Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Waiting for Wings

I didn't even remember this photo, or realize how perfect it was for Perry, until after he was gone.

Perry tells the story "Beautiful Rooster" at the
Ambassador of Hope opening ceremony.

At first glance, he seemed to have so much going against him that he could have been forgiven for feeling defeated; instead, Perry, 10, smiled easily and stayed positive despite the cerebral palsy which put him in a wheelchair, and left him in an orphanage. Nearly three years removed from my last trip to Moscow with the Russian Orphan Lighthouse Project, I'd come 5,000 miles further east as an "Ambassador of Hope" to meet him in Beijing.
Perry, front and second from right, with others kids from his
orphanage, ready to sign a song. The video of their
performance is below.

China runs on ritual; accordingly, our orphanage-sponsored visit commenced with opening ceremonies. Most of the kids bounced around the room before the start, but Perry and three other children in wheelchairs sat quietly. They seemed practiced in patience, as if waiting like afterthoughts was their birthright.
Later, Perry performed to a little song about gratitude making life worthwhile. Quick with thanks for every kindness, he lived those lyrics. But equally, he seized thoughtful opportunities to give. He made me a bracelet, intent on stringing each bead in exacting order; carried my bag in his lap as I pushed his wheelchair; and eagerly shared his candy with his friend and me.
Our second day together, we went to the Beijing Zoo. Our group―an army of Chinese orphans with various special needs, Americans visitors, and orphanage chaperones―was conspicuous, and drew endless curious stares. Yet few people seemed to notice Perry when he sought room to see the animals, and too often he was kept at a distance. Once, by pointing urgently to a pacing lion, he "asked" me to move him closer. As I pushed him toward the other children who'd gathered, a caretaker stopped us for a photo. Perry smiled cooperatively until the lady finished; when she was done, she waved us on, so he missed getting near the lion. But he stayed smiley. He enjoyed the elephants and monkeys, and posed by the zoo's pride, their giant pandas. But he was enthralled with the peacock, whose tail was beauty itself. And those wings! Even in a Chinese zoo, the peacock seemed free. 

Perry, with the panda far in the background
Perry must have been unusually sheltered. Everyday occurrences―things most people might never notice―appeared new to him, awe-inducing experiences to be soaked up and savored. It rained one morning as we were leaving the hotel. As I pushed him toward the bus, he looked up, mouth wide in wonder, and joyfully outstretched his arms as if receiving a gift. A well-intentioned caretaker rushed an umbrella over him. Though she meant well, her kindness seemed misspent. Someone knowledgeable said later that his orphanage kept its kids close, and guessed that, prior to our visit, Perry had never once left its grounds in the three or so years he'd been there.

I'd under-appreciated the Americans with Disabilities Act until I spent time in China with a child in a wheelchair. Public toilets are generally squatties, ramps infrequent, and doorways narrow. Everywhere we turned, we were forced to navigate barriers thoughtlessly erected by a culture which preferred that disabled people stay invisible. Thursday afternoon, we ate pizza at a restaurant whose only restrooms were on the second floor. There was no elevator, and Perry's caretakers couldn't carry him up the steps. Without other options, they gave him an empty water bottle to use in a corner. The dehumanizing indignities I saw him endure repeatedly―wearing a weary smile―broke my heart. I confided in another traveler how Perry's ceaseless degradation troubled me. Surely he was used to it, she replied, supposing I'd be comforted at a humiliation so commonplace it had rendered him numb.
Even small things, like tasting samples in a grocery store, were
new and special to Perry.

Perry's intelligence was evident, even with the language barrier, so it shocked me to learn he'd never gone to school. A Chinese lady on staff with an American adoption agency told me that since public schools seldom have facilities for students with special needs, they often receive no education. So Perry, who had a knack for reproducing designs he saw on paper, and told me that our president was Obama, could read only a few Mandarin characters, a deficiency not many Chinese seemed to find remarkable.

In China, orphans become unadoptable on their 14th birthdays. If Perry did not find a family, the same lady said, he would leave the orphanage soon after for an adult institution, where he would stay forever. People much older than he would live there, too, and potential for abuse would be rampant. At best, he might learn a handcraft to do day in, day out. He'd have no education, no future, no chance at self-betterment, no hope for escape. Hidden from sight, he'd be far from the collective mind of a society scarcely bothered by niceties like wheelchair accessibility or education for the disabled. It was already awful; then she froze me with the words "human farm."
Our last evening together, I interviewed him, wondering if his optimism was genuine, or if he had some premonition of what the Chinese lady had prophesied. We asked a question, standard for orphans I'd advocated for: what career would he pursue? But as soon as we asked, I felt so cruel. It was grievously apparent he'd never been encouraged to believe in a future for himself at all. How could he fathom an answer? He could not even fathom the question.

Perry smiled almost all the time.
For all his cheeriness, this endearing boy finally teared up when asked if he wanted a family. He told me he'd "try [his] best to be in a family," and that he hoped to warm the hearts of the parents who might adopt him. He sighed deeply when I asked what he would do to change the world. Eventually he said he'd help his parents, but added he never dreamed he could change the world. Having been assured beforehand by the agency that nothing was off limits, I asked the question that exposed his soul: what was life like in a wheelchair? Looking down, he softly shared his fondest wish: to be active himself, and to have wings to fly.
Perry is everything wonderful that orphan blurbs tritely bandy about: kind-hearted, intelligent, helpful, smiley. But those descriptors shed little light on a soul who has consciously made the best of a situation so heartrending―so beneath his abilities―because it is the only choice he sees. So he smiles through gut-wrenching indignities; through lack of education; and through marginalization by a culture which assumes he has little to live for, and nothing to offer. He can keep the smiles coming, until he mentions the family he yearns for. And those wings!
Is there a family with wings to spare? Perry aches to fly.
Perry's file is currently on China's shared list, meaning that interested families may adopt him through any Hague-accredited child placing agency they wish. World Association for Children and Parents (WACAP,, an agency we have worked with and loved three times, offers a $4,000 grant for Perry's adoption, based on funds availability, to families meeting income eligibility requirements. A $5,000 grant toward Perry's adoption is being offered by a church, good friends of Too Special, L.L.C., to be disbursed shortly before travel. The church grant is offered to Christian families only, and requires a simple application and approval process. Altogether, up to $9,000 in grant money is available for Perry's adoption. For more information on Perry, or to learn about the grants available for this specific child, please contact Becky De Nooy at (616) 245-3216. 

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