2016-06-30
When Cindy Champnella brought her adopted daughter home from China, she soon discovered how upset Jaclyn was about someone she'd left behind at the orphanage. Jaclyn had treated two-year-old Xiao Xiao as her "baby," and once she was no longer there to take care of him herself, the little girl was determined to help him get adopted too. Champnella tells this heartwarming story in "The Waiting Child." She spoke recently with Beliefnet's Wendy Schuman.

How old was Jaclyn when you adopted her?
She was four years old when we first got her. That first meeting was dramatically different from what we thought it was going to be. When it came time to put her in the car, she just planted her feet and screamed. We were prepared for her to be frightened, but what we didn't understand was the true source of her distress, that she was leaving behind this child who she believed was her baby.

She had nicknamed him "Xiao Xiao," which means "very little"-and he was definitely very little.

How did you find out about her baby?
The first couple of days she was in shock. She literally didn't speak. But on that third day when the shock began to fade and she found her voice again, that's when she told us she had a baby.

How did you understand what she was saying?
We were still in China, we had a guide [who translated], and you can imagine the surprise when a four-year-old tells you something like that .it was hard to believe there was a world where children mothered other children. But from the very beginning her words rang with such truth.

Jaclyn visits Xiao Xiao at the orphanage in China
She told us all these anecdotes about Xiao Xiao and another little one she took care of. She described in quite a bit of detail getting them up in the morning and dressing and feeding them. But I think even then she was most proud of the emotional support she provided-she comforted them when they cried. She held that little boy's hand in the dark when he was sad. That's what floored me-here she was herself without a mother but she knew how to give selfless mother love to another child.

How did you communicate with her once you got back to the U.S.?
It was the thing I worried about the most, but it was actually the smallest of all the problems we had. She realized from the very beginning that we didn't understand her. So we pantomimed things with her, and she'd point. Within six weeks she could convey pretty complex thoughts and almost complete sentences. When I had her 6 weeks she crawled in bed with me one morning and said, "Jaclyn has two mamas." And my heart just stopped, and I said yes. It was the first inkling that she had some memory of her birth family. She said, "Jaclyn has one go-away mama and one this-a mama." And she pointed to me and said "I no want go-away mama, I want this-a mama." And I said "Oh Jaclyn, I'm so glad because I want you too." Then she said, "Jaclyn scared." And I said, "What are you scared of?" And she said "I scared this-a mama go away."

When did she started talking about Xiao Xiao?
She talked of him constantly-if you understand love to be a state where you can't be happy unless the person that you love is happy, this was literally how she lived her life. All of her joys were somewhat diminished because he wasn't there to partake of them. Like the first time I took her to McDonald's-she was so excited that here in America you not only got food, you got a little toy. And every time I took her after that I noticed she would take the toy out of the bag and hide it in this little suitcase in her closet. Finally I asked her what she was doing, and she said, "Xiao Xiao never got a little toy." She was saving all the toys for when she saw him again.

When his birthday came around she just sat on the floor and sobbed because now she knew what it was like to have a cake with your name on it and presents and streamers and balloons and a celebration of your life. And she knew he didn't have any of those things.

When did she start her campaign to get him adopted?
Immediately. The third day that we had her when she found her voice again-it was on that day that she first asked for help in finding a mama for him. What I didn't know then was that it would continue every day after that. Jaclyn asked every adult person that she knew every day to help her bring her baby here. She always believed it would happen, and for her it was a matter of when.

Of course being a child she didn't understand how difficult what she was asking was.

The Chinese do not permit what they call identified adoptions for one particular child out of a paperwork system of 200,000 children to be adopted. In addition, he was going on three years old, a boy, and frail-looking.[not categories considered adoptable]. And there were also big obstacles on the U.S. side of things. So I never seriously thought of attempting it.

Jaclyn believed that the obstacle in bringing him here was the logistics, that we didn't have enough room in our house. Which partially was true, we have a little condo .so she'd say things like, he could sit on her lap at meals. And one day she showed me her bed and said "He's so small he could slip right in at the end of the bed, he wouldn't even need his own bed." She never gave up.

Living with her was like living with a very short mother who had had her baby literally wrenched from her arms.

What role did religious faith and prayer play in the story and in Jaclyn's life?
I always pray with my kids before they go to bed. One night after she'd been here about three months, to my surprise she began to pray. Her first prayer to God was for Xiao Xiao, and she continued to pray for him every single night. She never asked God for anything for herself, but she'd ask God to bring him pajamas so he wouldn't be cold at night. Or to help him not to be afraid of the dark. And she always, always begged God to help her bring him a mama.

Listening to her prayers, how it literally just ripped a hole in our hearts, I couldn't even imagine how God could stand to listen to those prayers. And that's what started this whole story. I'd come downstairs after I'd put her to bed and I'd just be wracked with sobs because I tried so hard not to cry in front of her. I had no one to share it with. And I started emailing a small group of family and friends, like a journal every couple of days, saying here's what's going on with Jaclyn and the little boy. Unbeknownst to me, those emails started to be forwarded to other people, and in a couple of months I got letters from all over the United States and the world, people of all different faiths, saying we're all praying for Jaclyn's baby. It taught me something huge about the power of prayer-it explodes. And the prayers of those people finally led us to the influential people we needed to make this happen.

What transpired for you to bring him back in spite of the difficulties?
Her story got told to people who were in authority in China and the U.S. These high-level officials were willing to bend the rules and intercede on her behalf. It's easy to believe in the times we live in that divisions are so huge between us and other countries, and that evil has prominence in this world. The thing that really unites us is our love for these kids. The things that we have in common are so much bigger than the things that divide us.

One of the most surprising parts of the book for me was learning that it wasn't you who adopted Jaclyn's baby but your sister. Was that a hard decision?
That was very hard, because we had finally gotten to a point where we just loved this little boy. Even though all of the logical reasons were there to say this wasn't the thing we should do-we certainly didn't have the resources, we already had six children-now he felt like a part of our family. The amazing thing was that when we called the facilitator who had pulled all kinds of extraordinary strings to bring Jaclyn to us to ask her for assistance, about two hours later this woman called back to say my sister had called the adoption agency on the same day and said the exact same thing-they had fallen in love with this little boy [through Jaclyn], and they had decided to adopt him. So we had to kind of work it out between the two families. Really it was best for him to go to my sister and her husband. And because we loved him, we wanted him to be in the best family possible for him.

What's their relationship like now. Are they more like brother and sister or cousins, rather than mother and baby?
Jaclyn and I went with my sister and her husband to China to get Lee [as we now call him]. When he went off with his parents, I said, "Jaclyn, are you happy now?" She said yes. Then she thought about it for a little while and her chin started to quiver, and she sobbed so hard. It's like being flooded with the relief to know he was safe, he was OK, he had a mama, he was with her now. That moment was very freeing to her. From that time on-it was like she was free to be a child. It was really transforming for her. She didn't need to be his mom anymore.

When they're together now, they have a very special bond, a special closeness. Occasionally I'll have to stop her because she'll have him pinned behind the couch kissing him. He's like-Come on, get off me! He's a real little boy.

Jaclyn and Xiao Xiao at home in the U.S.
Jaclyn told me that when she lived in the orphanage she had never seen him smile, not once. He was the most pitiful little waif when I first met him. You can't stop this kid from smiling now, he is happy, and healthy and loving and bright. He's in kindergarten and he's just a dynamo.

What has Jaclyn's persistence taught you?
I'm just struck by the power that each of us have to change a life. Jaclyn came here, she was four years old, she couldn't read, write, or speak English, she didn't know anyone, she didn't have any connections, but she succeeded in doing something that's incredibly difficult to do.

And the hopefulness she had. Here was a little girl who had been left in the woods to die when she was 2 ½ years old, who had been hungry, cold institutionalized, neglected, who had had every reason to believe that this world is a bad place and that people would disappoint you. But she doesn't-she is joyful and she's radiant. That she survived all she did with her heart intact is one of the true miracles I've seen in this life.

Has the SARS epidemic caused a hiatus in Chinese adoption?
International adoption has not dropped one iota over the SARS incidence. Parents will go there to get their kids just as we did [during a travel advisory in 1999] because they know their kids are waiting. Many of these children are in situations where they need to get into families quickly. Adoptive parents are amazingly committed to these children. I know so many everyday heroes who are so willing to open their hearts and to travel at their own risk to bring these children here.


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