Taking care of a single child is an enormous responsibility; Jane Aronson has made it her life’s work to care for thousands of children around the world. Born in Jamaica, Queens, Aronson worked as a teacher to inner-city children with special needs before realizing her dream, in 1982, of going to medical school to become a pediatrician. She specialized in pediatric infectious diseases and in the 90s went on medical missions to orphanages in Russia and Romania. Witnessing the horrific conditions there, Aronson envisioned a kind of “orphan Peace Corps” in which college students – Orphan Rangers – would live and work in orphanages, provide the children with desperately needed attention and study their medical progress. In 1997, Aronson founded Worldwide Orphans Foundation (WWO), which is dedicated to enriching the lives of vulnerable children through early intervention, healthcare and HIV/AIDS treatment, education, global arts and recreational programs that nurture self-esteem.
In addition to students, WWO now sends doctors, athletes, artists and local “grannies” or retired professionals to improve the physical and mental health and development of the children and to provide the individual attention they need. WWO programs are currently in Vietnam, Ethiopia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Haiti, with chapters also in Australia and Canada. The organization has an operating budget of more than $4 million, and is supported by such celebrities as Hugh and Deborra-lee Jackman, Mary-Louise Parker, Heidi Klum and Seal. Aronson is a world-renowned adoption-medicine specialist and clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University and Columbia University. Through her private practice in New York City – International Pediatric Health Services (IPH) – she has helped evaluate more than 10,000 adopted children.
In a recent speech you mentioned the need for “a moment of responsibility.” What did you mean?
Orphaned children are victims of adult decisions that come about because of desperation, extreme poverty and war, along with natural disasters and disease. All of us must take a moment of responsibility for the millions of children, living without parental care, who will not have what is their birthright: a good education, excellent medical health and an opportunity to have dreams that lead to success and happiness.
What inspired you to devote your life to helping children?
Growing up, I felt inferior – that I wasn’t smart enough, that I couldn’t achieve enough. My brother was the good-looking athlete; I was the mieskeit, the ugly one. When I see children abandoned and hurt, I feel the same hurt. I can’t stand it!
As a teacher, I felt I had a calling to take care of all those children who couldn’t walk or talk, who were upset and behaviorally out of control. In medical school I treated indigent children who were HIV-infected, who had dysfunctional families. I was crazy about them and crazy because of the fact that they had nobody and that I could help them.
How did you conceive of the original Orphan Ranger program?
I was inspired as a kid by the television series about The Lone Ranger and Tonto. They represented the beauty of how something can go bad and then be fixed by heroes who require no thanks and no payment. With them in mind I thought, “I‘ll create a program that sends college and graduate students who speak the local language into these orphanages, to discover the issues and fix them.”
We’ve sent about 130 Orphan Rangers around the world, and they became my eyes. I learned huge amounts about orphan life and how children become stunted in their growth by failure to thrive, developmental delays, attachment disorder, attention-deficit disorder. It was a fascinating new specialty, and I had the benefit of both views: how the children looked in the orphanage, before; and how they look back in the U.S. after adoption, over time with good health.
How did the programs at WWO evolve into what they are today?
Everything is an outgrowth of the Orphan Rangers’ work and study. The early programs were scaled up to reach thousands of children as we do now. Our clinics and camps provide opportunities for children to develop a sense of self-esteem and well-being – enjoyment and play instead of the standard orphanage life of subsistence. The “granny” programs provide one-to-one early intervention, where children can learn how to trust and attach to adults and feel the power of unconditional love.
It’s a strategic way of improving a child’s life so he or she can be transformed from an orphan and a waif into a leading character in the community – a kid who is a star and a hero.
Did foreign governments embrace the foundation?
There was resistance in the beginning; it was a mix: yes, no, yes, no – a flow of freedom and acceptance, then roadblocks. Ultimately we developed warm and wonderful relationships with people and governments who have the same commitment to children and to making their lives better. And we employ and train only the people of each country we work in, to teach the same belief system for generations to come.
In your private practice you evaluate pre-adoption tapes, photos and medical records to help parents decide whether or not to adopt a particular child. Is that a terrifying responsibility?
I help people figure out what’s right for them, but I like people to get educated so they can think independently and ultimately make their own decision. Sometimes I have to tell people, “Look, this is a high-risk referral. This kid was born with a small head-circumference, or could be exposed to alcohol, and needs a lot of services; it’s going to be very hard to take care of him.” But I don’t say to someone, “Don’t do it.” I say, “You need to think twice, three or four times about how this will take over your life.”
How does it feel to provide information that may lead parents to reject adopting a child?
I feel like I’m doing a good thing for the kid. I feel very sad in the moment, of course, but I also feel the child will get adopted by someone who has the capacity to give them the best possible care. I feel very responsible for making sure the kid is not in a home that’s not equipped for them.
Did adopting your own children change the way you work?
As a pediatrician, you can tell people how to take care of a child, but when it comes to living in the house, feeding a baby, changing a baby, putting a baby to sleep – it’s very different than what the doctor told you. And it’s you: the baby has a fever and you’re scared that maybe it will die. One day my kid spiked to 105 and looked dreadful. I got in a cab and raced to our pediatrician, like any other mother.
What is your vision for the future of Worldwide Orphans Foundation?
The goal now is to institutionalize the models we’ve created so they can be replicated. We want to publish, do research, measure, show the outcomes we can achieve, so that we can reach millions more children by partnering with other organizations and governments. I want to be a voice keeping the orphan crisis as a front-running agenda in the world – like the environment, like peacekeeping and nuclear war. I have a lot to do in a very short time. I’m 59 years old and my best 10 years are ahead of me.
Carolyn Jacobs is a television producer and writer. She has created narrative and documentary programming for AMC, PBS, vh1, Showtime and other networks.