“In that sense, my life hasn’t changed one bit,” says Bowen, who won AARP’s 2011 Purpose Prize for Intergenerational Innovation for her work helping orphaned children in China.
In 1996, her husband Richard Bowen came across an article in the New York Times with a photograph of a little girl dying in a Chinese welfare institution. “It was the first time we learned that children were being abandoned by their parents — just because they were little girls,” she says.
Eighteen months later Jenny and Richard made their first trip to China, adopted a child and named her Maya. “This little girl at two years old couldn’t walk, couldn’t talk, was emotionally shut down, and developmentally delayed in every way,” she says.
Even as experienced parents who had already raised two grown children, Jenny and Richard had never seen a situation quite like this. Maya spent much of her new life on Jenny’s lap as her new mother edited a film. Jenny talked to her, sang songs, and soon Maya spoke her first words.
Exactly one year after her adoption, during a visit with friends at her home in Berkeley, California, Jenny caught sight of her daughter playing outside. “There was my Maya, just romping around in the garden,” she says, “looking like a perfectly normal healthy child who had always been loved.”
At that moment, Jenny found her life calling. In 1998 she founded Half the Sky foundation, a nonprofit with a mission to nurture and care for children in Chinese orphanages. The foundation has been a great success. It operates in partnership with the Chinese government.
Now 66, Bowen talked to us about her amazing transition from making movies in Hollywood to helping orphans in China:
Q. Half the Sky Foundation operates in 52 cities and 23 provinces in China. Did your skills as a filmmaker assist you in your new role?
Everything that I learned as a filmmaker has informed what I do at Half the Sky. I started out with a blank piece of paper, with an idea, and I’ve been writing a story of a world where children can know the love of family even though they are living in welfare institutions.
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I’ve cast my movie and I, myself, became this new character, learning how to function in a different world. I’ve scouted locations, places to work where the administrators would be receptive to our ideas. It’s very much like making a film; you bring people together to help you realize your own dreams.
Q. What have you learned from your reinvention?
China has taught me patience, which I never had as a westerner working in Hollywood. I’ve also reached a whole new level of perseverance. You have to keep going at things until you get where you’re going.
Q. You’ve surrounded yourself with experts. What team of professionals does it take to accomplish your mission?
We have a real combination of people, from child development experts, educators, developmental pediatricians, to people with China expertise. We also have one of the world’s foremost authorities on the institutionalization of children. With a nonprofit, you also need bankers, investment counselors, and lawyers.
Q. How many people are working for you in China?
We have a direct staff of close to 300 people who are development professionals, trainers, and supervisors. We have almost 2,000 direct care providers: nannies, teachers, foster parents, and youth mentors. It’s a very diverse group of people. We’re also in partnership with orphanage directors.
Q. So, in a sense, you’re helping people reinvent themselves in China?
Yes, especially for women. If a woman gets laid off when she is 40, it’s unlikely she’ll get another job. These people still have a lot of energy left and it’s never hard for us to go to a new place and recruit talent. We hear constantly from our care providers that their lives have new meaning. Many of our nannies, especially those working with infants, come in on their days off and knit little sweaters for the children. They feel the children have given them a huge gift.
Q. What will happen in 7 years when the Chinese government takes over the model Half the Sky has created?
As we work with the government to train new institutions, we’re preparing them to set up their own programs. At the same time, we’re continuing to train the directors and institutions that we’ve partnered with to run things themselves. We’re also working locally to create a Chinese foundation that will help fund the programs. This will guarantee that they continue, even if the local level has difficulty allocating the funds.
Q. So, to borrow another Hollywood term, how do you think the Half the Sky story will end?
I’m working on a happy ending. My thought everyday is that I want to see a caring adult in the life of every orphan child. When I’ve done that, then I’m done. But I think we have a ways to go.
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