How is it that one small child in a Chinese orphanage could impact the lives of so many others? As one community wrestled with common misconceptions born from a deep-rooted cultural stigma, the Feaster’s saw an opportunity to share their love with an amazing young boy who simply needed a nurturing environment—a family. This is the story of how one child helped shape the course of the world’s leading family preservation agency, Bethany Christian Services.
“Benjamin’s super-power is charisma,” said his adoptive father, Dennis Feaster. “There’s something about him that draws people in and challenges their assumptions about disabilities once they have the chance to experience Benjamin.”
Benjamin’s influence has rippled out from his neighborhood to his school to international circles, where top-level discussions are shaping the future of orphan care in China. But the people who have been the most radically transformed by this 9-year-old boy with Down syndrome are his adoptive parents, Dennis and Sarah.
In early 2004, with their 2-year-old daughter Emily in tow, the Feasters commenced the process of international adoption. Based on their lengthy experience working with people with developmental disabilities, the two social workers had decided to adopt a child with Down syndrome. “In looking through some of Bethany’s information, we saw Benjamin,” Dennis said. “He leaped off the page at us, and I thought, ‘There’s our son.’”
Late in 2004, the Feasters went to Hong Kong and returned with Benjamin. Hong Kong has a well-developed social agency network. But Dennis began to wonder, what if Benjamin had been born in mainland China, where conditions are much different? What would his life have been like there as a child with Down syndrome?
In addition to difficulties with attachment and emotional development, the severe neglect that is often experienced by children in institutional settings has been linked with adverse physical changes. Research has shown that the brains of children in orphanages literally shrink, resulting in cognitive deficits and behavioral issues.
China, like so many other countries, has poured its resources into developing orphanages. Late in 2009, Dennis, who has a PhD in social work and now works for Bethany, went to China to research if there was another, more beneficial approach to institutional care. “Kids get what they need in families,” Dennis insists. “Families are uniquely designed to provide children with the emotional and physical inputs, safety, protection, attachments, etc.—those things occur in families.
Bethany’s family- and community-based orphan care vies with the institutional approach in China. But “there’s some pretty amazing stuff happening. We’re hoping that the evidence we produce from this work will help to drive some of the discussion at the table.”
It all started with one small boy with Down syndrome. And ultimately it comes full circle, back to Benjamin and the family he has shaped in ways he does not fully understand.
“Adopting Benjamin has been the most phenomenal event that has ever happened in our lives. It has opened new worlds to us in so many different ways,” Dennis said. “Benjamin is a door or a gateway into something bigger, and I think a lot of people have travelled through that gateway. I see that as being God at work.”
The Feasters remarkable story is akin to the snowball rolling down the hill that keeps getting bigger and bigger. Strides continue to be made in China with regard to children with special needs, however, much work still needs to be done. This includes increasing education to eliminate centuries of misconceptions and building support networks for families of children with special needs.
Our snowball hasn’t made it totally down the hill just yet, but with support from programs such as Bethany’s Caring Connection, the momentum continues to grow. Caring Connection provides financial assistance to help cover the adoption costs for children with special needs and support families with post-adoption care and services.
For more information on Caring Connection and its impact on bringing children together with a family to love and protect them, I invite you to read this post on Bethany’s National blog -