Oliver tugs at Lao Wong’s leg. He pulls Tupperware out of a cabinet while she sautés mushrooms on the stove. In a room full of other women and babies, his eyes will always find her first. Lao Wong is his person. She bathes him. She feeds him. She comforts him. She calms him. She is not his first mother, but she is his mother today. And with each hug, each dinner, each bedtime routine, each time she leaves the room and returns to him, she is teaching Oliver what it means to love and be loved.
As if Oliver were her own flesh and bone.
In this moment – Oliver making a Tupperware mess in the kitchen and Lao Wong cooking his dinner – Oliver doesn’t know he was abandoned. He doesn’t know he is sick. He doesn’t know that one day, about 16 months ago, his birth mom took a deep breath and uncurled him from her arms and walked away forever.
In this moment, all he knows is love.
This is a love story. But it is a love story filled with as much heartache as hope. This is a story about sacrifice. It is a story of love wide open. It is a story of loving and releasing.
Because eventually, Lao Wong must make the same decision Oliver’s birth mom had to make – she will open her hands…and let him go.
A Bright Morning Star
In the suburbs of Beijing, China, in a modest but well-to-do neighborhood sits a home. Inside those walls, a miracle is taking place. Abandoned children are finding hope. Sick children are being given a chance at life.
The home belongs to Morning Star Foundation, a nonprofit whose mission is to take in Chinese orphans with complex cardiac defects and provide the surgery that gives them a chance. All over China, state-run orphanages that don’t have adequate hospital care contact Morning Star to ask if they can send orphans to their home.
Morning Star says yes to the most high-risk children, like the ones who need multiple $10,000 heart surgeries and ongoing, hands-on care. It partners with surgeons who operate on the orphans’ hearts, as many times as it takes, until they are adopted.
When a child comes to live in the Morning Star baby home in Beijing, they usually come from a rural province in China where abandonment rates are high and orphanages are over-capacity and under-staffed. Usually, they come with blue fingernails and blue lips (one of the few outward signs of the very serious health issue hidden deep in their chest) and an attachment disorder, unable to smile or cry or trust, certainly not likely to love.
The baby home operates more like a foster care home than an orphanage. It has a living room, a kitchen, bedrooms and a patio with toys. Only eight to 12 babies live in the home at any one time with a 2-to-1 child-to-staff ratio, so each child can receive the love and attention he or she needs.
When a child comes to the baby home, she is given a bed and dresser that is hers. She has toys that belong to her. She wears clothes that are hers. She is welcomed with hugs and laughter from the other children who have lived there – some for as long as two and three years – and have learned what it feels like to be accepted into a family.
When a child comes to the baby home, he is assigned an Ayi, which means “auntie” in Chinese. In the beginning, the Ayi looks for her new child. She is there for him. She seeks him out at every moment she can, even when he may not seek her. She meets his needs. She is consistent. Deliberate. Peaceful. This begins the process of teaching attachment. Eventually, he will start to seek her out. He will know his Ayi as his person. He might even call her Nai Nai, Chinese for “grandma.”
Ayis are full-time nannies – Chinese citizens who have left their own families to provide around-the-clock care for these orphans. Ayis live in the home. They share a room with their babies, and aside from a brief time off during the week when most head home to their own provinces, the Ayis are there to give baths, to administer medicine, sing songs, read books and provide comfort and love.
Life in the home feels incredibly normal. Shrieks of laughter fill the air. Four-year-old Chara twirls around in a pink tutu. Music plays in the background. Toby, Theo and Oliver shake a red blanket they’ve turned into a parachute game. The children walk around the house with an air of confidence and familiarity. The Ayis call the children over for lunch – a row of blue and white high chairs wait for them. Lunch is beef and broccoli and leek with egg.
Hidden under each child’s bib and shirt is the same scar, a visible reminder of why they are here in the first place: They are sick. They have been abandoned. They are here for physical healing. They are here for emotional healing. They are here to prepare for a permanent home.
“It doesn’t matter how beautifully that brave heart is healed now within. That chest will always wear that scar, the story of his brave. A testament to hope. I hope he loves that scar. I hope he wears it proud.”
The Morning Star baby home was never meant to be the end game. It’s meant to be a temporary landing place – a place in-between abandonment and forever. A place that repairs literal broken hearts and heals emotionally broken hearts.
When a child comes to the home, she learns to love. She learns what family means. She learns to trust, so that when the adoption goes through and she’s placed with a forever family, her heart is a little stronger, a little braver and a little more able to love.
In a small house, in a suburb of Beijing, you will find the most courageous act there is – to love and let go.
Lao Wong has been an Ayi at the home for seven years. She’s loved several children – known their cries, their smells, their fears and their joys. Now she does the same for Oliver.
But she knows that, no matter what, her time with the children will come to an end. It is certain. Either they will succumb to their sickness and leave this Earth. Or they will be adopted – placed into a forever family, far away from Beijing and the baby home.
Lao Wong says she misses every child that leaves.
“Shòu bù liǎo.”
The expression in Chinese means in your heart, you just can’t bear it. Lao Wong remembers each baby she cared for. She says it’s okay they don’t remember her. What matters is that they felt love.
Meredith Toering is a force, although you wouldn’t know it by her calm and reserved demeanor. Within a few moments of talking with her, however, it’s obvious Meredith is a warrior. As International Director of Morning Star Foundation, she manages the baby home and the medical care for the children who live there.
Meredith doesn’t have a medical degree, but her descriptions of complex cardiac conditions roll off the tongue with the ease of a third-year medical resident.
“He’s a single ventricle defect.”
“Her left pulmonary artery was finally big enough.”
“So they can do the VSD repair and will be giving her a new conduit?”
Every baby at Morning Star has a complex heart condition and medical charts inches thick. Meredith could tell you the details of every one. Nearly every day for the past three years, she’s been on the front lines going to battle for the babies, knocking down doors of hospitals and grasping for options.
“If the doctor’s saying, ‘Sorry, there’s nothing we can do. Your baby is going to die,’ I’m the one saying ‘No, they’re not. We’re going to find an option and we’re going to do something,’” said Meredith.
When she talks, her eyes are full of intention and the same bravery she speaks of in the babies. She is fiercely protective of them, both in the hospital and in the home. She doesn’t accept volunteers or “missions” teams who cannot commit to regular monthly visits. With children learning how to love and trust, it’s simply too risky.
“I would much rather make sure their emotional hearts aren’t being compromised and that we’re doing everything we can to protect attachment,” said Meredith.
Every day, Meredith goes back and forth from the baby home, the hospitals and her small studio apartment in a suburban Beijing high-rise. At the baby home, she sings the English version of “Skinamarinky dinky dink” and documents life in the baby home on Morning Star’s Instagram account. She has a small office in the back of the home where she goes to make calls with donors and appointments with doctors. (Contributions to the foundation have more than doubled since Meredith became International Director). She uses her minivan to make quick stops at the hospital to visit babies waiting or recovering from surgery.
Meredith walks into the hospital and up to the 14th floor to the cardiac wing. She is there for Finn, one of Morning Star’s babies who will undergo heart surgery. His surgery will be risky. For complex cardiac pediatric patients who are undergoing open heart surgery, death is never far away.
In this hospital, Meredith has felt the buoyancy of hope and the sting of death.
“There are so many stories that I like to write in my head. And sometimes they end so much differently than I ever could have thought,” said Meredith.
Chinese hospitals require a patient’s family to make arrangements to remove the body after they die. And so when a Morning Star child dies, the baby is literally handed to Meredith.
“I can’t tell you how much I wish I didn’t know the feel of each body in death. I can’t tell you the heartbreak of walking out of a hospital – arms full of broken hope. I remember every weight. I remember every step,” Meredith said in a post on Instagram in December 2017 reflecting on the loss of lives felt that year. Within the span of four months, Meredith held three babies as they died.
It is such a gift to love them in life while they are here in our home, and it is such an honor to be the ones to hold them in death.
Meredith Toering, International Director, Morning Star Foundation
Meredith often thinks of the birth moms in that moment, the ones who were there when the child’s first breath was taken – the ones who abandoned their child for the hope of life.
“I get to be the one to make sure they are loved through their last breath. And that is such an honor to me that I really can’t explain,” said Meredith.
But in this moment, for Finn, she still holds onto hope.
Back on the 14th floor, Meredith meets with Dr. Zhou, the Chief of Pediatric Cardiac Surgery at the Bayi Children’s Hospital. Dr. Zhou operates on Morning Star Foundation babies and has built a strong partnership with the organization. If Meredith is their warrior, Dr. Zhou is their elixir – the one who literally holds their hearts in his hands.
And with every heart, he is going against the grain.
The Chinese government rates its doctors on how successful they are based on survival and morbidity rates. They have no incentive to take on high-risk cases; in fact, many doctors refuse to take high-risk cases for fear of it tarnishing their record and putting them out of work.
Dr. Zhou refuses to make decisions based on that rating standard. He’s confident in his abilities. But his character drives him too. He believes that choosing to operate on these babies isn’t really even a choice to make – that humanity demands only one option. “I think [all babies] were born equal. They should have the surgery. That is why I take the risk,” Dr. Zhou said.
And so, surgery after surgery, he stands in the gap, stitching hearts and fighting for the underdog when no other surgeon will.
And one after another, he sends the children, including Finn, home. Healed. Scarred. Loved.
The Love Project
A father paces the hallways outside the ICU. He rings his hands through his hair. How can he be forced to make this decision?
He runs through the dollar amounts in his head. No matter how many times he tries, the numbers just don’t add up. How can he make up an 80% gap? He’s asked everyone. He’s taken out as many loans as he is allowed. Who else can he ask? His mind wanders back to his son, Jia Qi, as he thinks to himself.
How can I be in this nightmare? I am his father. I am to care for him. How can I be forced to choose?
He rings his hands and paces and the tears come, rolling down his cheeks. And then a voice.
“Are you Jia Qi’s father?” a woman says.
He looks up. “Yes.”
“Whatever we have to do to help you, we are here. It doesn't matter the cost, it doesn't matter what happens. We can't guarantee the outcome. But your baby is worth this chance, and we want you to be able to stay together as a family.”
She extends a hand.
“I’m Meredith with the Morning Star Foundation.”
There is only one true way to solve the orphan crisis, and that is to cut it off at the root. For China, this means solving for the lack of resources available to families who love their children but do not have the financial capacity to help them.
Morning Star Foundation doesn’t just foster children while healing hearts. The organization is also working to keep Chinese families together through The Love Project, a family unification and orphan prevention program.
“One of my Chinese families said to me, ‘we knew Americans wanted our babies. But we didn’t know they cared about us too.’”
The Love Project finds families who are at risk of abandonment due to financial hardship. Morning Star Foundation funds the surgeries in full (or in part, if the family has already raised some funds). It also partners with families after the surgeries so they are well-prepared for the demands that come with caring for a child with complex medical conditions. It connects families with education and counseling. It provides funds for medications, follow up procedures and trips to the city for doctor visits.
“We want Chinese families to know they’re not alone in this, and there is an alternative,” said Meredith.
“One of my Chinese families said to me, ‘we knew Americans wanted our babies. But we didn’t know they cared about us too.’”
Today, Morning Star Foundation is seeking to expand The Love Project. It also has a vision to open baby homes, similar to the home in Beijing, in rural provinces across China, so that they can take on more children while maintain the 2-to-1 care ratio and family feel the home has. Having homes in rural provinces also allows children to stay close to their hometowns.
How many sacrificial steps does it take to heal a heart? How many people must choose hope, when there is nothing in it for them? How many brave people must decide to love when heartache, risk and vulnerability are guaranteed? How many people will stand in the gap for one abandoned child?
In this story, there are at least five.
A birth mom opens her hands and releases the flesh of her flesh and bone of her bone into the universe, with the hope that something…someone…will find them.
An Ayi teaches a child how to attach and love the only way a human can, by selflessly attaching and loving, even though she knows she will say goodbye.
A surgeon puts his medical career on the line to care for the least of these.
A director fights day in and day out, going to battle for children in need, all without knowing whether they will live or die.
An adoptive parent chooses to provide a lifetime of love and support, with no guarantee of the future outcome.
Brave hearts are fighting for broken hearts. Because every child is worth the risk.