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Ghosts of the Orphanage

Part: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

One Word Right

When Leah arrived in the Helgesen's home at almost four years of age, she was still missing many of the building blocks of learning: numbers, letters, and concepts like colors, or what's alive or dead. It took her much longer to master the alphabet than her peers. So when it came time for spelling tests in second grade, Becky remembers Leah was terrified.

Her parents and teacher came up with a goal for Leah: to get one word right on a spelling test. "And when Leah finally had a spelling test where she got one word right," remembers Becky, "we went out and celebrated, we got ice cream, we pinned it up on the bulletin board, we all did hoorays and danced around because she had achieved the goal we had set out." Now, Becky boasts that Leah is getting mostly A's and B's in her public junior high. But she works hard to attain those grades.

Her parents say they have to go upstairs and tell her to stop doing her homework at night and get some sleep. Leah has little to say about how hard she has to work, but her parents say it's been hard on her. "She's not stupid," says Becky. "She sees that other kids get all the words right." Becky says it takes Leah many more repetitions to learn the same material and she explains to her daughter that it's not fair, and it's not her fault, but that's just the way it is.

Neuroscientist Chuck Nelson at Harvard University is an expert on deprivation and the brain. He studies the effect of orphanage life on children in Romania. “Institutional life is characterized by the lack of stimulation. That’s the best way to think of deprivation – what you don’t get. And what you don’t get in an institution is language stimulation – playing games. So all those things that most parents in the U.S. take for granted, parents who talk and play and read to their babies, that just doesn’t exist,” Nelson says. “So if you’re exposed to the wrong experiences, or if you have no experiences, such as in deprivation then the brain gets mis-wired. The concern, from a neuroscience perspective, is that if its mis-wired early on for an extended period, it may be very difficult later on to rewire it.”

Heading for China as Lady Bountiful

Leah flies a kite in Tiananmen Square, Beijing." Photo: Courtesy the Helgesen family

As Leah entered adolescence, her parents anticipated she would once again have to wrestle with questions about her early life. They decided it would be a good time to bring her to China so she could learn more about her story.

"For some kids I might've said let's wait until they're a little older to take this trip," Becky says as they prepare for the trip. "But it's been very, very challenging for her. She spent so much energy in pushing her early life out of her head, and that was I think probably for her own emotional protection. But some of that stuff, she really needs to deal with. She, I think, knows she needs to deal with some of it."

Becky says they plan to visit Hong Kong, the Great Wall of China, and the orphanage where Leah lived.

"We're not going to make her deal with anything special," she says. "We're going to have a short visit at the orphanage, if she has a lot of difficulty then we'll take that into account. She is interested in seeing the children there, the ones who haven't been adopted." Becky smiles. "And she's very interested in arriving as Lady Bountiful and bringing presents."

Leah is busy packing in an upstairs bedroom. The futon on the floor is piled high with things the family wants to donate to her old orphanage. The Helgesens have made periodic donations to the orphanage when someone they know is going back. They've contributed to several air conditioners, for example. Now Leah shows off the presents she is amassing for the kids. Markers, stamps, puzzles and books. "Mom, I wanted to donate this bird book," says Leah. "Good" encourages her mother." "I haven't used it in three years" says Leah as she tosses it on the pile.

Leah confesses she's kind of scared about the trip. Silly fears like will they take her, back enter her mind. "I know my mom won't let them because I was here," Leah says. "There are like a thousand judges, saying I live here now." Then Leah voices some hope that perhaps she'll meet her birth mom. Behind her, three family members sadly shake their heads. Becky, Tom and Nate know it's very unlikely she'll ever know the mother who left her at the police station when she was one day old. But they hope to learn something on this trip.



Next: My Earth Mother