Wings of kindness

Good Weekend logoXia Li doesn’t want to help clear away the dishes. She’s having fun, laughing and chattering, and she’s slow to get up from her chair. But a few quiet words from a retired Australian primary school teacher gets her up and moving. Sitting at the other end of the noisy dinner table, teacher Linda Shum has made her point: teenagers who don’t help clear up shouldn’t look forward to owning a mobile phone. Fourteen-year-old Xia Li begins picking up plates and rocking from side to side towards the kitchen. Doing the dishes and thinking about phones: it’s a hearteningly ordinary scene for a child who has endured appalling depths of misery in her short life. Dressed in pink, with a band in her hair, Xia Li has cerebral palsy of one leg and one hand: her hand twists inwards and her gait is jerky and awkward as she moves through the room. But these days she can walk and even run; she has scabs on her knees and elbows to prove it.

Xia Li, who has cerebral palsy, lives in an Eagles WIngs home in Jiaozuo. Photo: Dave Tacon.

Xia Li, who has cerebral palsy, lives in an Eagles WIngs home in Jiaozuo. Photo: Dave Tacon.

Shum, now 65, first began looking out for Xia Li when she met her as a bereft and abandoned six-year-old. “She came to the orphanage with a tumour the size of a cricket ball on her head; she was filthy dirty and naked, and she needed an injection to stop vomiting,” Shum says. 

A police officer from this town, Jiaozuo, in China’s central province of Henan, had brought the little girl to the state-run orphanage and tossed her on the step. After surgery to remove the tumour, Xia Li spent a year mostly in isolation in a small room with nothing much to do and only the walls to look at. 

Back then, Shum was spending her spare time working as a volunteer in China, determined to help care for the children in the orphanage. She bought a toy to keep Xia Li amused, and for a while the child was happy, pressing the buttons and making the toy squeak. But when Shum returned to visit, the toy was gone. An orphanage nurse had locked it away in case Xia Li broke it. 

“That was common,” Shum says sadly. “It was the sort of thing that really spurred me on to say, ‘Well, let’s get them out of the orphanage.’ ” 

In the years since she first met Xia Li, Shum has wangled and negotiated and bustled to set up special homes in Jiaozuo; homes where deprived and distressed Chinese children can lead ordinary family lives, with a house mother and a great deal of adult attention, a school to go to and frequent outings. She and her husband founded the Chinese Orphans Assistance Team (COAT) in 2002, and the first of eight Eagles Wings homes followed in 2006.

Born in Inverell, in northern NSW, Shum now lives in Gympie, Queensland, with her frail 90-year-old father. Children have long been her focus, not to say her obsession. Decades ago she fostered two Aboriginal children (who were taken from her after a few years, she says, because she was white), and she has three biological children of her own — Jason Shum, 40, Debra Marshall, 39, and Damien Shum, 37 — and nine grandchildren. Before she retired, she spent time teaching mentally and physically disabled children in mixed “inclusive” classes in Queensland schools.

Travelling to China as often as she can, Shum has been to Jiaozuo three times so far this year and she has spent a total of seven weeks in the town she calls “home”. When she isn’t physically present, she is in almost constant contact with the homes via Skype and email.Most of the children in the Eagles Wings homes have mental or physical disabilities. Blind, or afflicted with spina bifida, or cerebral palsy affecting their limbs or eyes, many need constant care. A few have brain damage, or they have cleft palates, malformed feet, autism, missing limbs, a feared disease like hepatitis B, or other serious problems. A handful of the children are physically and mentally well, orphans who for one reason or another can’t be adopted. One stubborn grandmother won’t give her consent for adoption, but she won’t visit her grandchildren, either. 

Back when Xia Li was living in the state-run orphanage and recovering from her tumour operation, Shum insisted the child spend at least an hour a day in the COAT school, even though she had to be carried there and back. “They said, ‘But she can’t learn anything’, ” she remembers. “So I said, ‘But she can watch what’s going on.’” 

Jing Jing, who has cerebral palsy, with Linda Shum in Jiaozuo. Photo: Dave Tacon

Jing Jing, who has cerebral palsy, with Linda Shum in Jiaozuo. Photo: Dave Tacon

And Xia Li could learn. She recovered from her appalling start in life, and now, years later, she is full of life and laughter, doing her lessons and looking to the future: asking for a much-coveted mobile phone when she turns 18.

Eagles Wings homes and the COAT school now occupy three of the top four floors of the new 10-storey state orphanage building in Jiaozuo. About 62 children live in the eight different Eagles Wings homes, in separate apartments across town as well as in homes within the state orphanage building.

Some of the children living in the homes will never make much progress, but as Shum sits on a sofa and wrangles with Guo Guo, an eight-year-old wearing a one-piece pyjama suit, she says she believes their lives can be made both more stimulating and more comfortable. Seemingly enjoying himself, Guo Guo slides through her arms and winds up lying sideways on her lap, then leans his head down low. The back of his skull is frighteningly flat.

One arm around his waist, Shum says his head is that shape because he was left lying on his back until he was two years old, with bedding so heavy he couldn’t roll over. He was “bottle-propped” by his former carers, she adds, fed with a bottle kept in place by leaning it against the bed-clothes. No touch of a human hand. Guo Guo has developmental delay and atrophied eyes. He used to be entirely non-responsive, a shell of a child. But these days he expresses himself, even though he can’t communicate in words. “He’s got personality,” Shum grins, holding him firm. 

Another boy wanders over, a child who can’t speak but who smiles easily. Fourteen-year-old Ma Tai has permanent brain damage from untreated epilepsy. When Shum first met him, he was tied up with twine to prevent him falling over. Struggling against this twine had left him “red raw” under the arms, Shum remembers, adding: “Some kids in the orphanage downstairs are still tied up to prevent them falling and hurting themselves.”

China’s one-child policy means would-be Chinese parents crave a normal, healthy child. Babies who deviate from the norm and usually unwanted and sometimes abandoned.

According to a report in the state-run China daily newspaper, there were about 615,000 orphans and abandoned children in China in January this year. More than 100,000 of these children were living in government institutions, the remaindler were housed in private institutions or living with relatives. Although there has been a market improvement in recent years, China’s state care for the disabled can be patchy. Still, Beijing’s United Family Hospital has been a big supporter of the Eagles Wings homes, providing infant formula and sending a specialist to the homes every two months. Dr Wei Cheng, an Australian pediatric surgeon at the hospital, recently visited Eagles Wings to provide advice and examine some of the children, including tiny 11-year-old Wen Fei, who has muscular dystrophy.

Solid and stolid, with short hair and a sweet smile, Linda Shum is driven by an outsized maternal instinct. She often tells people she loves them, both children and adults, and she has found youngsters to mother all through her life. She fell out with her own Catholic mother when she married a man from the Pentecostal faith and her heart goes out to children who have lost their parents. “I was rejected by my mother. If I can do anything to stop them having abandonment issues, then I will.”

Devoutly religious, Shum is a regular at her Pentecostal church’s services, where praying often takes the form of speaking in tongues. Her faith is evangelist, and according to the very meaning of the word “evangelism”, Shum should be trying to convert her friends and associates to Christianity. But it’s officially forbidden to preach Christianity to Chinese orphans, so Shum has to rein in her religion, at least in public in China. 

“We are not allowed to convert the children here,” Shum explains. “We have a policy, we are not to teach the children about Jesus. But adults are free to believe what they like. We’ve had volunteers defying the edict and preaching the gospel, and I’ve had to stop them. I threatened them and if they hadn’t stopped I would have chucked them out. You just can’t do that. As much as you might want to, you just can’t do it.” 

Living a demonstrably honourable life, according to religious principles, she adds, is her silent form of preaching, her way of demonstrating the value of Christianity.

In private, she says, she talks to God, who addresses her in fully-formed sentences. God, she explains, told her to help Chinese orphans. She spent a night arguing, she adds, and then gave in. “I do what I can. This is my calling. This is what God wants me to do.” 

COAT and its Eagles Wings operation began life under the aegis of Gympie’s Christian Family Church, where Shum worships. Her pastor, Rick Roberts, has been involved from the start, following COAT’s fortunes as it emerged from under the church’s authority to become an independent entity. When Linda’s husband, Greg, had a fatal stroke in 2006, a few weeks before the first Eagles Wings home was set to open in Jiaozuo, Roberts stepped in to help sort out legal and financial issues.

Greg Shum was only 57 when he died. A teacher like his wife, he had a bipolar disorder and he’d battled through nine nervous breakdowns. Linda Shum went to China immediately after he died to get the first Eagles Wings home opened, but she grieved for years. 

“My children were a bit ticked off that I left the country,” she remembers. “Their father had died and I didn’t help them with their grief.” But she had a breakdown, she says, she lost her speech
for three months, and also found herself sleep-driving to the church and to the hospital in Gympie, looking for her husband.  

Roberts well remembers Shum mourning, and he adds that although she is still pulled down by her husband’s death, she devotes all her energies to ensuring Eagles Wings is running smoothly and to pulling in enough money to keep it going. “She just has such a passion for these kids, it’s just incredible,” he says. “We call it a definite call from God. Without that, she just wouldn’t be able to do it.”

Despite the shock of her husband’s death, Shum ensured the first four Eagles Wings children, including a smaller Xia Li, were safely installed in the first home in December 2006. The COAT school was already up and running.

As an ardent Christian, Shum sometimes peppers her email messages with Biblical quotations, but she is remarkably tolerant of other ways of living and believing. So a couple isn’t married? Still, they have chosen one another, she says. So someone believes in a different faith? Who is she to tell them what to believe? She reserves her severest criticism for the hypocrites: those people who preach the Christian message and flagrantly misbehave in private. 

Daniel Vanderpool was one child who came into Shum’s orbit. Missing a hand, he spent two years at the orphanage in Jiaozuo before he was adopted by a Catholic family in the United Statesat the age of 10, and he remembers Shum with a great deal of affection. Shum and her husband Greg tried to teach him a few words of English to ease his way into American life. 

“Once in a while she would visit and give us stuff and tell us how much she loved us,” says the 18-year-old, now living in Chicago. “I was always really happy when she visited. She means a lot to me. For helping me finding my family, and loving me for who I am, just being there for me when no one else was there for me.”

Earlier this year, Shum had both breasts removed: cancer had struck. She has chosen not to have breast reconstruction; she has to keep stretching her shoulders back to prevent her flesh adhering in the wrong places. As well, she has neuropathy, a disease of the peripheral nervous system, and macular degeneration of the eyes, which can lead to vision loss. She also cheerfully admits that she is obese. 

One laughing 15-year-old with a glossy fringe leans forward past the lunch table, grins, and quizzes Shum in Chinese. “Nai Nai [grandmother], where is your bosom?” Jing Jing chortles. “Nai Nai, where is the baby in your belly?” Like Xia Li, Jing Jing has cerebral palsy, which has affected her legs. Shum says a botched operation has confined her to a wheelchair. Shum smiles at Jing Jing’s teasing. “She says I’m very old.”

Jing Jing will never be adopted. In China, adoption is ruled out once a child turns 14. There are a handful of children already over 14 or hovering around that age at the Eagles Wings homes, teenagers who will probably never leave. Shum is now working on plans for vocational training and, down the track, adult accommodation.

Margaret Mason (who attends the mainstream Uniting Church in Gympie) has known Shum for 37 years and she, too, is deeply involved with COAT and Eagles Wings. She remembers groups of religious volunteers in Jiaozuo praying with their eyes open so no one cottoned on to their devotions. She still ends her emails with “Shalom” in case Chinese censors pick up on any overtly Christian salutations. “We know they’re watching us,” Mason says, adding that earlier this year one of the Chinese officials made it clear he was aware that an Eagles Wings volunteer had been preaching. “At that stage that volunteer was no longer with us, so they couldn’t do anything about it.”

Mason says Shum is “obsessed” with the Chinese children, and would probably rank them even before her church in importance. She has never seen her friend lose her temper or raise her voice. Shum’s most obvious quality is utter determination. “She had always wanted to look after orphans,” she says, “and it became a really big burden on her life to help these kids have a better quality of life.”

Shum is stamping through the corridors with cries of “Nai Nai” following her, as she stops to hug a child here and grin at another there. Overjoyed when any of the children make any progress, she appears equally fond of them all. “How good is that?” she asks buoyantly, when she learns a child has begun to take tentative steps, or is learning to use crayons.

The best result, of course, for all children, would be adoption by a loving and caring family. But Shum knows older kids, especially, will feel the wrench when they are whipped off to a strange country to live with strange people speaking a language they barely understand. 

Eleven-year-old Fu Jie has “been chosen” (meaning a family intends to adopt her and the bureaucratic process is underway).

A slight and serious child, she has cerebral palsy and problems with her arms and legs, but she is continent and can walk. She potters around. She seems content, but she has yet to be told she will soon be leaving the place she knows as home. 

Shum worries about the blanketing pain of separation that will soon descend on the child. She leans forward to gaze at the girl more closely, and looks thoughtful, while in the background a little boy is serenely drawing on his face with a crayon. Maybe Fu Jie is too old? “I’m going to have a chat to Director Li [the director of the state orphanage] about this,” Shum mutters. “Am I being mean? But they have a right to grow up in China.”

Eighteen Eagles Wings children have been adopted in the last 18 months, she says, most of them going to the US, where various agencies have internet sites featuring photos and short biographies of adoptable disabled children. The Australian government doesn’t permit would-be parents to adopt children from overseas with anything but minor and correctable problems: in Australia the state would largely bear the financial burden of their health care. In the US, the prospective parents pay, but sometimes they get help to get the adoption ball rolling. 

There have been reports of a surge of adoptions by US evangelical Christians in recent years, of disabled as well as healthy children. Statistics are hard to come by, but apparently the trend has been reinforced by mega-preachers and ministries providing financial aid. According to The New York Times this year, “Hundreds of churches have established ‘orphan ministries’ that send aid abroad and help prospective parents raise the tens of thousands of dollars needed to adopt.”

At the other end of the adoption arc, Shum is helping to fund her calling with a couple of self-published religion-themed novels she has written, and which she sells on her round of talks in Australia. Anything to make money for the cause, she says, adding that it costs about $400,000 a year to keep COAT and Eagles Wings afloat.

Australians can send tax-deductible donations to COAT via the Global Development Group (GDG), an organisation that acts as an umbrella  for a long list of development projects worldwide. Geoff Armstrong, the executive director of GDG, says that in 2012 Australians donated about $230,000 to COAT. With COAT and Eagles Wings soaking up that $400,000 a year, there is a large shortfall of funds to find. Shum puts in a lot of her own money, she says, and she pays no tax because she is a pensioner and a self-funded retiree. 

One donor, Shum adds, gave all her superannuation to COAT. Another corporate donor has given a substantial sum each year, without needing a tax receipt. However, she concludes, “we have not quite reached the $400,000 coming in, so some projects have had to wait until we can afford them”.

Some donors give their time and energy. Kathy and Tavis Hawke are full-time volunteer Eagles Wings managers, living in Jiaozuo.  Fellow worshippers at Shum’s church in Gympie, they and their three home-schooled children live with three Eagles Wings adolescents in an Eagles Wings-owned apartment in town. The Hawkes work hard, for no pay. Only their board is provided.

With her husband, Kathy Hawke jointly manages the care of all 62 children. “But Linda’s here, so we’ll probably get a few more,” she says, leading a fractious two-year-old by the hand. Hawke has seen how Chinese children in need are brought to Shum in Jiaozuo. “She always collects them. We always have a few beds ready when Linda’s here.”