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Injecting life into the first floor

The first floor of the orphanage houses the older children ... those who have been there for as long as they can remember. They are forgotten children, left behind ... too old for the second and third floor ... without hope. There are many children, few staff. It is deemed safest to tie the children to their beds so that they cannot hurt themselves .... One cannot enter the first floor and be unchanged. The smell is beyond words ... the silence deafening ... but it is what you see that changes you forever. Children ... a floor of children who have lost hope, who dare not even dream of a future ... for it would just mean more of the same. My 12 year old daughter described them as 'empty' on our first visit in 2009.

I am allowed to take photos of the first floor children in order to assess them for school ... I think I am the only foreigner who has been allowed to do this for many years. I take photos of each child, for my records ... I record beside each photo the name of the child, their gender (difficult to tell from their clothing), their approximate date of birth (which can be years out), their disability (often a guess) and any notes that will help me to place these children into the classes upstairs. For me, it is a way to validate the life of each precious child there ... to let them know that they do exist, that they do matter and that they are loved. Each time I go back, I use the child's name when I speak to them, when I touch them and attempt to interact with them. The reality was that there was no class upstairs that could accommodate these broken children. They needed intensive one-one attention and it just couldn't be done with the numbers down there.

In 2014 when I visited, there were only 19 children on first floor ... and I began to think that there was hope of getting these children upstairs to school. Our staffing situation was not great (we had just lost 10 of our most experienced and very loved staff members due to the rule about not employing staff over the age of 50) but I began to discuss the possibility of bringing these children upstairs or taking them outside one at a time ... even if it was only for an hour each over the week. Like most of my ideas, I was initially met with lots of reasons why this wouldn't work - some valid, but most of them were not an issue. We were working on my previous idea of getting the babies upstairs and this was taking the focus for now ... but I wasn't going to give up. Our wonderful COAT president had been floating the idea of helping the first floor children for many years and I shared her vision ...

My 2015 visit was primarily focussed on opening the baby rooms (Little Learner Classrooms) and selecting new babies from the second and third floor to fill these two rooms. I asked about the first floor and was told that I was not allowed to go there. I wondered why ... but was scared to think about it too much. Each time I walked past the door, I peered in, hoping to catch a glimpse of the children. With the baby rooms a reality, I turned back to the idea of the first floor part time attendance idea. Once again, I was told that it was too difficult, that it couldn't be done.

This year, I have worked hard with our school principal. We have worked through lots of scenarios and possibilities - 1 hour per child, 2 hours per child, half a day, one day a week, outside, inside, one child at a time, two children at a time, a walker and a non-walker together ... we have continued to have some staffing issues and each time we got close, something would get in the way ... a teacher fell pregnant, a teacher wanted to swap into a ayi position, our beautiful special education teacher was hit by a scooter and badly injured, our principal's father in law passed away on the morning I arrived in China this year ...

Then I went downstairs in September this year ... to the first floor .... and those children ... there were 44 of them. 44 ... it seemed impossible. It's always heartbreaking going into that floor ... but this time I cried hard as I got into the lift afterwards. I looked at our principal and said, "ZY, we can't walk out of there and do NOTHING ... even the worst criminals deserve better than that ... and they are children ... just children!" Back to the drawing board ... let's work out a plan. We went back downstairs again and again ... how could we choose? That's probably one of the hardest things to accept in this job ... the fact that we have to make choices about which children can come upstairs. It can literally be a life or death decision ... but that's another post. So decisions ... some were too old (some of the first floor children are actually adults trapped inside tiny, broken bodies) ... we have a cut off age for school (and a plan for more vocational training for the older ones ... yet another post) ... so that narrowed down the list a little. Some were too sick and frail. Which children can walk? "This one could walk when he/she first came ... but not anymore". Which children can sit unassisted? Which children can talk? Can you untie this one so that I can see if they can sit up / stand / turn their head? The list of names grew shorter ... perhaps we could start with some of them and extend the program as the first ones improved and got used to their visits ... ideas, plans, discussions ... and more reasons why it wouldn't work. I resigned myself to the fact that it wasn't going to happen on this visit.

I came home to Australia and worked on my lists ... I actually included 40 of the original list in my lists with various headings ... children who could fit into daycare class / preparation class when spaces become available; children who could fit into an older vocational training group; children who could come up one-one; children who could be grouped together if we had more staff; walking children; non-walking children; children who seem to have understanding but can't talk ... and I kept on talking about our plans as if it were just a matter of time ... I prayed hard for those children. I asked our church family to pray for those children and gave out the names of children that individuals could pray for ... I asked them to remember that they existed and that they mattered.

As the end of the year drew near, our principal gathered the courage to discuss our plans with the orphanage director. He was hesitant. What if the children run away? (Most of them can't walk ... and if they could, there are high walls and gates all the way around the orphanage). What if they cause problems when they come back because they want to be upstairs? (well, wouldn't you?) .... some of his concerns were valid points but I asked for the opportunity to try. If it didn't work, we would work out another plan.

So on 20 December 2016, it finally happened. All of our teaching staff was back on deck and we had a spare teacher ... our prayers were answered and the first of the children from the first floor came upstairs.

At the moment, there are only 10 children involved in the program (yes, I'm working on that!) ... and it looks a little like this. In the morning, the teacher goes downstairs to collect a child from the first floor and brings them upstairs. They are showered and provided with clean clothing. Depending on the weather, they then go outside for a walk and a play in the playground or visit one of the activity rooms in our school (indoor playground). They visit the library to read some books; they sing songs; they play games; they interact with others in the school. During the morning, they have morning tea with the other children. At lunch time, they return to the first floor. The process is repeated with a second child after lunch. Ten children over 5 days. For the first eight days, we had a wonderful volunteer from Australia in China - this meant we could take two children at a time and they got three visits upstairs in that time.

Like all children that come upstairs for the first time, the whole experience can be overwhelming ... these children have had no stimulation or interaction for a long time ... years. Even having a shower and putting on clean clothes can be a frightening experience, let along going outside, holding a ball or a book, eating a solid piece of fruit ... This was the first day for each of our new school children - XinHua; HePing; ShengLi; WenZhang; ShengZhou; JunHao; WenGuang; DeXia; XiaoKe and TianQing. They attend for half a day each per week ... for now. (Yes, more plans growing). Cold and dirty bodies were gently washed and dressed in warm clothes ... and then they joined the world again.

And after three half day visits to school ...

Tell me that this isn't worth it ... go on, I dare you!

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