ABC News’ Suzanne Yeo and Bianna Golodryga report:
Jenny Bowen may appear to be an ordinary person, but to many, she is anything but.
Bowen has devoted herself to reforming China’s orphanage system.
In her new book, “Wish You Happy Forever: What China’s Orphans Taught Me About Moving Mountains,” Bowen details her journey from part-time filmmaker to full-time crusader.
The story of her mid-life epiphany began with a newspaper headline in 1996.
“I was a screenwriter and an independent filmmaker. We were living a very comfortable life and one morning we saw an article in the New York Times and I learned for the first time about Chinese orphanages … and my husband and I said we have to do something,” Bowen said in an interview with “Good Morning America.”
Based on findings from a Human Rights Watch report, the New York Times article described that there was a pattern of neglect, abuse and starvation at state-run orphanages in China.
Bowen and her husband, Richard, already had two grown children of their own, but, a year after they read that article, they traveled more than 7,000 miles to China to adopt a 2-year-old girl whom they named Maya.
The Bowens soon realized that something was very wrong with their little girl.
“She was in really rough shape and emotionally just vacant,” Jenny Bowen said.
Becoming part of a loving family changed everything for Maya. A year later, the girl was playing in the garden, looking happy.
“I said to my husband ‘why can’t we do this for all of the children we can’t bring home?’” she recalled.
That’s when Bowen decided to reform China’s orphanages. She created the nonprofit, Half the Sky, to do just that. The name comes from a Chinese proverb that says women hold up half the sky. Since girls make up 95 percent of orphans in China, Bowen said she wanted to help them hold up their half of the sky.
But Bowen’s goals wouldn’t be easily achieved.
“I didn’t speak a word of Chinese. I’d only been to China once before. Everybody I told said ‘that’s impossible,’” she said.
Bowen was undeterred. She started out by contacting educators and child care experts, and gained the trust of Chinese officials, who allowed her into their orphanages.
“The first time I walked into an orphanage the children were … just vacant like my little girl,” she said, letting out a huge sigh as she recalled the conditions she found. “Children weren’t receiving enough nutrition. The hardest were the babies, rows and rows of babies, two and three to a crib. They were tied – tied to the rails. I just thought ‘What am I doing? What am I going to do?’”
She decided to take it step by step. She began with pilot programs in two institutions. Fourteen years later, Half the Sky has more than 50 centers in orphanages all over China. The children there are cuddled, educated and loved.
Through its approach to child development, nonprofit has helped more than 100,000 orphans in China. Its nurture-based model is now China’s national standard and focuses on developing a child’s sense of self, love and self-expression.
“What Half the Sky was able to develop is a really a comprehensive approach to helping hurt children feel loved and nurtured,” Bowen said.
The Bowens also adopted a second daughter, Anya.
Today, Maya, 18, and Anya, 16, are typical all-American teenagers, but they haven’t forgotten what they left behind.
Last year, Maya returned to the orphanage from which she was adopted — in Guangzhou — to volunteer. She says she owes her life to her adoptive parents.
“I think if my Mom and Dad hadn’t adopted me, I really wouldn’t have been alive. When I was in the orphanage, I’ve been told that I was really sick, and I didn’t have that much time to live actually. But it was because of my parents when they brought me back to the United States and got me care that I was able to push through that,” she said.
Maya also started a China Care club at her Berkeley high school. The club organizes play groups with adopted children from China and raises money for orphans’ surgeries.
Asked what she wanted people to take away from her book, Bowen replied: “That I’m a living testament to if there’s something in the world you’d like to see different, you have the power to make a difference. Everybody does.”