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A Mother on A Mission

back to December-January Issue
Rhema Thompson
The Brotherhood of the Traveling Tales Series

For the hundreds of spouses in Dalian that compose Intel’s burgeoning extended family, Kristen Balow’s story begins with a familiar plot line: A mother of two plucked from all the comforts of a sunny Southwest suburb and plopped in the middle a brave, new country, culture (and climate). Yet, Balow’s big move is only the preface in a far less typical chronicle of kindness…kindness that is uniting expats and locals alike in providing comfort to some of the city’s most precious newcomers.

“It seems like we arrived just yesterday yet have been here forever at the same time,” she reflects. It was, in fact, two years ago this winter that Balow and her Intel-employed husband Tony, landed on China’s blustery northeast peninsula, with their seven-year-old daughter and three-year-old son in tow—a corporate and cultural venture which Balow says she initially opposed.

“At that time, I did not want to move here at all,” she said. “My mom passed away four years ago…and I didn’t want to be that far away from my family…So when we were making the decision, I was really not on board.” Yet now, as we sit in the dining room of the large, westernized, two-story house she’s come to call home, she grins at the thought of her initial protests. “[My husband] laughs now over how many discussions and tears and fights we had about me not wanting to come,” she tells me. “I’m now the one pushing for us to extend our stay here as long as we can.”

A hint behind Balow’s change of heart can be found a few feet a way from us, where a wooden shelf stands stocked with large plastic trucks, stuffed animals and Fisher-Price toys. Her own two children—now, nine and five—have outgrown most of them. But Balow’s reason for keeping them around isn’t nostalgic.

Two or three times a week, she packs these toys and others in a giant plastic bin and heads out the door. Just outside her home, a road winds through the gated expat community of tranquil Spanish-style villas and leads to an entrance where two bronze lampposts stand on either side surrounded by three cheerful, plump bronze babies. From the entrance gate, Balow heads downtown with her trunk full of toys to greet another set of very special babies at Dalian Children’s Orphanage. She has been doing so for over a year now and inspiring others to come along for the ride.

It all began with a simple fieldtrip back in February of 2009. The newly acclimated stay-at-home-mom had busied herself with volunteering at the Dalian American International School where both her children attended. One day while at the school, she came across an opportunity to join teachers on a special visit to see and hold the babies at the orphanage. “I just happened to hear about it in the school halls one day when I was volunteering and I asked if I could join,” she said. “I just sort of walked in the right place at the right time.”

The visit was arranged by local philanthropist Fairy O’Neil who, along with her husband Patrick, heads the Blue Phoenix Charity. The non-profit organization was created by the couple to help disadvantaged children and their families throughout the area, and has managed projects ranging from orphanage visits to assisting poor families in setting up sustainable businesses.

That day, Balow and a busload of about 25 teachers made their way to the cheerfully, bright nursery rooms of the unusually somber tikes—most of whom had never encountered the faces of foreigners nor the feel of a loving embrace in their very short years—or months—of life. “When we first went, [the babies] were scared of us” she recalls. “They didn’t know what to do. We would put toys out in front of them and they would just sit and look at them…their curiosity, their joy was just not there.”

For Balow, the day spent with the two dozen little ones—many of whom suffered from mild to severe developmental delay—was a mix of heartbreak and joy, and one that would preoccupy her mind for the next year. “I thought, ‘Great, this is exactly what I want to do with my time,’” she said. However, Balow soon learned that getting permission to do so as a foreigner would require a great deal of her time and patience as she and her husband navigated through a slow and lengthy clearance process.

“We didn’t know if or when it was ever going to go through,” she said. In fact, it would be a full year before it did go through and she could once again coddle and cuddle the orphanage’s pint-sized inhabitants. Yet now, two years after her first visit, her eagerness to improve their lives has only intensified. Laid-back and friendly, the intensity Balow harbors is not visible in her expressions. As she talks, her blue eyes retain an unchanging soft but serious gaze, complemented by a few subtle smiles. The gentle yet straightforward manner in which she speaks contains little inflection. Her passion is instead found in the vivid detail in which she recounts the progress, personalities and small successes of the tiny tots she has come to know so well.

“One little boy has been there for almost 3 months,” she recalls. “He did not grow up in the orphanage. He came as a 2 ½ year old, so he clearly remembered his mother and he clearly was very sad and very forlorn and very depressed. He didn’t want to interact, he didn’t smile and we finally got a smile out of him and a laugh the other day….One of the nurses realized it and she was beaming too.” To watch Balow in action with the tiny tots—who’ve gradually transformed from passive spectators to enthusiastic playmates—is to watch a mother in her element. The former teacher-turned-homemaker possesses the patient yet no-nonsense demeanor of a person well aware of the unexpected and sometimes unpleasant dealings that a room full of young ones can bring, as well its rewards. Armed with a Tupperware box of Cheerios, a bin full of donated toys, and a heart full of compassion, she goes to work hugging, playing, chasing and showing them that they are loved.

It’s a compassion that has morphed into a contagious passion affecting others throughout the community. Volunteering at the orphanage which initially only occurred a few times a week with a hand full of expats has now evolved into a full-fledge daily effort involving 50-60 Blue Phoenix badge-holders who take on various visiting and fundraising duties. While Balow is quick to credit O’Neil and her Blue Phoenix Charity with inspiring her avid involvement in the Children’s Orphanage, O’ Neil says it is Balow who has been instrumental in drawing more community involvement, which in turn, has bettered the lives of orphanage’s little ones. “She’s why we have so many people now going to the orphanage,” O’Neil said. “When we do this [visiting] constantly, it’s a great help to the kids…every time I go to the orphanage, I can see the kids changing. They’re happier.”

However, Balow’s efforts do not stop with orphanage visits. This summer she began working with Blue Phoenix toward fundraising efforts to provide the orphanage with more sustainable resources and money for the children’s medical needs. Balow said they also hope to provide the orphanage’s administration with more training assistance for its caregivers. “A goal we have is a program called Half the Sky, which is an international program created by American parents of adopted Chinese children,” she explains. “We are working with the administration to meet some of their immediate needs…training and education for caregivers, possible resources for more staffing… and an infant nurturing program.”

Now, as Balow’s hopes and dreams for the young lives of those in the Children’s Orphanage continue to grow, so do her fundraising plans. Her largest endeavor yet has been organizing a city-wide Holiday Bazaar, the first of its kind in Dalian. The event, which took place November 27, was sponsored by the Blue Phoenix Charity and the American Chamber of Commerce and comprised over 30 vendors and more than 100 volunteers, both local and foreign. Fellow Intel wife and mother of two Brianna Smith was among the volunteers on the planning committee for the Bazaar. She said it was Balow’s zeal that inspired her to get involved. “Her passion just infected me…how much she really cares,” Smith said. “How she’s really just doing everything she can to help those babies.”

During one of the preliminary meetings for the event, Balow joked, as she stood in front of the handful of volunteers present, that she didn’t know how she’d ended up in charge of such a huge undertaking. “I just got into this to hold babies,” she said with a sheepish grin and smile. Now, months later as she sits recounting all the planning, volunteer training, paperwork, and meetings with foreign dignitaries that has turned her acts of kindness into a full-time job, I remind her of this remark. She chuckles with a weary nod and quips “I’m making it up as I go along.”

Whether Balow’s efforts have been a matter of improvisation or strategic genius, she says she has been blown away by the community’s response to her call for action. “The response we’ve gotten has been so positive…and that’s throughout the international community as well as the local community,” she said. Likewise, O’Neil said she has been moved by the community’s willingness to rally behind Balow’s cause. “This is amazing,” she said. “She’s amazing…I hoped but I didn’t think there would be so many expats that would get involved. I think Kristen did a lot.” As of now, Balow and her family are currently scheduled to remain in Dalian until January 2012. During the next year, she said she will be focusing her efforts on building a local community base of support for the orphanage.

However, don’t expect country borders to keep Balow from continuing her cause. She said she plans to look for even more opportunities to help children in similar situations once she returns to the states. It’s a mission that has surpassed cultural lines and gone to the basic needs of the human heart. “In every institution, no matter what country, the needs always outweigh the resources,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a giant new program or a complex new program, just hands on care and love and attention to the children can make all the difference.”

For more information on ways you can help the Blue Phoenix Charity and The Dalian Children’s Orphanage, please contact Kristen at kbal2@yahoo.com or visit the Blue Phoenix website at Blue Phoenix Charity website


Read other articles from these series:
A Lifetime to the Ends of the Earth and Back Again, October-November 2011 Issue