In July 2012, Holt adoptive parents Diane and Ken Matsuura took their family on the trip of a lifetime. In 18 days, they visited four provinces in China. They climbed the Great Wall and marveled at the storied Terracotta Warriors in northwestern Shaanxi province. Between sightseeing, they also visited six Holt programs — including foster care in Nanchang, family preservation in Nanning, and a special medical foster home called the “Peace House” in Beijing. Although sightseeing was amazing, the Matsuura family agreed: the opportunity to see how Holt serves children and families in China was the greatest sight of all.
by Robin Munro, Senior Writer
Seeing, as they say, is believing. To believe in Holt’s mission, all adoptive parents Diane and Ken Matsuura needed to see was a little baby girl swaddled in blankets, ready to meet her new family. That was 31 years ago. In the years since they adopted their daughter from Korea, the Matsuuras have become true champions for orphaned, abandoned and vulnerable children. They have donated substantially to support Holt’s programs in countries around the world. In 2002, they also began sponsoring children in Holt’s care. As their sponsored children joined adoptive families or reunited with their birth families, their support continuously flowed to another child and then another. Today, they support children in Korea, China, Vietnam and India.
But it wasn’t until 2006, on a trip to Cambodia and Vietnam, that the Matsuuras actually got to see firsthand how Holt uses their support to strengthen families and care for children overseas. Although they always believed in Holt’s cause, this just reinforced their dedication to serving children in need – and inspired them to do more. At an orphanage in Vietnam, they participated in a work project alongside local staff. On this trip, they also got to meet one of their sponsored children. “It was just a joy to meet that child,” Diane remembers. Eventually, this girl left sponsorship, once Holt could ensure for her – as for all sponsored children – a stable, loving home in which to grow and thrive.
Joining the Matsuuras on this journey to S.E. Asia were Holt board members Joe Matturro and Kim Hanson. This, they soon discovered, would serve another, yet unforeseen, purpose. “Kim and Joe introduced Ken to the work of the board on that trip,” says Diane. Inspired by what he saw, Ken joined Holt’s board of directors in 2008.
A Greater Understanding
Holt does our best to bring the work we do to life in stories in pictures. But often, nothing is more inspiring than witnessing firsthand how Holt’s programs can change the lives of orphaned, abandoned and vulnerable children. Diane and Ken Matsuura experienced that for the first time in Vietnam and Cambodia. In the years since, they have also traveled to Korea, the country of Holt’s founding, and two summers ago, to China.
Traveling with Jian Chen, Holt’s China program director, they visited the American Embassy in Guangzhou, where families finalize their adoptions. They visited the orphanage in Nanchang where, in 1999, Holt helped to create a special baby care unit where infants at risk of dying could receive medical care. While in Nanchang, they also met children living in Holt-supported foster care. At the end of their journey, they flew to Longchuan, a city in southwestern China’s Yunnan province where Holt helps support vulnerable children living with their extended family – often in dire poverty.
“Jian Chen introduced us to her hard-working staff in many settings, serving the needs of children and families in a variety of programs… We were inspired!” says Diane. So inspired that Ken and Diane decided to plan another trip to China, this time with their family. With the help of Holt’s China staff, they planned an itinerary that interspersed sightseeing opportunities with visits to Holt programs.
“Our goal,” Diane says, “was for our family to experience the Chinese people and culture through the lens of the work of Holt International.”
In 18 days, they would visit four provinces and six Holt programs – including foster care in Nanchang, family preservation in Nanning, and a special medical foster home called the “Peace House” in Beijing. They would climb the Great Wall and marvel at the storied Terracotta Warriors in northwestern Shaanxi province. Traveling on this once-in-a-lifetime journey was a family of 15, including Diane and Ken, three of their four children and their spouses, and all seven grandchildren, ages 17 mths-11.
As preparations began, Diane and Ken made a special request of each of their children and their families. “To build a connection to Holt even before embarking on the trip, we asked each family to prepare by assigning them a child in Nanning,” says Diane, referring to the children they would visit in the Nanning Family Preservation program – the second to last destination on their journey.
Holt started the Nanning program in 2009 to provide support for middle and high school students living in poverty. Over the years, rampant drug use and the spread of HIV/AIDS have heavily affected many families living in this mountainous region of southern China. Many children have lost one or both parents, causing the burden of care to fall on elderly grandparents or extended family members. Some children are left to fend entirely for themselves. In partnership with the local Bureau of Education, Holt helps to provide nutritional support, educational materials and tuition fees so the children can attend boarding schools in the area.
Holt arranged for the Matsuura family to meet three children in this program – one an 8-year-old boy who lives with his grandparents and great uncle, all over 70 years old; an 11-year-old boy whose mother is mentally ill and father is a poor farmer; and a girl, 7-years-old, who came to live with her grandparents after her father died and her mother remarried and left her.
“Holt gave us information on the children we would visit, their age, family situation,” says Diane. “Excitement grew as our grandchildren raised money by recycling, having a garage sale and doing extra chores to buy items they thought their child and siblings would appreciate.” With the money they earned, the Matsuuras’ grandchildren bought school supplies, T-shirts and small toys for each of the three children as well as their siblings.
While learning about the children they would visit helped to create a connection for the families, it also served another important purpose. “Our grandkids are young,” says Diane. The descriptions of the children in Nanning helped Diane and Ken explain to their grandchildren – before the trip – who the children are that Holt cares for in China, as well as what it means to be an “orphan” and to grow up without parents.
Upon arrival in Nanning, everyone was excited to finally meet the children and deliver the gifts they bought for them. “Actually meeting them was just a thrill!” says Diane. Initially, the children themselves seemed a bit shy and overwhelmed by the family of 15. Through an interpreter, the Matsuuras were able to communicate and put them at ease. One young woman – an older sister – seemed particularly eager to engage the visitors. “The older sister impressed us the most. She was 13 and very maternal,” says Diane. “She was looking at our oldest granddaughter and trying to relate with her. She would ask, ‘How old are you?’ and say, ‘Oh my Gosh, she’s 11! She’s younger than I am, but she’s taller than me!’”
Of all the programs they visited, the Nanning Family Preservation program made the deepest impression on the Matsuuras. They were shocked to see the dire poverty in which the families live, as well as the responsibilities placed on the children. “In other areas, the children were already well cared for in terms of a stable home environment. They had foster parents providing food, clothing, medical care, taking them to school,” Diane explains. “They were being cared for on a systemic, ongoing basis.” Because so many of them live with elderly grandparents who need help themselves, many of the children in Nanning learn self-reliance at an early age. “They are the ones who have to care for siblings, prepare the meals, go out and do the farming,” says Diane. “One raises ducks. They probably eat the ducks or he sells them. I think he’s 8 years old.”
After they left, Diane made a comment to her daughter about the 13-year-old sibling they met – about how mature she was, and what a great future she will have. “But then my daughter said, ‘Mom, no, she has to take care of her grandpa. She won’t be able to get out of that situation because she’ll have to make sure that her younger sisters are educated.’”
Holt strives to help the children in Nanning attain the skills they need for a better life, and many are excelling in school. “Holt’s support of these children enables them to have an education, something our children realized they take for granted,” says Diane. “The Holt children were proud to show us their certificates of accomplishment in school.”
With Holt’s assistance, the 13-year-old girl and her siblings have enough to eat and tuition for school. They also have the love of their grandparents, siblings and other family members to support them. But in many ways, Diane’s daughter is right: the challenges they face are monumental, and some children take on a greater burden than others.
Diane and Ken can relate. “Ken and I are third-generation immigrants,” Diane explains. “To help our parents, the older ones worked so the younger ones could have a better life.”
Despite their very poor surroundings, the children the Matsuuras met in Nanning seemed to approach life with a positive outlook. “These children are so resilient. They are very thankful for what they have,” says Diane. “And they’re happy.”
As for the Matsuuras’ own grandchildren, the visit to Nanning not only showed them why they work with Holt to help children in other countries. It also deepened their understanding of adoption – and how it helped to form their own family. “When we got home, our 6-year-old grandson said, ‘OK, so, Auntie Cindy was in Korea and didn’t have parents?’ And I said, ‘Yes, well, that’s right!’” Diane explains. “He’s known Aunt Cindy since he was born. The whole experience brought them to a greater understanding.”
In It Together
On this, their second to trip to China, the Matsuuras also returned to Nanchang – where they again visited the special baby care unit as well as some of the same foster families they met on their first trip two summers before. “It was nice to see them again and the development of the children in two years,” says Diane. “One mother said the boy had come with no language skills or bathroom capabilities and how hard she was working. In two years, she had really made some progress.” Many of the children in Holt’s foster care program in Nanchang have special needs that require extra training and support from foster parents. Diane was particularly impressed with the dedication the foster parents displayed toward the children in their care. “I tell you, these mothers and fathers, they just put in so much effort,” she says.
Before arriving, they also planned a special treat for children from Holt’s local family preservation and foster care programs. During their visit, the Matsuuras took over 40 children and their caregivers on a boat ride! This provided a great opportunity for the Matsuuras’ grandchildren to interact with the children in Holt programs. “They were playing with each other and motioning to each other,” says Diane. “It was very cute.” The Matsuuras were impressed by the attention the foster parents gave to each child, and the children’s ease in social settings also indicated to Diane the quality of their care: “They are very, very sociable. They want to relate to other people.”
The Matsuuras got the same impression of the children in care when they visited the Peace House – a special medical foster home for orphaned and abandoned children who come from all over China for medical care in Beijing. Here, they played with and held several babies recovering from cleft palate surgery. “These babies were also quite sociable. They allowed us to carry them. You could tell that their needs were met right away,” Diane says, and then with a laugh: “To have six babies in a good mood, that’s pretty rare!”
While in Nanchang, the Matsuuras volunteered to participate in a service project for Holt’s local group homes. Holt’s China staff started developing group homes in 2004 as a more nurturing alternative for older children and children with special needs. The group home program in Nanchang was Holt’s first. For the service project, the Matsuuras worked alongside the local families to decorate the interior walls of the homes. Although watching Holt foster families lovingly care for their children, holding babies at the Peace House and sharing smiles and laughter with the children in Nanning all helped bring to life the mission the Matsuuras have championed for decades, engaging in service alongside the families in Nanchang made it all the more real for everyone involved.
“When you actually are able to do something side-by-side with the children and caregivers, you’re more than observing,” says Diane. “You’re participating and giving them the sense that we’re in this together.”
A Sight Worth Seeing
Looking back, the Matsuura family loved traveling and sightseeing in China, but witnessing Holt’s work in action was, they say, the greatest sight they saw. “In each Holt experience, we felt the deep, passionate commitment of staff, foster parents, volunteers and everyone involved who care for these children 24-7 to offer a home and hope for a better future,” writes Diane. “While we gave them material things, they gave us a renewed appreciation for life and the realization that working together across the ocean can make a huge difference in the life of a child in need.”
“Our children and grandchildren agreed: sightseeing was awesome, but meeting the Holt children and families was a life-transforming experience.”
In April 2013, Holt will lead our first Vision Trip to China! Participants will have the opportunity to visit some of the same Holt programs the Matsuura family visited, as well as some they didn’t see. To learn more and sign up for the trip, click here.