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'A dream come true': Colorado woman unites thousands of orphaned Chinese children with loving US families

Posted: 4:55 PM, Mar 27, 2024
Updated: 2024-04-01 12:04:20-04
Lily Nie

CENTENNIAL, Colo. — The hallways of Lily Nie's office in Centennial are lined with thousands upon thousands of identical frames, each displaying a young child whose life was completely changed when she stepped in.

Some are family portraits. Others are school photos. It's difficult not to smile back at all the grinning faces. Each frame protects the image of a child, mostly Chinese girls, adopted to loving and permanent homes in the United States thanks to Nie's long-standing dedication and tireless efforts.

Lily Nie_CCAI

Nie, who was inducted into the Colorado Women's Hall of Fame in 2008 and has earned a plethora of awards, has dedicated her life to uniting orphaned Chinese children with families in the United States through her nonprofit Chinese Children Adoption International (CCAI), which she founded in September 1992 with her husband, Joshua Zhong.

To date, CCAI has connected about 13,270 children with a forever family. Nie recalled that in 2005 alone, CCAI placed 1,200 kids in homes — more than three children on average every day of the year.

"Three to five orphans — life changed forever for the better," she said.

Colorado woman unites thousands of orphaned Chinese children with US families

Nie and Zhong immigrated to the United States in 1986 from China, where Nie was a certified attorney. Joshua picked up a newspaper one day and showed it to his wife — across the page was a headline about upcoming changes to adoption law in China. When she finally had the time to read the story, Nie realized people from foreign countries were now allowed to adopt children from China.

At that time, Nie was continuing her education, raising twins and had a computer company — there was no time to start an adoption agency. But in 1992, armed with her expertise as an attorney, she offered to help an agency that wanted to unite an adoptive mother and Chinese girl.

“That's the first case I helped and made a difference," she said. "And she's thanking me a lot. I say, ‘Well, really?’ And then that's when I thought, 'Hmm.'"

That curiosity turned to passion, and she filled out the immense amount of paperwork to open an adoption agency in Colorado. By mid-September 1992, CCAI was official.

Colorado Women's Hall of Fame_Lily Nie

She flew to China in November 1992 to visit the orphanages ahead of the first round of adoptions. What she saw during that visit still brings tears to her eyes.

"So, in the room like this, you have 40 cribs," she described of a space roughly 400 square feet. "And the children just lay in there all day and night… And they all have an ear infection. They all have a flat head because nothing is moving. Nothing (is) going on. Just crying their eyes out.”

By the time she returned to the United States, it was time to start meeting with the six families who eagerly submitted their interest in adopting through CCAI in January 1993. Orientation began that month, but the process was halted when China closed its adoptions to standardize country-wide adoption paperwork. The six families were able to fly to the country the following year, in 1994. Nie was there to witness the first of many so-called Gotcha Days.

Lily Nie_CCAI
This framed photo shows the first six children who were adopted through CCAI.

“Every family has their own version (of a Gotcha Day)," Nie said. "Even after all this time, I cannot stop crying. It's just a dream come true, for the family and for the child and for us.”

The families returned home to a crowd of loved ones and media at the former Stapleton International Airport.

Word spread about CCAI's efforts. By the end of that year, the nonprofit had 100 applications in hand.

“And that's when I said, ‘I need to close down my computer company. I need to work full-time for this,'" Nie said.

Adoption stats for China_U.S. Department of State
This graph from the U.S. Department of State shows the number of U.S. adoptions of children from China from 1999 to 2022.

In 1995, she took nine trips to China, visited 40 orphanages and brought 140 orphaned children to the United States. That jumped up to 260 children in 1996. The trips weighed on her — they weren't only happy unions. She saw pain and suffering. She saw children die. She saw their faces of hunger.

Nie was exhausted, and had come face to face with a hard truth: She could not rescue every child from every orphanage.

But far from the type to shy away from a challenge, she opened the Chinese Children Charity Fund — changed to the Children Charity Fund after they helped kids affected by the 2010 Haiti earthquake — to collect donations to support the children who were still in need in China. This ensured at least some of them would have toys, diapers, formula, nutritious food plans and medical support.

Colorado Women's Hall of Fame_Lily Nie

The fund raised millions to care for those children and to open 11 Lily Orphan Care Centers.

"And by '96, we were the top 10 agencies in the U.S.," Nie said. "And at that time, in the U.S. alone, there were 110 agencies doing China adoption. And then in '98, we became the largest agency in the U.S. and the world... And we already had more than 1,000 children placed by '98."

When the initial six adopted children turned 3 years old in 1996, Nie opened a Saturday morning class to teach them basic Chinese.

“I basically just let them sit on my floor and I just teach them coloring, and how to say colors, numbers, and their name in Chinese, and maybe some children's songs," she said. "Because they are ‘abandoned’ children and they are girls — anything we can do to help them with self-esteem."

Lily Nie_CCAI

This type of post-adoption support led to the creation of the Joyous Chinese Cultural School that same year, which is part of CCAI's extensive post-adoption support work. Just like the adoption agency, this cultural school has grown as well.

"At one point, we had 450 children in the school on Saturdays and on Wednesday and Thursday nights," Nie said.

Colorado Women's Hall of Fame_Lily Nie

It even expanded to other states and countries. Today, children and adults can connect with their Chinese roots by learning basic spoken and written Mandarin Chinese, as well as Chinese dance, art, music and games.

Another one of CCAI's programs is Adopteen, which creates a community for teens who have been adopted.

“They all have this connection," Nie explained. "So they all have their common language, emotional attachments. And basically, through this network — they have chapters in all different states right now — and those chapters meet monthly."

Nie said these post-adoption services have played a big part to make sure the children feel supported. The adoption is just the beginning, she said.

“So, we don't leave them alone. We keep pulling them back and say, ‘Hey, I still support you,’" Nie said. "Your life is better when you have a network. You have your support system.”

In the early 2000s, Nie and Zhong decided they wanted to expand their own family through adoption. Their twins had been asking for a sister — specifically, one that would stay at their home and not go to another family.

In April 2004, documents about 30 Chinese children — all with special medical or development needs — arrived at CCAI's Waiting Child Department. Nie said she always tries to go through those documents herself. As Zhong passed by his wife's desk to go to lunch together, he noticed the paper at the top of the stack and was caught by the photo of the young girl. At just 9 years old, the girl — still living in China — had a congenital heart condition and other agencies had struggled to find her a family. After praying over it, Nie and Zhong decided they would try to bring her into their home. Once they matched with her, they found themselves in the shoes of the thousands of families they had helped before.

"It was a very hard process," Nie said. "In the middle of the night, you're thinking, 'Is she sleeping? Is she warm enough?' I never had that feeling until we were matched with her. And that's how I started to understand more of parents."

The couple traveled to China in October 2004 and took their beloved Anna back home to the United States, where had the life-changing surgery.

“We can truly say we have been there and done that" about the adoption process, Nie said.

Today, CCAI has expanded to seven other countries, including Ukraine, Latvia, Bulgaria, Haiti, Taiwan, Colombia, and Belize. Nie leads a team chock full of people who have spent more than 20 years with the agency, plus many adoptive parents.

“They are my sisters. They take care of me," she said, smiling. “...It's one of the reasons we are successful because we have lots of adoptive parents working here. So they know: If you follow me, I've been there, done that. I will take you there. Good, bad, ugly — the journey is hard. But you have somebody support(ing) you all along the way.”

CCAI and the people they help are like family, Nie said. She gets invitations to weddings, baptisms, baby showers and more. Her office door is decorated with graduation cards.

"You come into our building and it’s like a family room," she said. "And we talk about children, parents, family, and happiness. We are in the ‘business’ of helping children find their parents, and be able to build happy families. And who doesn't want to do that?”

Colorado Women's Hall of Fame_Lily Nie

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