that provides lifesaving surgeries and other skilled care.

In 2011 the Chinese government announced its commitment to make Half the Sky's programs available to every orphaned child in China.

AARP talked with Jenny Bowen at her home in Berkeley, Calif.

What made you think you could tackle such hardship halfway across the globe?

The truth is, I didn't think it through; I felt compelled. Our daughter's transformation made me aware of how many other children were still living in institutions who might never be adopted, who would not have the nurturing that children need to thrive and who might never have the chance to succeed.

I suppose because I'm an American I have a can-do attitude, and in a very Western way, I saw a problem and I envisioned a solution. I just decided, "OK, I'm going to go there and do what I can."

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