Jenny Bowen, founder and CEO of Half the Sky, is the author of Wish You Happy Forever, which chronicles her personal and professional journey to transform Chinese orphanages—and the lives of the neglected children who live in them—from a state of quiet despair to one of vibrant promise. Wish You Happy Forever is available for pre-order now and is released March 11.
This article is fourth in a series by Bowen: “Millions of Forgotten Children, No Longer Forgotten“, “Half the Sky Foundation Founder and CEO Talks About ‘Wish You Happy Forever’“, and “Half the Sky: A Rainbow for China’s Children”.
When the Chinese government proposed a national partnership with Half the Sky, we knew that reaching scale would be our greatest challenge. In a country with almost 1.4 billion people, 330 million of them children, scale is always an issue. The goal would be to share our successful approach to creating nurturing, family-like environments for institutionalized children with every single child welfare worker in the nation and inspire them all to offer the same benefits to the children in their care.
Our approach focuses on providing individual attention and responsive care for each child. Now we had to find a way to deliver these simple, yet essential elements of best practice on a massive scale. There are about 350 children’s welfare institutions in China and another 700 or so social welfare institutions housing both adults and children. That doesn’t even include shelters for street children; or pediatric hospital wards for long-term care; or residential schools for indigent children or those with severe special needs. We calculated that more than 25,000 caregivers must be trained.
And not only trained — they must be mentored and supported as they try to implement the changes in their own work. Indeed, if Half the Sky is to have lasting impact, our partnership (“The Rainbow Program”) has to offer even more than training and guidance. We must help China reimagine its entire child welfare system.
It seemed to us that, given the scope of our mandate, building a true caring community was the first step. We know from experience that, once linked together, those with common goals would feed off each other’s enthusiasm and energy. And then the ideas would begin to flow and eventually lives would be changed.
Happily, our funding partners at JPMorgan Chase Foundation fully understood why the Rainbow Program must have many facets. And so, last summer, after two years of planning and building, we launched 1jiaren.org (1BigFamily), an online learning community for all of China’s child welfare workers. Still growing, 1jiaren.org offers user-friendly forums where caregivers exchange ideas and work through daily work challenges: the Video Resource Library, which currently holds 179 video clips illustrating best practices in child-caregiver interaction; and still in its infancy, an e-learning platform that will offer courses for professional development and eventually certification leading to career advancement.
Equally valuable, 1jiaren.org gives Half the Sky trainers and program directors ready access to the programs they mentor and supervise, regardless of physical distance. During one of her daily online visits, Infant Nurture Program Director Li Daoxin saw photos of the activity room in the Luoyang orphanage’s brand-new building. From the photos, she realized quickly that the essential elements of Half the Sky’s infant nurture rooms that are designed to promote healthy development – soothing colors, chests for toys, a mirror with a railing placed so babies can reach out to pat their reflections and toddlers can pull themselves up, make faces, and kiss themselves – were missing. Director Li immediately contacted the Louyang care team, and to her delight: “Some of the changes were made the next day. For an impatient person like me, this is my favorite part of 1jiaren!“
The synergy between online and offline learning extends to the popular Video Resource Library (VRL). The video clips can be streamed or downloaded. They can be watched in groups at the orphanages during trainings or workshops. Or they can be viewed by caregivers individually to help them arrive at possible solutions for an immediate situation.
The video clips are organized in a way that allows caregivers to easily select material that is most relevant to their needs. They are divided into sections defining the essential elements of best practice: Responsive Care, Secure Attachment, Learning Environment, and Daily Routines. The individual clips illustrate interactions between children and skilled caregivers that model the responsive care the videos are meant to inspire, or contain caregiver interviews looking at the challenges and rewards of providing care for institutionalized children, or practical demonstrations of how to provide developmentally appropriate care for children of all ages.
The VRL also offers a way to embed knowledge far beyond what direct training can do. When the first group of videos was posted, foster parents in Changzhou said they watched them three times. The first time, they focused on understanding why they need to provide nurturing care for their children; the second time on how to provide that care for their children with special needs; and the third time on how to develop a concrete plan for improving their current practices. “This way of teaching shatters the obstacles of traditional face-to-face teaching,” says Li Daoxin. “It is both effective and very efficient!”
For caregivers who were once looked down upon as menial laborers, 1jiaren.org and its many features provides not only community, but also the clear indication that they are now regarded as professionals and that they do important work, worthy of respect. Even those who often feel isolated in living in the more remote corners of China now feel part of something meaningful and can continue to grow in their careers. As Zhu Haijie, a nanny in far western Urumqi, wrote, “When I meet any difficulty at work, I can always find help on the 1jiaren website. This kind of help feels boundless.”