With an arsenal of love, woman fights for world's children
Seattle Times staff columnist
Everyone talks about the fire. The day in October 1997 when Janice Neilson came home from China to find the Lacey home in which she and her husband, Scott, had raised five children, in ashes.
Steam rose from the remnants of their furniture, clothes, books and photographs. Nothing stood but the earthquake wall they had installed a few years before.
Friends and neighbors came to stand with the couple, muttering condolences. Time and again, Neilson turned their concern around: "How are you?" she asked.
The blessing of Janice Neilson's life may be that losing so much matters so little to her. For she has seen the worst of this world:
The way it leaves newborns, four in a basket, for sale on the street. The way it rejects them because of a cleft palate or a club foot. The way a healthy newborn girl is, in some countries, a grave disappointment. And how some infants are never held, save to be set in a crib in a crowded orphanage.
But Neilson has also witnessed hundreds of small miracles:
The deaf orphan adopted by a parent who teaches sign language. A child with a rare skin condition, worsened by the heat of his native India, adopted by a father in Alaska who has the same malady. Children stranded by cerebral palsy and poverty spirited from their homes to be bused to a school and clinic.
For 20 years, Neilson, 55, has traversed those two worlds as executive director of the World Association for Children & Parents (WACAP).
"A fire is not a tragedy," Neilson said. "A tragedy is a human life spent suffering, or an older child who is put up for adoption. Think of what they have lost."
Earlier this year, Neilson announced she was stepping down into a smaller role as WACAP president. The new job will allow her to focus on a few new programs rather than run the entire organization, to slow down a bit but also to linger, like a mother who can't quite let go.
Some 8,000 placed
In Neilson's two decades at WACAP, the Renton-based adoption agency has placed some 8,000 children from 10 countries in homes across the United States. Nearly half are children with special needs.
WACAP's child-assistance programs provide health care, education and nutrition to 5,000 orphaned and impoverished children each month. Neilson estimates the organization has reached 160,000 kids during her tenure.
Formerly closed countries such as China and Russia have allowed Neilson and her colleagues to enter, and their children to leave with them, trusting WACAP to connect them with better lives.
WACAP is one of the five largest adoption agencies in the country and the first American agency to work with the governments of China, far-east Russia and Romania. This is no small feat; international adoptions are always controversial.
"It is a leap of faith across cultural, racial, political barriers," Neilson said, "and it has to be built on enormous trust."
Her successor at WACAP will be L. Michael Feltman, 38, a major in the Air Force Reserve who came from the Northwest Lions Foundation for Sight & Hearing. This is his "dream job," Feltman said, adding that he was impressed that some 90 percent of WACAP's funding goes into children's programs.
That same amount of Neilson has gone directly to the children. She is at her best walking through orphanages, clinics and schools, kneeling down to meet eyes, handing out her signature Tootsie Pops. Children can hold them easily, she explained, no matter their age or disability.
"And so often when you live in an orphanage," she said, "you never have anything that's your own for very long. ... Tootsie Pops last a long time."
Challenge in China
Before first entering China in 1990, Neilson spent 18 months in intense study of Chinese culture, economics, governmental structure and protocol, and pored over UNICEF statistics. Then she set to securing appointments with government officials through proper channels. It sometimes took months, she said, "to obtain the right door of entry."
Once in, though, Neilson established key common ground: love for a child.
"It can be tedious and painstaking, but in the end, these doors open," she said.
Neilson has had to weigh every word, ignore slights, eat cat soup and drink wretched liquor to prove to officials in India and China that her intentions were true.
"She will wait someone out to get something done on behalf of a child," said Neilson's son Trevor, 31, who heads the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS. "She will go back to them over and over again."
And she did all that without any formal training in diplomacy. "Just a sense of what's right and wrong," Trevor Neilson said.
Feltman traveled with Janice Neilson to Korea and China last fall where he saw normally wary officials receive her as "a trusted friend and partner."
"She has helped them all to be open and not hide these children, and to be proud of their accomplishments," Feltman said.
The depth of the relationships she's built overseas was evident last year during one of her many trips to China. Neilson got a call in the middle of the night: Her mother was in crisis.
A storm had hit the Luoyang province, making travel even more difficult than it already was in rural China. But when Neilson got down to the hotel lobby, a motorcade of four cars was waiting to take her to the airport. It had been arranged by the same government bureaucrat who had been thwarting her.
"People are so complex," she said. "But if you look and wait long enough, there's a lot of good there."
The "good" has meant that children limited by cerebral palsy and other birth defects have been treated, taught and transformed through WACAP's Peony Project, a clinic and school that opened last year in Luoyang province. Its unique "Promise Children" program waives adoption fees for hard-to-place children. Thousands of children around the world go to bed fed every night, thanks to WACAP's Russian Milk Fund.
And now, WACAP will expand its services into Africa, where it hopes to pioneer multicountry efforts to find families for AIDS orphans.
"If we don't try," Neilson said, "these children will never have another family."
Neilson grew up in Spokane, the third of three daughters born to an appliance salesman, Leo Secord, and his wife, Betty, secretary to the dean of St. John's Cathedral, the city's largest Episcopal church. They divorced when Neilson was 13.
Still, Neilson and her sisters, Jenifer Katahira and Joan Bennett, have nothing but good memories; "1022 stories," they call them, for the number of the house where they grew up.
It wasn't a neat place; there were always dishes in the sink. Betty Secord thought her time was better spent with her daughters, making up games and creating a world where possibility and love were unconditional.
A sleepless child wasn't told to go back to bed, but asked what she had been dreaming. If it was about a princess in a dress, the next day the sewing machine whirred together a duplicate. Dreams became reality, the girls learned. Anything was possible.
At Sacajawea Junior High School in Spokane, 14-year-old Janice Secord met her future husband.
Scott Neilson's mother was a Child Protective Services worker. It was common for him to come home for lunch and find three kids he'd never seen before sitting at the table.
In each other, Janice and Scott found mirror hearts. Not long after high-school graduation, the young couple walked through the Spokane arboretum and talked about the children they would someday adopt.
"We have a common value that folks who are given a lot in the world have an obligation to return that," said Scott Neilson, 55, a Superior Court commissioner for Thurston County.
Said Janice: "It was so unthinkable to imagine that there were children without a mother, who didn't have a parent. That can't happen. There has to be a way."
Their first child, Trevor, was born in 1972, and the family moved to Olympia, where Scott had a job with the state Attorney General's Office. They joined the Washington Association of Christian Adoptive Parents, a support group that evolved into WACAP.
The group's reach went international in April 1975, with the close of America's military involvement in Vietnam. South Vietnam was under assault by North Vietnamese troops. In a rescue dubbed "Operation Babylift," some 3,000 infants and children were taken from orphanages — some without shoes or diapers — and airlifted out with $2 million in U.S. aid. The WACAP parents set up camp at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to help process the children into the country.
Neilson saw the lives of children — and parents — change forever.
That summer, the Neilsons adopted their first daughter, Andrea, from Korea. In 1981, they adopted another Korean girl, Rebecca. The following year, they went back to Korea and adopted two brothers, Robert and Michael.
The family plugged in the rice pot every night and kept kimchee (a Korean cabbage dish) beside the American cheese in the refrigerator.
"I can remember the first time I asked my parents why we didn't look the same," said Andrea, now Andrea Cobb and the mother of a 9-year-old daughter, Jayda. "They sat down right then: 'What do you want to know?' And they told me I was meant for them.
"If I had to do it all over again, it would have to be the way it happened."
At one point, the Neilsons had a child in every grade of their Olympia elementary school. But the adopted kids longed for a more diverse community, so the family moved to Seattle in 1985. (They later moved back to Thurston County.)
Janice Neilson's involvement with WACAP grew alongside her family. In 1976, when WACAP became an official adoption agency, she volunteered to conduct parent-support meetings and raise money. Five years later, she was hired as WACAP's communications director and helped the agency expand into Alaska, Idaho and Utah.
In 1983, she was asked to become executive director. Neilson agonized: She had five kids at home, and the WACAP office was then in Port Angeles — a long commute from Olympia.
But she asked herself: What if one of these orphans were your child?
"Then," she said, "everything was clear."
Helping other children, though, took a toll on her own. Scott made pancakes and bacon a dinnertime staple, Andrea had bouts of "missing Mommy bumps," and the cars got twice the mileage most do.
Each time Janice Neilson left for Korea, she would make her kids stand on a piece of paper and run a pencil around their feet so she could bring back shoes.
"One time I counted the days I was gone," she said. "I never did it again."
When WACAP was young and its budget small, the money-saving practice was to visit several countries in one trip and "escort" children back to their new families in the States. Neilson served as director, diplomat and pack mule, traveling the world with a child in each arm, one on her back and a bag of documents slung somewhere. Scott graciously "vacationed" in places such as Manila and Calcutta. Strangers helped.
"There are times when you find yourself on a dirt road in Calcutta with six bags that you have to roll down the block and you ask yourself, 'Why are we doing this?' " said Lillian Thogersen, WACAP's assistant executive director. "And then you know in an instant why — to provide a resource for the children. And you do it again and again."
It helps, too, that those miracles keep happening.
Right now, WACAP doesn't know how it will sustain its Russian Milk Fund; the money for its $5,500 monthly cost runs out in March. But after 20 years, Neilson knows something or someone will come through.
"Things seem impossible all the time around here," she said. "But they happen."
Nicole Brodeur's regular column appears every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. She can be reached at 206-464-2334, or email@example.com
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company