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Daughters of fortune

Naomi Havlen
Aspen Times Staff Writer

There are more than 20 little girls in the Roaring Fork Valley who were born thousands of miles away.

Natives of the People’s Republic of China, they were abandoned by their parents and put in orphanages. But the girls have found their way home to Aspen, Basalt, Carbondale and El Jebel through intercontinental adoption – a lengthy process that nevertheless is making many local families multicultural, one girl at a time.

“Having a child is such a wonderful addition to your life, no matter how the child becomes your child,” said Carlyle Kyzer, mother of 2-year-old Ashby. “But when you adopt a foreign child, you adopt a foreign culture. We want Ashby to be very proud of her culture and to know as much as she can about where she was born.”

China controls its exploding population by allowing most families to have only one child (or pay penalties to the government). In the country’s rural areas, especially, a substantial number of Chinese orphans are girls. Families want boys, who will grow up to take care of their aging parents, rather than girls, who will marry out of the family and take care of their in-laws.

In 1992 China opened its doors to international adoption, and, ever since, families in the United States have responded with requests. What used to be a somewhat vague adoption procedure has been reshaped over the past 11 years into a step-by-step process that involves paperwork sent to China, approval by social workers in the United States, and a wait until a child – infant or toddler – is selected for an American family.

Chinese Children Adoption International (CCAI), a Denver-based nonprofit organization that works to link abandoned babies and families, has handled the entire process for many families in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Local pioneers of overseas adoption

Aspen residents Bert Fingerhut and his wife, Caroline Hicks, were one of the first couples in the valley to adopt a daughter from China, in the mid-1990s, when the process was still a new one.

Hicks said she’s always felt a “strong spiritual tie” to Asia and after deciding to pursue adopting a child, she found Hand in Hand, an adoption agency based in Colorado Springs (and the precursor to CCAI).

The entire process for Fingerhut and Hicks took 10 months – a relatively short time by today’s standards. Their daughter, now named Hannah, was 6 months old when they met her.

“In the United States it can be very difficult to adopt a child if you’re over 30, and China has very healthy children since there are very little alcohol and drugs,” Hicks said. “Children from China who are adopted are very well-adjusted, both physically and mentally.”

Now 8 years old, Hannah is in the third grade at Aspen Country Day School. Her mother says she’s “conquering the world” – playing the violin and piano, and doing double jumps in her figure-skating class. Moreover, Hicks was in Aspen’s Cleaner Express when Hannah was young and met Mei Ying Li, a native of China whom she hired to tutor Hannah in writing and speaking Chinese and singing and dancing to traditional Chinese music.

“I think she would fit into a third-grade class in China, and it’s our dream to immerse her in China for three months or so,” Hicks said.

Hicks and Fingerhut paved the way for an entire generation of Chinese babies and toddlers in the valley.

Two families’ stories

Kyzer said she and her husband, Tom Baker, were interested in adopting a little girl, and through her own fascination with the developing world, she learned about CCAI. The couple also knew of several other families in the valley who had adopted girls from China with happy results, and so they embarked on the application process.

“There are so many hoops you have to go through – people who adopt children are required to take certain classes, so we’d go to Denver and take classes at the agency,” Kyzer said. “The paperwork is pretty massive. China’s adoption program has been going on for a while now, so it’s well institutionalized there, and you have to deal with the Chinese government.”

Kyzer said after filling out a stack of paperwork that filled a Federal Express box – not just an envelope – they first had to wait to find out if they were accepted and then wait again until they were matched with a baby girl.

“The Chinese are extremely careful about the process, so you know what to expect when you adopt a child from China,” Kyzer said. “But that’s a good thing – even the children placed for adoption had to go through a process themselves to make sure that no family of theirs can be found. They want to make sure any child in the adoption program is really and truly an adoptable child.”

After 18 months, from their first meeting with CCAI to their trip to China, Kyzer and Baker met their new baby, who was 11 months old.

Kyzer and Baker’s daughter, Ashby, was living with a foster family at the time, although living with a foster family is not typical for Chinese orphans. Kyzer said Ashby, whose Chinese name was Qi Chun Qi, was staying with an elderly couple that regularly cared for foster children from a local orphanage, Qi Chun. Orphanages often include their own name in the monikers they give youngsters who stay there.

“I have no evidence that she wasn’t well cared for,” Kyzer said of Ashby. “There are some challenges mostly in terms of medical care for the orphanages, but that’s attributed to the developing world conditions.”

One bonus to Ashby’s stay with a foster family is that Kyzer and Baker regularly exchange letters with the couple. Kyzer said a Chinese man in the valley, Xiang Dong Shi, who taught Chinese at Colorado Mountain College, translates the letters.

Although Kyzer and Baker traded their daughter’s Chinese name for a family name, they gave Ashby the middle name Mei-ling, which means “beautiful, bright and smart.” Once Ashby had been selected for them, they sent a gift box to her foster parents: a photo album with pictures, so Ashby could see her new parents, a blanket, a stuffed animal and disposable cameras.

“We also asked her foster family to take pictures of her, themselves, their home and the places she likes to visit,” Kyzer said.

Janelle and Boone Caudill embarked on the adoption process around the same time as Kyzer and Baker – although the Caudill family already had three biological sons.

“In the backs of our minds we always wanted a daughter,” Janelle Caudill said. “China is the only country that has more girls than boys in their orphanages, and we looked into it for five years. Our sons were all for it.”

Caudill said her family waited a year before they all made a trip to China to meet their new daughter and baby sister. They named her Elizabeth but kept the middle name Xue, part of her original Chinese name. Xue means “snow” in Chinese and indicates a girl that is lovely and well tempered.

“The waiting for our daughter was like a really long pregnancy without all the pain,” Caudill said. “A social worker interviewed all of our children to make sure this was the right thing for our family.”

The Caudill boys are now 15 (Luke), 13 (Jason) and 9 (Jamie), and Janelle laughs about suddenly having a child in the family who is still in diapers. But she says Elizabeth’s energy fits right in with their three sons.

“We’re a multicultural family now,” Caudill said. “She brings so much joy to our family. She’s the most delightful, happy girl I’ve ever seen.”

Building a multicultural legacy

The families with relatively young daughters from China say they’re ready to be straightforward with the girls about how they became part of their respective families.

“As soon as she’s old enough to understand she was adopted, we’re going to be very open with her,” Caudill said. Elizabeth was found as an infant near a gate in the city of Shao Yang, and Caudill said she considers that a sign that one of her parents cared enough about her to put her someplace where she’d be easily noticed.

“I feel like she was loved in China, but her parents didn’t have a choice about whether or not to keep her, because maybe they couldn’t afford a second child,” Caudill said. “But she has a place in our family now, and I want her to know that she’s very loved.”

Kyzer said she realizes that the Roaring Fork Valley can be a culturally isolated place for her daughter, but she feels the network of families with Chinese daughters creates a sense of support. Elizabeth Caudill and Ashby are “best friends,” said their parents. And the families gather to celebrate events like the Chinese New Year and Harvest Moon Festival.

Kyzer also keeps Ashby in touch with her roots through Chinese language tapes, videos and books, which she says her daughter loves. “She has gravitated to that on her own, and I hope she will continue to have a strong interest in China,” Kyzer said.

As for Hannah, Caroline Hicks says her daughter relishes her uniqueness and is proud of the heritage that differentiates her from her classmates. “I think she’s looked at as special, and kids think she’s really cool because when they celebrated Chinese New Year at school she could speak and write Chinese for them,” Hicks said. “They look up to her.”

While none of the families in the Roaring Fork Valley was able to choose a specific child, Kyzer believes an ancient Chinese saying explains how each family ends up with a daughter they were meant to have: “An invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle but will never break.”


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