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As stories go, the tale of how a desperately ill, nameless baby from China turned into Bella Xin KaLare Strickland of West Monroe, Louisiana, is an extraordinary one. Three short years ago, a friend and I found the newborn, swaddled in several layers of clothing and abandoned in a Shanghai alleyway. Since then, her story has morphed from communist tragedy to Christian fairy tale: one minute an orphan screaming in a cold, dark street; three years later a stroppy toddler, living a charmed life in sunny Louisiana.
Baby Bella made her debut in this magazine in 2011, under a different name, “Baby Donuts”, given for the Dunkin’ Donuts outlet where her birth parents chose to leave her in December 2010. She was about six weeks old. More than 110,000 children born in China have been adopted by families overseas in the past two decades. But Bella has the dubious distinction of being the only Chinese baby yet abandoned at the feet of an FT journalist.
A friend and I found her one night, only steps from one of Shanghai’s top hotels. She was lying on top of two plastic bags that bulged with new baby clothes, tins of infant formula, packs of newborn nappies and scrubbed-clean baby bottles: the only love note a mother could dare to leave, for a child she would never know.
The fact that her parents chose to leave her at a place frequented by foreigners may mean they wanted her to end up living overseas. Or maybe they didn’t. Maybe they wanted a healthy baby, if they were only going to have one child. (China has since slightly relaxed its one-child policy but babies are still being abandoned.) Bella has a number of disabilities, including a congenital heart defect, blindness in both eyes from cataracts and a partially webbed foot. Perhaps her parents simply couldn’t cope.
In lots of ways, theirs was an entirely rational decision: in China, many families have only minimal health insurance, and the cost of all the surgery Baby Donuts needed (along with the bribes paid to doctors) could have bankrupted even a family of substantial means. Abandoning her meant that she would become a ward of the state, which would at least pay to keep her alive. China says it has about 700,000 “orphans” (meaning children whose parents can’t care for them). About 100,000 live in state institutions but most of the rest collect a government subsidy.
What seems less rational is why LaKasha and Jeremy Strickland, living on a shoestring in a town 12,000km away, felt able, not to mention willing, to do for Baby Donuts what her birth family could not. Even their US adoption agency, through which they first heard about Bella, warned them off, saying the baby had “too many red flags”. When they started the adoption process in July 2012, the couple had just $100 in savings. Jeremy had been medically retired from the US Air Force for chronic headaches and LaKasha had just left her job to become more involved with her church. Adopting a child with serious medical needs wasn’t the obvious next move.
But the Stricklands are clear about why they did it: among other things, because God wanted them to. “God put adoption in our hearts,” LaKasha says. “God stirred our hearts and we started searching.” And they didn’t just make a decision, they mounted a crusade. It can cost upwards of $30,000 to adopt a special needs child from China, including paperwork, translations and travel costs. Raising such a child, even in the promised land of Obamacare, will doubtless cost considerably more (in spite of Jeremy’s excellent medical insurance as an ex-serviceman).
Undeterred, the Stricklands launched a “Bring Baby Bella to America” campaign in October 2012, enlisting family, friends, members of their church and even the Bible to fundraise. They set up a tent in the parking lot of the local Walmart to sell T-shirts emblazoned with these words from James 1:27: “Pure and lasting religion in the sight of God our Father is to care for orphans in their troubles.” They sold 260 plates of “chicken cheesy spaghetti” at a church lunch, raising $2,500. They even stood at traffic lights with a bucket and a poster of Bella, collecting dollar bills.
LaKasha says she was shocked when Jeremy came up with the idea of panhandling to raise money for Bella. But their experience at the traffic lights yielded both cash and encouragement, as she shares on her blog “Adoption from God’s Pocket”. “It was so hard at first, feeling silly and prideful,” she writes. “But after a little wait a few cars started pulling in and asking about her and putting dollars in our bucket. We got to share about her and about God’s love and plan for her life,” she says, adding: “This was ministry!! He has given us a way to talk to strangers about Him and what He has done and will continue to do. There’s nothing easier to talk about than a child in need.”
And then there was the miracle of the $3,110 bank deposit: the Stricklands have never figured out exactly where it came from, but they do know that $3,110 was exactly what they needed to pay for the “home study” by social workers, which is a prerequisite of any adoption from China. And there was the former sister-in-law who borrowed $4,000 to help them, and the bank employee who cleared the way, unexpectedly, for the Stricklands to refinance their home.
While they raised money, Bella was still living at the Shanghai orphanage under the name Jiang Xinqian. The Stricklands decided that her American name was to be Bella KaLare (pronounced “Claire”). “I talked to God a lot that day about if I was making the right choice,” LaKasha writes on her blog. “He showed me that her name was beauty and clarity and I knew he was happy with it: beauty, with her imperfections, and clarity, within her mind without delays.” Later on the Stricklands added “Xin” to honour her Chinese roots.
Bella became a member of the family long before she got to Louisiana. On her second birthday (which she spent in the orphanage), the Stricklands posed for a family portrait, each clutching a donut, to symbolise their bond with the baby. Their Christmas photo that year shows LaKasha, Jeremy, their son Peyton and a framed portrait of Bella. LaKasha even dyed her hair black before they flew to Shanghai, so that Bella would not be too shocked at her appearance (in China nearly everyone’s hair is jet black, including septuagenarians).
Of course, any parent who adopts from China has to demonstrate great commitment. The process is lengthy, costly and – when the vast majority of Chinese children available for adoption are disabled – requires a level of selflessness not many of us can muster. Mainlanders mostly refuse to adopt disabled children, and even overseas it is hard to find enough parents for the children who need them. Many non-Chinese who adopt special needs babies have strong religious beliefs and see these children as being especially worthy of Christian charity.
In spite of limited financial means, stretched further by repeated adoptions, they remortgage homes, sell chicken cheesy spaghetti, T-shirts – anything to make the adoption happen.
I adopted my own two (healthy) Chinese daughters as infants in 2000 and 2002 using the money I had saved during a lifetime of working. But whether we beg, borrow or finance our adoptions from our trust fund, most adoptive parents go through the same agonising moment when an orphanage nanny hands us our child – and they shriek in outrage. Bella, then two-and-a-half years old, went one better: she tried to escape. The abject misery in her face at the handover to the Stricklands in May 2013 is captured in a video LaKasha posted on YouTube entitled “Gotcha Day/Bella Xin KaLare.” The fairy-tale ending got off to a very rough start.
But by the time I joined the family 48 hours later, Bella had already begun to blossom. I remembered a beautiful newborn in a blanket: what I saw two years later was a determined, winsome and mischievous toddler, tripping off on her little spindly legs – which looked like they hadn’t much experience of the world of walking – to explore her surroundings.
LaKasha, Jeremy and Peyton were all besotted with her already, pointing out the cataracts in her eyes and the webbing of her toes like other parents might brag about dimples, and inviting me to feel the prow-like protrusion of her ribcage left after her heart defect had its initial repair. And what about the prominent bruise in the middle of one cheek? “The orphanage said they weren’t sure how that happened,” says LaKasha. Orphanage staff had told the Stricklands that Bella was “very strong-willed” – perhaps heartening for an adoptive parent to hear, since strong will may be just what got her through that night in the alleyway, and the many illnesses of her infanthood.
Later we took Bella to the Dunkin’ Donuts where our story began, in the company of my friend John Fearon, the British businessman who first heard her abandoned cries. Not surprisingly, she couldn’t have cared less (especially since the donut shop had closed). But we adults all spent a moment feeling the tragic miracle that is every Chinese adoption – and the pain of birth parents who cannot keep their child – before we set off to McDonald’s to feed Bella her first all-American French fries.
Bella is now “settling in beautifully” to her new life. “She is constantly competing with her brother. If he talks she talks louder. She is so smart: she loves to count and sing and say her prayers all by herself,” LaKasha says, adding that the night terrors of Bella’s first months at home are beginning to abate: “She has a lot of anger in that little body.”
LaKasha hopes Bella’s birth parents may one day read these words, and know they can find their baby living happily in Louisiana. But unless and until they do, no one need worry about Baby Donuts. She’s just where she needs to be. Hallelujah.
Patti Waldmeir is the FT’s Shanghai correspondent. With additional reporting by Zhang Yan