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I Love You All The Way to China and Back

It’s September 2003. A young couple living in rural China gives birth to sham bowtie – twins. But their hopes are dashed when they discovered their babies have cleft lips and palates that not only disfigured their tiny faces but left them unable to nurse. Without either the means or the knowledge, and certainly not the insurance, to care for one child with cleft, let alone two, their quandary was immense.

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After three difficult days, they decided the twins’ best hope was the local orphanage. So poor they did not even have paper to write a note, the parents tore off a piece of a brown paper bag and wrote these heartfelt words: “Dear caring people, we are poor and unable to provide for our twins. Please keep them. They were born the 12th of September, 2003.”

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In the dark of a cool autumn morning, they put the note between the girls, wrapped only in a common blanket, placed their twins by the orphanage gate, and scurried off into the night.

At the orphanage, the girls were really no better off. Like their mother, the ayis had no way to feed them. The nannies, or ayis, tried an eye dropper, but without special cleft bottles the twins’ hope for survival was slipping away.

Then – a miracle.

Linda Shum arrived from Gympie, Australia to volunteer at the orphanage. When she saw the ayis struggling to feed the twins, she reached into her purse and magically pulled out two cleft bottles. Remarkably a local hospital have given them to her just before she left for China. Before long the children were eating bountifully for the first time in their short lives.

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Knowing the twins needed specialized care not available in the orphanage, Linda arranged for the twins to be transferred to a home in Beijing run by another Australian, Dr. Joyce Hill, and her husband Robin. The Hills gave the girls great care, but everyone knew that to have a reasonable chance of being adopted, the twins needed to have their facial clefts surgically closed.

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After six months, Dr. Hill heard that a fledgling American organization called Love Without Boundaries was sending surgeons that very month to repair children’s clefts in Shantou, some 1,500 km away from Beijing.

The Hills contacted LWB, and within days they were off to Shantou with the twins. When Dr. John Padilla, a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, saw the twins, he scooped them right up.  The twins became the first children to have surgery on a Love Without Boundaries’ medical mission.

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What do you think of Dr. Padilla’s work?

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At the same time, half a world away, my wife Grace and I are “living the dream” in sunny Stuart, Florida. Our business is thriving. We have a wonderful home, a great church, amazing friends. Life was good.

Little did we know our lives were about to change…radically…forever.

Just before the end of the year I received an email from the Million Dollar Round Table (MDRT) Foundation inviting Grace and me to help build a playground in China. The idea of joining an international crew of MDRT members on a project in the mainland China was right up our alley. So in January 2004 we boarded a plane to Beijing to build a playground. While we were there, we were privileged to spend time with some of the children who would enjoy the playground. All the while, I was haunted by the question, “Why aren’t these kids being adopted?” On the flight home I wanted to discuss the idea of adoption with Grace, but I was convinced she would never go for it.

Grace and I married at 18 and 19, which is, by the way, totally insane! Nevertheless, I have no regrets. A year after we married, Grace got pregnant but tragically our son died at birth. I really thought we would just try again later (much later), but Grace never conceived again. On three separate occasions we attempted to adopt only to have it fall through every time. The last occasion was particularly painful, and Grace told me, “I never want to do that again.”

Those words rang in my head for years.

It appeared to be our fate to be childless; however, it was unsettling. It was never my dream to be successful. My greatest dream was to be a dad, but it was not meant to be.  Or so I thought.

Mid-flight I turned to Grace and said, “Would you consider adopting one of those kids?” Shockingly, she said, “Yes, I would.” Turned out, deep down, she dreamed of being a mom as much as I dreamed of being a dad.

Once home, Grace and I discussed the idea of adopting not just one but two. Everyone tried to convince us otherwise. No one gets two at once from China, we were told. But we felt compelled to try for two, and as a result we did everything with the intention of adopting not one, but two little ones from China.

After about six months, with all the paperwork together, we submitted our documents to China. Now the waiting would begin.

At this point what I’m about to tell you makes no sense at all, unless you believe in miracles. Seven days — not seven years or seven months — but seven days after our documents went off to China, we received a call from our agency. “Mr. White, we just obtained our list of children to place, and at the top of the list are Fu Yayun and Fu Yaqiu, twin girls with a repaired facial cleft and unrepaired cleft palate. Since you are the only people we know of preapproved to adopt two children, you’ve gone from the bottom of our list to the top of the list, and they can be yours if you want them. Are you interested?”

Three months later we were in China adopting those two young ladies you read about earlier – our daughters, Reagan and Sydney White.

One of the greatest privileges of parenthood is being given the honor to name your children. In June of 2004 Grace and I had gone back to China to volunteer for a month at Shepherd’s Field where we built the playground. We simply could not get the work off our mind. While there, former U.S. President Ronald Reagan passed away. We learned that the only reason Americans could adopt Chinese kids was that President Reagan opened that door in the mid-80s. How great would it be to honor what the president did for Chinese orphans by naming our child after him?

Once we knew we were adopting sham bowtie, we needed a second name. Since our Australian friends played such an important role in their lives, we immediately thought we should honor the Aussies. Remarkably, the Hills were already calling one of the girls Sydney. We loved it. Sydney is our favorite place in Australia, and the thought of naming her Gympie, where Linda was from, was not happening.

That playground build was a watershed moment for us. It radically changed our lives…forever. It redirected our lives toward helping children half a world away from south Florida.

Remember how difficult it was to feed our girls because the orphanage did not have cleft bottles? Well, today virtually every orphanage has access to cleft bottles provided by LWB.

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I’m often asked, “Why China?”  I was taught to find a need, meet that need, and never assume that someone else is taking care of that need.

Common Chinese people have enormous challenges. Millions of Chinese people live on less than $100 per month. Most have no insurance. For many, abandonment seems like the only choice when a child has a birth defect. And while birth defects are skyrocketing in China, LWB is standing in the gap making a difference in the lives of babies and young people like Sydney and Reagan.

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Our family is complete, and my lifelong dream of being a dad has been fulfilled.

Yet recently I had an epiphany. I now know fatherhood, and being a dad, is not for me.  It’s for them – these two little darlings. I told you my greatest dream was to be a dad. But I dreamed it for me. It’s actually not for me. It’s for THEM.

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One night when the girls were very little we were looking at a globe, and the girls realized China was on the other side of the world from America. One of them said, “Dad, China is as far away from the U.S. as it gets.” I said, “You’re right, but that’s exactly how much your Daddy loves you, all the way to China and back.” And it stuck.

So now whenever I ask, “How much does Daddy love you?” they always say, “All the way to China…and back.”

~Don White, Chair, Love Without Boundaries Board of Directors

(Don White delivered this speech at the 2014 Annual Meeting of the Million Dollar Round Table this morning.  Love Without Boundaries is truly honored to be MDRT’s platform charity for 2014!)

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