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One woman's passion helps children in China

Several of the children are unable to feed properly. Special techniques were used to help their mouth muscles work better for feeding. Staff saw improvements quickly with some of the children. Photo submitted1 / 3
Dr. Tim Steinmetz, of River Falls, is a member of the Red Thread Charities Medical team. A translator is writing down notes as he examines one of the children. Photo submitted2 / 3
Special chairs were set up for the children who need help sitting up. This helps them be able to look around at their environment. In this picture Nancy Lawton-Shirley is saying good-bye to the children. Photo submitted3 / 3

China's awakening means more than economic growth to Hudson resident Nancy Lawton-Shirley. She recently returned from her fourth trip to China where she volunteers for Red Thread Charities.

It was a River Falls doctor, Tim Steinmetz, who encouraged Lawton-Shirley to go on her first trip in 2007.

"What he saw was that most of the children needed occupational and physical therapy," said Lawton-Shirley who is an occupational therapist and founder of Special Children's Center in Hudson. "It was one of those inspiring moments when I said, I think I have to do this." That first trip in 2007 was a rough one for Lawton-Shirley.

"I had never experienced what it was like to be in an institution," said Lawton-Shirley. "It was a little bit traumatic." What she found was that many of the children left in Chinese orphanages are there because they are handicapped.

"There were 14 babies and two caregivers," said Lawton-Shirley. "Only two of them responded to human touch or voices."

Traveling as part of the medical and volunteer team for Red Thread Charities based in Edina, she served at an orphanage in Hangzhou, four hours southwest of Shanghai. It is home to over 300 children.

"I had to find out if what we did made any difference," said Lawton-Shirley of her second trip.

"It was a totally different place. You could see them going forward. It convinced me that we had important work to do. With a little rehab and support, these children all more adoptable."

According to their Web site, the mission of Red Thread Charities in Chinese orphanages includes improving the care for institutionalized children, creating access to specialized outpatient services for the local community, reducing abandonment by addressing the needs of children at home, increasing accuracy of medical records and facilitating adoption of children.

Red Thread Charities has established a three-year program. The first year the teams introduce concepts (OT, PT and special education) and change routines by education regarding children with disabilities; the second year the team helps expand skills and build confidence of the onsite staff; and the third year the goal is for the institution to achieve independence as a Regional Health and Development Center.

"With this partnership between Red Thread Charities and the orphanages we have the potential of influencing a lot of children's lives," said Lawton-Shirley. This represents a huge potential shift in policy.

In October of 2009 Lawton-Shirley returned with the team to witness even more progress.

"One child was crying 24/7," said Lawton-Shirley. "With just a little sensory support he was happy."

Another example was of a little girl who had her nights and days mixed up. By the second week of therapy, she was sleeping through the night.

The children at the orphanage are divided by age. Newborn to age three are in one area; older children at 3 to 16 are in age clusters and they have a foster care program.

As part of her volunteer work in China, Lawton-Shirley did assessments in the foster homes.

"It was very humbling to go into these places," said Lawton-Shirley. "People of very humble means were taking in these foster children. No heat and bitter cold. It helped me appreciate and understand what the conditions are."

Lawton-Shirley's most recent trip in March was initiated by the orphanage. They wanted to learn more exercises for rehabilitation and occupational therapy.

"I was honored that there had been that much trust built up. This time I was requested to come over for an extra trip," said Lawton-Shirley who works with a translator while at the orphanage. "I feel we were able to make a big leap by the end of the two weeks. They have an amazing capacity to learn."

It was her first trip to China without the Red Thread team. While there she lives in a dormitory on the grounds off the orphanage.

"I really believe in the ripple effect," said Lawton-Shirley. "What I am really seeing is a huge shift in the attitude about disabilities and perceived imperfection."

For more details about the Red Thread Charities programs, go to