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Local Heroes


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

Civic Ventures

Jenny Bowen, winner of a 2011 Purpose Prize.

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."

You began with almost nothing. How did you build support for Half the Sky?

First, I reached out for expertise. I got in touch with child development experts, pediatricians, educators and China experts — anyone who could help design the programs I imagined.

Then I reached out to others who had adopted Chinese children, and people I knew. I began writing to them saying: "This is what I am going to do. Will you join me?" Word spread and soon I had 3,000 email addresses.

I also contacted anyone I knew who had China ties, and managed to arrange a first meeting in Beijing with Chinese government officials. Since then I have steadily developed a relationship at every level of government.

What are the biggest challenges in your work?

Dealing with bureaucracy, which is true anywhere. In China, people are even less willing to lead than people in the West. But there's always a way if you can wait long enough — perseverance and patience, always. You stay infinitely flexible.

How did you win the trust of government officials?

The children themselves were the ultimate salespeople. As the officials who'd almost reluctantly given permission for a pilot program began to see dramatic changes in the children, they began to share stories, and bit by bit we've come to the place where everyone wants these programs – the entire child welfare system!

Have there been particular moments that made it all worthwhile — specific children you remember?

One little boy had hemophilia. He spent his first five years either in bed or in the hospital. They were afraid to let him run around. No surprise, he never spoke to anyone.

When we set up our first family village in Chongqing, we were told he was autistic and couldn't join a family. We persevered and got him moved.

Six months later I visited the family village and went into the apartment where he lived. He took me by the hand and pointed to a picture on the wall. "This is my family," he said.

What is your typical workday like? I understand you spend at least half the year in China.

I run what is now a global organization, with supporters on every continent except Africa. My day never ends. I get up very early and always there is someone in China or the United States or somewhere in the world who is waiting for an answer, and it goes like that all day long until I go to bed.

I work about 14 hours a day, seven days a week. I do squeak out time for my family. We always have dinner together when I am in town and we spend time snuggling and hanging out whenever we can. I really value that time. I am always a little bit sad when I go to the other side of the world to help children and I have to leave my own behind.

What's next?

I'm going to donate the $100,000 Purpose Prize to Half the Sky and use it as a challenge grant called A Million Rainbows – named for the million orphans in China. We'll try to get others to contribute matching grants and hope to raise a million dollars to support the effort to train every child welfare worker in China.

I'm working now to create a global community of concern – we call it "1 Big Family" – so that the children never go back into darkness, so that the world stays involved.

What advice would you have for someone who wanted to help children in this country?

Do it! Don't wait for an invitation. Mine would have never come.

Karin Evans is a journalist and author of The Lost Daughters of China; the mother of two adopted daughters from China; and an advisory board member of Half the Sky.

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