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December 23, 2009

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'Special needs kids fabulous'

COME the holiday season, thoughts may stretch toward tinsel and merriment, but to some, the ultimate gift is one of a new home and a bright future.

When Carol Ann Tonne first saw her adopted daughter, Elizabeth, in a Nanchang, Jiangxi Province, orphanage, she was so tiny that when she embraced her, own arms squeezed a couple inches closer than she thought possible.

That was 11 years ago and Elizabeth was around 12 months old. It was past midnight and it was bitterly cold, but for Tonne, that was a small aside to a magical night: She didn't sleep, and spent the next hours instead treasuring the tiny creature that was to become her life.

This was the beginning of an ongoing love story - one between a mother and her child, and one between a woman and a cause.

Tonne, an American from Mountain View, California, is the executive director of International Adoption Resources (IAR), which, among other things, connects foreign couples with adoption options in Shanghai.

Tonne was single when she adopted Elizabeth. She is now married and has three other children. The family now lives in Shanghai.

Much of her dedication was born out of personal experience.

"After I had adopted Elizabeth, many couples came up to me and asked me how I did it," she says. "I felt like writing up a document to send to everybody, and it expanded to this."

She motions toward an information sheet that charts the many ways that individuals or families can engage in orphanage work in China. In addition to information about adoption, it also describes how donations work for orphanages, and how corporations and individuals can help particular programs.

For instance, China Young Professionals gives young orphans practical training to prepare them for work and post-orphanage life. Another program, China Interns, connects orphans with professional internships and provides work experience.

"It's not just adoption," she says. "It's about giving opportunities to them. Helping orphans does not stop at baby formula."

She has a particular feeling for special-needs orphans who often need the most help - the expenses of their treatment and care make it particularly hard to maintain facilities, and they are usually low on the adoption list.

Her daughter, Elizabeth, was a special-needs orphan. She had rickets, a curable condition marked by softening of the bones and curvature of the legs; it's caused by a vitamin D deficiency and usually malnutrition.

After adoption, Elizabeth got X-rayed, received medical treatment, did exercises and ate a nutritious diet. Today she is a vibrant and healthy 11-year-old.

"She's healthier than my other kids," says Tonne.

Many special-needs children, in fact, have conditions that are easily treated; many are due to malnutrition. She points to pictures of bright-eyed children at the Shanghai Huge Grace Disabled Children's Welfare Center. One toddler has a grin the size of an ocean. Another shows off her beloved hair extensions.

"People wait for the perfect kid," Tonne says, referring to the fact that most parents prefer a "healthy orphan."

"But these are some of the most fabulous kids in the world," she adds.

Tough regulations

Adoption, however, is not easy. In recent years, the regulations of the China Center for Adoption Affairs (CCAA), the single official adoption organization, have become more stringent and detailed.

Among many other things, they cover age (under 55); marriage (at least five years married, no more than two divorces); salary (combined annual income of US$80,000), appearance (no severe facial deformities or handicaps), health (BMI under 40, no serious psychological or medical problems).

The paperwork is extensive and the waiting time has also increased. Ten years ago the process might have taken nine months; today it can be as long as 10 years.

China has a reputation as a reliable adoption center and has a relatively clear adoption process. International organizations stepping in as mediators between couples and the official adoption center.

While the number has sharply dropped in recent years, China still has a very high adoption rate.

In 2007, for example, there were 5,453 American adoptions, the highest outside the United States, according to New York-based Adoptive Families magazine, an award-winning publication that compiles information and helps adoptive families. It is widely considered a good source of information, primarily for Americans.

The long wait has only reinforced the dedication of those who await their new children - and it seems that the end result makes any sacrifice, any anxiety, any challenges a thing of the past.

"There's nothing more powerful than the will to be a mother," says Tonne. "I just knew adoption was what I wanted to do."


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