A Year Ago Today

A year ago today I woke up early and boarded a train to Hengyang. Sitting on the train I had a mix of nerves and anticipation with an overriding sense of peace. I was about to embark on the most incredible, challenging and rewarding experience. Sitting on the train I had no idea how rich those experiences would be.

My first view arriving in Hengyang...
Living my dream, in the country that feels like home, living and working in a new city with all new people and forming lifelong friendships, serving and working with inspiring and amazing people and children. Being in the heart of China for a longer than before, where no two days were the same.

Dealing with injustice everyday, working in a project very different from what I had worked with before (much bigger and with a much more varied and complex set of needs), coping with death, frustrating situations we cannot change, missing home. To name just a few.

However, despite many challenges there were so many rewarding experiences and relationships. I learned so much, from those around me and the experiences I had and also about myself. I feel I got a much clearer glimpse at what it is like to live and serve in China, more than summer trips allow. I saw the huge need for people to commit to being there long term and I felt even more called and sure that I will return. I grew in my faith and ability to trust God in the good and difficult times...

Christmas Day walk with the amazing team I worked with and learned from!
I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to spent 7 months there and am now ready for the next step. Next week I am moving to London to start a Masters Degree in Occupational Therapy. The course is 2 years long with 4 different practice placements. I can't wait for all that I will learn. Occupational Therapists have skills and expertise that is so needed and useful in working with children with disabilities. 

A Snapshot of My Fun and Sunny Week!

It's been a relatively cold winter having to wear lots of layers every day. This past week we had a week full of beautiful blue skies and hot weather just in time for Chinese New Year (CNY)! On Sunday evening to mark Chinese New Years Eve we let off some fireworks at the ICC Centre as a fun show for the kids. They all gathered on the balconies by their bedrooms in each of their homes and watched as they went off. That evening and night, all across the city and country people let off fireworks and bangers so we had to sleep with ear plugs to get some sleep!

After a very busy last week and weekend, and a night of waking up a lot, I took the morning off to catch up on sleep and to rest. In the afternoon I went out to the community group homes to wish them a Happy New Year {新年快乐 /Xīnnián kuàilè}. We took new family photos of the kids there with their caregivers. There are 8 boys in the boys home and 8 girls in the girls home and each home has 3 caregivers who were all there for the photo. We will print the photos out and put them up in their living rooms, just as any family does! We then had a big dinner with them to celebrate the New Year! 

 In the evening I took the boys out to the river to watch the fireworks!

We had beautiful blue skies and warm sunshine! It was the perfect opportunity to take the kids at the centre outside to play. As it was the week of CNY, there was no therapy or classes. In the morning I helped one of the caregivers skype a boy who was adopted in September and his family. She had cared for him as long as he was in ICC's care and missed him a lot, and the family was happy to do the call! It went really well and the caregiver was so happy to see how much the boy had grown. In the morning I took one of the boys out to clean out the fish pond, which had gotten disgusting! 

In the afternoon we took a few of the boys who use wheelchairs out to the playground, using a wheelchair myself! The boys found it so exciting to see Luke and I in spare wheelchairs and it certainly showed us which areas of the building and playground are easy and difficult to maneuver around!  We played in the 'musical garden', checked out the fish and went on the wheelchair swing! These boys all have Cerebral Palsy, a condition that affects muscle movement and motor skills, so these boys four limbs are affected. It's important to encourage them to be as independent as possible, so we try to get them to wheel themselves as much as possible!

In the morning Luke (my house mate who is an Occupational Therapist) and I took two of the younger boys to one of the sensory rooms. I was mostly with one of the younger boys who has Down Syndrome and tried to get him to crawl across the room and we played with some of the sensory toys. Later in the morning we brought the boys back out to the playground but gave their caregiver a spare wheelchair to use. We wanted her to experience what the children in her care do every day. It was really fun! She found it really tiring but the kids loved it and found it so funny!!

In the afternoon I had to finish off the sponsorship update photos with just a few kids left out of the 160 kids in ICC's care in Hengyang! It was a big job but enjoyable too! One of the boys came with me to take the few baby photos that were left to do and he loved getting to see the younger kids that he wouldn't normally have time for being in class and therapy.

In the morning I helped some of the older boys, from the woodwork class I help with, put together some wooden benches. It was really just screwing the legs and making them stable but the boys had fun doing it! It was a great opportunity to put what they had been practicing into real life. 

Over lunchtime Anna, Luke and I took one of the older more independent boys out for lunch to a local restaurant to treat him for CNY! In the afternoon Luke ran a therapy session for three of the boys mentioned above who have CP. It was great being able to help through translating and working with them one-on-one. We did fine motor activities first using hands such as pegs and cups, jigsaws and shaving foam! We then moved onto more gross motor activities with a sort of obstacle course, pulling themselves on a wheel board, then pulling themselves onto a bench and crawling across before finally crawling through a tunnel. The boys did so well and though needing lots of encouragment were very determined to do it themselves. They were certainly all tired by the end of it! It was great session to sit in on before I study Occupational Therapy from September, and makes me excited and sure this is the right path to be taking.

I spent the full day at the Community Group Homes, mostly taken up with helping them wash their own wheelchairs. Two of the girls use wheelchairs and four of the boys do. It was a nice hot day so perfect for this as they dried quickly too! In the afternoon we played with lego. I was certainly tired after a busy week! 

It was a brilliant week, more relaxed than usual but full of fun activities and sunshine, which makes everything here much easier! It was a much needed break from the cold!

Big catch-up (1)!

I won't attempt to share everything that has happened since I last posted. I neither have time to dedicate to that nor would anyone have time to read that much. Instead, I will try to give a brief overview of what I've been doing over the past few months. I've really settled in here in Hengyang and feel at home now. Though I said this too in my last post, it now feels more like home than I ever thought it would. It hurts me thinking of leaving in less than three months, even though I know it's what I have to do in the long-term, but more about that in the next post.

Hengyang River (taken at a warmer time...)

Since I've been here, and on every trip to China, there has been a mix of both ups and downs. Ups such as being able to see progress being made with the kids as they learn to be more independent or a child being matched for adoption, and lows such as feeling overwhelmed with all that needs to be done and trying to find a place to fit into that. In November I had a tough few weeks where I was feeling far away from home, and in some ways ready to leave. It wasn't that anything major happened to cause this or that anything particularly bad was even happening. It was a big mix of things like not feeling I had enough of a role here, feeling overwhelmed with certain things. The honeymoon period was long gone where everything was new and seemes amazing. I got through this and it resulted in feeling so much more comfortable here and secure. God used that time to grow me in many ways and since that I have been able to experience so many amazing things.
There are no shortcuts to any place worth going - Beverly Sills. 

Now to share some of the highlights. Time goes by very quickly, particularly December. We celebrated 10 years of ICC being in Hengyang with a big party and ceremony with lots of the kids performing. As volunteers we also had to do something and for some very strange reason we decided to dance in animal onsies to 'The Fox Song/What Does the Fox Say?'. Don't ask why! We had to practice lots and performe it in front of many people!

In our costumes at the 10 year celebration! (only in China!)

Christmas was approaching quickly and the weekend before we hosted the whole ICC in-China team here in Hengyang for a weekend celebration. On the Saturday Luke and I hosted 26 people for a traditional Christmas dinner (we cooked the turkey and others brought the other dishes!). It was a fun time seeing people I had met before and meeting and connecting with many new people. The week of Christmas was hectic with many different Christmas parties for the different kids. Each child (and young person) attended a Christmas party and received a gift - it was really special. I was really impressed with how the parties were run, being done over three days. The first day was for the children who have more severe disabilities. We did the nativity story and had them sitting in a circle and engaging as much as possible through song and different senses (visual, smell, touch, taste, sound...). The next day was for the babies and toddlers which was full of singing and games and circle time. The third and final day, on Christmas Eve was for all of the other children and young people. Some got to dress up as either wise men or angels and others got to perform. For the first and third days I was Joseph! That week we also were invited to two lunches with both local district leaders and city officials. We got to see a different side of Hengyang at one of the best restaurants.

Two of our meals with local officials!
On Christmas Eve, after the parties and carol singing, I went out to the community group homes, where I spend up to have of each week, and took one of the boys out to buy some pizza for both the boys and the girls. It was fun taking him out to do that and to then eat pizza with the kids on Christmas Eve to celebrate specifically with them.  Then on Christmas day it was just our team - 8 of us for Christmas lunch and we played games and had lots of fun. It was very strange being away from home at Christmas for the first time but it was a very special time too. We then had a relaxing weekend together watching movies, eating more food and playing games.

Pizza and Chinese dishes for Christmas Eve with community group home kids.

Christmas Day dinner!

In the next post I will share more about the day to day things I have been involved with.

Settled into ICC

I arrived in HY, Hunan Province over 5 weeks ago now. It really has gone by so quickly and I have settled in well and it feels like home already. In my first week I settled in, was shown around the ICC centre and introduced to lots of kids. At the end of my first day I was given a list of 45 children here who either are currently on the adoption list, or soon will be. Wow.

[warning: long post ahead!! and can't share photos of the kids online for privacy reasons so if you'd like to be added to my email newsletter get in touch]. 

What does ICC do here?
ICC has been working here for 10 years now and have seen a drastic change and improvement in the children's care. Last year the welfare centre (orphanage) built ICC a new big facility on the same grounds which allowed them to increase their overall capacity to 160 children. So many children given 'Love, Hope and Opportunity'  - ICC's slogan. There are 5 floors to the building here, in a U shape. On the left side are the childrens homes with 4 homes on each floor, seperated out into different ages and genders and there are 7-8 children in each home. Their model is for each child to live in a family style environment.

The incredible ICC facility built last year.
The other side of the building holds classroomes, therapy rooms, activity rooms, craft rooms, workshop rooms and offices. Each of the children here gets some sort of either education, therapy time, circle time, activities, life-skills classes etc. based on their ability, function and interest. There are very few organisations in China working to care for children with the level disabilities that ICC does. It's incredible to see the opportunities these children are given to live a more meaningful life. Of course the needs here are still endless and there is always more that needs to be done.

ICC also has two community group homes locally with 8 boys and 8 girls. These kids are able to be more independent and two even go to local public school, many of the others are educated by ICC teachers near their homes, and some of them who are older are employed by the ICC centre.

What am I doing here?
There are two main aspects to my role: direct work with the kids and more behind the scenes.

For working directly with the kids I am with the youth worker. I am splitting my time between the main centre and the community group homes.  There are so many boys here and almost all the caregivers are female, all the therapists are female, as are all the teachers. It's so important for boys to have male figures in their lives. I am helping with a woodwork type class at the centre for many of the older boys with intellectual disabilites that happens for 3 different groups on Wednesdays. I will be spending some time with some of the boys in the main welfare centre who don't get to go to classes and activities like the kids in ICC's care. At the community group homes (where I will be half of the work-week), some days we take a few of the kids to play badminton or do another activity, other days we bring a Wii to play with, sometimes we take them out to a local park by a river. We will soon be helping some of the kids who have finished education to set life goals and help them work towards that to give them an independent meaningful life into adulthood. I've been asked to teach geography classes by some of the kids who heart that's what I studied at university, so we will try and fit that in soon! 

The biggest thing I am doing behind the scenes is helping with adoption advocacy. What a privilidge it is to be able to help with this, we are hoping to see many more kids, especially the older boys matched with families. The way this works is I get to know the kids and gather info and photos and send them to our American based advocate who aims to connect families with the children who can use adoption agencies to pursue their adoptions. While most of the children and young people here, due to age or severity of disability will not have the chance to be adopted internationally, this is possible for many of the children and we will do all we can to make it possible for those who are able. I'm also helping with some other random projects for one of the directors and hope to soon be involved in social media and raising the profile of ICC's work through that platform.

Our ICC team at Walk the Wall Event.
I am so grateful for the support and prayers of so many people! Of course there are ups and downs here, amazing days and frustrating days, that is to be expected. The community here is beyond what I imagined and the friends I have made will last a lifetime. I still need some support so if you are interested in supporting me get in touch, I have a way for this to be done tax deductibly for my US friends too.

Visiting Eagles Wings Sept 2015 | Part 2

Saturday at Eagles Wings

Here are a few highlights from Saturday at Eagles Wings. I spent the day with the kids in the morning, and again in the afternoon until the evening.  It's always so fun and special, yet tiring being around these kids all day!

These kids love asking questions. Why this, why that. WenXuan was asking why I wear glasses. I just said I don't know and because I can't see well. He asked if I spent too much time on the computer! What a funny kid!! Later we were talking about surgery scars as one kid had a visible one by his neck, and the other kids were pointing out scars they have such as legs or back (spina bifida). The kids asked if I have a surgery scar, to which I said no.
'Why do we have them, Rob gege?'...
'I don't know...'.
WenXuan chimes in: 'I know, it's because we're special!'. Now that I knew for sure is true!!
[all in Chinese]

One the boys is very talkative (to say the least!), always asking questions, and yes he is a very sweet kid, I did have to challenge him to not talk for 5 minutes which he thought sounded like fun at first. He didn't quite last though ;)

I spent the morning and had lunch with the kids who live in an apartment locally. I was amazed at the progress one of the boys has made. He arrived at Eagles Wings around the time I first went in 2013, at which point he seemed very delayed and did not talk. However, this time he could communicate much better, saying 'Ayi' (aunty/nanny) and telling her different things. It gave me such hope that he can be adopted in the future and that he could do really well and possibly catch up more.

On Monday I spent the day at the school that Eagles Wings runs for all the orphanage kids. They have over 70 kids in various classes, some like traditional school, others lower functioning kids needing more stimulation. One boy I know from the school there, cared for by another foster home in the orphanage, asked me:
'Rob gege, do you have a dad?'....
Because for the these kids, having a dad or a mom is not a given. Often being with these kids it is easy to forget they are orphans, without their own families, and then little instances like this highlight their reality.

I also got to talk to one of the Eagles Wings managers to get an update on some of the kids adoption status. It's up to the orphanage officials, not the foster home to submit files for different children to be available for adoption. Unfortunately, this isn't always the easiest thing... We talked through the possibility of different kids paperwork being done in the next batch. I long to see a few of the older children have a chance at having their own forever family, for how different their life can be. Although it is a difficult transition for older children, in my experience from the children I have worked with who have been adopted, it is so worth it. Please join me in praying for the orphanage to be willing to do paperwork for more children, and for families to be found to adopt them.

CunLiang (left) will be adopted this month. WenBo (right) I hope can be adopted one day if his paperwork is done before it is too late.
I left this visit with such hope. WenXuan waved from his room in the 10th floor all the way as I walked down the driveway to the orphanage gate.