Kay Bratt, Child Advocate and Author
As I sit outside my American home enjoying the many stars in the sky and comfortable summer night, I can’t help but feel as if the last five years in China was but a dream. Did I really become an insider to a place only few outsiders are allowed? Were those memories of holding unkempt but dear children in my arms real? I know my mind would like for me to forget the many small faces I knew, but my heart will never allow it. In my sleep, I pace up and down those familiar halls of the orphanage, calling out to the ghost-like children. They hover near but never close enough to touch. During my hours of unrest, I wonder what they are doing at that same moment and marvel that our lives are now like two different worlds. Do those left behind remember me or wonder why I haven’t returned? Or to them, am I just another person in their life to abandon them and move on?
For the four years my family lived in China as an expatriate family, I was a Meiguoren Mama (American mother) to many at the gueryuan (orphanage). Because the directors looked forward to what monetary gifts our team of foreigners could bring in for the facility, they allowed us into their midst for limited hours each day. For me, it was a chance to fulfill a dream I’d always had of working with children. My team of women from all over the world— in China for the same reason as I, to accompany their husbands during their international work projects— nurtured some who would not make it past their first year, or even their first month. I struggled to show by example the way a child should be cared for and silently pleaded with the staff to follow my lead. I bonded with many nannies and felt remorse for the resentment I felt towards them when they were only trying to do their job and make it through their not-so-lucky lives. It didn’t take me long to become smitten with children who were not mine, to desire for them the things I would want for my own; a future and a family who would love and protect them. In my tenure, many children found that home and went on to live with their forever families—but many did not and I was determined to make their lives as comfortable as possible in the circumstances that fate had dealt them.
How many times my sadness was bottled up inside me, only allowed to be released after I left the institution grounds, so I would not jeopardize my precarious position as a foreign volunteer. As my time there in the ancient but modernized city grew long, I came to realize many truths. I became educated on the harshness of reality in an orphanage. It started to make sense to me why the nannies strap the babies into their beds during the cold, winter months. I finally understood the lack of emotion they showed as they handled each child for a feeding or bath. I felt the desperation they felt at the heaviness of the poverty that surrounded them like cloaks.
I could empathize but still felt driven to make changes—and make changes we did. With the support of a few non-profit organizations, but mostly from concerned foreigners living in the Chinese city as expatriates, we were able to make many contributions to the care of the children. Gone was the row of beds that held fragile infants who were deemed no longer worth feeding. Gone was the pitiful rags used as diapers. Gone was the exhaustion of the nannies that were caring for too many bodies with too few hands. Gone was the feeling of oppression that had pervaded every corner of the over-crowded rooms of children. In time, I started to see small touches of affection some of the nannies demonstrated covertly. I learned there is hope in every circumstance. I learned never to judge someone until you have walked a mile in her shoes. What I ponder now is how many more institutes need a helping hand or an understanding nod. What will it take to convince them to grab the olive branch we are offering?
How does it happen that one tall, blonde American walks through the gate of a Chinese orphanage and integrates so smoothly that she is treated as one of the staff? How does she and her team work their way under the frustrating red tape to pull many children through the cloud of impending disaster? I never intended to write a book about my experiences. Before now, I only shared what I’d experienced with a chosen few. However, in time I came to believe that a first-hand account of what really goes on beyond those mysterious walls can only benefit the children—perhaps convince institutions to make changes. I call my story A Journey of Hope. In the dictionary, hope is described as such: A desire of some good, accompanied with an expectation of obtaining it, or a belief that it is obtainable. It is that definition of hope that kept me returning to the children year after year. I hoped that in the end, we could change the environment from one of institutional life to one of a loving children’s home. It is my wish that my story will bring inspiration and awareness to many people around the world, perhaps prompting them to contribute in some way to children in need.
Kay Bratt grew up in the Midwest as the child of a broken home and later, a survivor of abuse. Facing these obstacles in her own life instilled in Kay a passionate drive to fight for those that had been dealt an unfair hand. Upon arriving in China on an expatriate assignment with her husband in 2003, she was immediately drawn to the cause of China’s forgotten orphans. Moved beyond tears by the stories of these children, she promised to give them the voice they did not have. In 2008, she self-published her memoir Silent Tears: A Journey of Hope in a Chinese Orphanage to do just that. With the help of her readers, Kay continues to raise awareness and advocate for at-risk children. In China, she was honored with the 2006 Pride of the City award for her humanitarian work. She is the found of the Mifan Mommy Club, an online organization which provides rice for children in China’s orphanages, and is also an active volunteer for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for abused and neglected children. Kay currently resides in Georgia with her husband and daughter.