U.S. Woman to Carry Olympic Torch in China

Bowen hopes that run will help draw attention to plight of orphans in China.

February 19, 2009, 12:47 AM

BEIJING, Nov. 12, 2007 — -- Jenny Bowen, an American living in Beijing, has been selected as the only American to carry the 2008 Beijing Olympic torch on Chinese soil next year. She and seven other non-Chinese winners were chosen from a pool of 262 applicants from 47 countries in a contest organized by Chinese computer maker Lenovo Group and the official English-language newspaper, China Daily.

When Bowen runs with the Olympic torch next year, she will not only be representing the United States. She will also be representing thousands of Chinese orphans.

Bowen, a mother of two adopted Chinese daughters, is executive director of Half the Sky Foundation, an organization that aims to enrich the lives and enhance the prospects for orphaned children in China. Half the Sky operates infant and preschool nurturing educational programs for Chinese children from birth onward.

In 1997, Jenny and Richard Bowen adopted their first daughter, Maya, a toddler from a welfare institution in southern China.

"She came to us with almost all of the ill effects of institutionalization," said Bowen. "She was devoid of emotion. For new parents, it was pretty scary."

Maya had suffered from both physical and cognitive developmental delays.

"So we did what parents do instinctively. We held her constantly, played with her, talked to her, sang to her. She never left my lap for almost a year. We just loved her up and made her know that somebody cared about her," said Bowen.

After a year of individual attention and love, their daughter was transformed.

"Almost exactly a year later…I looked out my kitchen window. There was our 3 year-old who looked perfectly normal, romping around with her friends…completely full of joy.

"I realized that a miracle had happened to this little girl. She was a totally different person than she was a year ago."

Bowen believes that this individual love, care and attention was what her daughter needed -- and that all children need this, especially orphans. "It was really simple," she said. "I thought why can't we do this for all the children we can't bring home [from China]?"

After she adopted Maya, Bowen set out to see how she could help the other orphans. "I thought it would be a weekend project where I would reach out and see if there was a way we could help set up some programs for children in China," Bowen recounted.

In 1998, Bowen established the Half the Sky Foundation, which is named after the Confucian adage popularized by Mao Zedong that "women hold up half the sky." Ninety-five percent of the healthy children living in China's orphanages are girls.

Nearly 10 years later, Bowen and Half the Sky have touched the lives of over 13,000 children in 13 provinces. Unlike most foreign-run orphanage organizations in China, Half the Sky only works with the Chinese government to build centers within welfare institutions.

Half the Sky is present in 36 welfare institutions in 28 Chinese cities. Approximately 4,000 children are active in the program, which provides trained staff, educational tools, medical support and nurturing love to orphans.

This year, the foundation began establishing a permanent foster family program and guidance for children with disabilities, an unprecedented development within the Chinese government welfare system.

Next year, Half the Sky will reach even more children -- Bowen's organization and the government recently struck a deal to build at least one Half the Sky center in every province in China over the next five years.

"Our programs [grow] out of a fundamental understanding that what every child needs to develop normally is loving care and individual attention," Bowen explained. "All programs are designed to replace or feel like a family environment."

"Our mission has always been that every single child should have a loving adult in their life, and that's what we're trying to do."

Bowen hopes that running with the Olympic torch next year will help draw attention to the children in China. She will be among 19,400 runners who will carry the flame along an 85,000-mile, 130-day route across five continents. Beijing organizers say it will be the longest torch relay in Olympic history.

Bowen hopes to run with eight Half the Sky children, who are 8 years old and from eight different provinces. In China, eight is a lucky number that symbolizes fortune, wealth and happiness.

But even if Bowen is not allowed to run with the children next year, "I will definitely be running for them," she said.

Like Bowen, the seven other non-Chinese winners, who include a German engineer and a Venezuelan graphic designer, live in China. Other countries represented will be the Philippines, Colombia, India, Japan and Russia.

According to Olympic organizers, candidates were selected based on an online vote, committee selection, their "love of Chinese culture and history" and devotion to "[communicating] information of a real China to their native countries."

Each runner will carry the torch for 200 meters on Chinese soil.

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