Each year, about 300 people who lived in Christian Children’s Fund’s orphanages in Hong Kong in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as well as their spouses, gather in Hong Kong to celebrate and reflect upon how their lives were inextricably changed forever.
As part of the 75th anniversary celebration of ChildFund International (formerly known as Christian Children’s Fund), I too had the opportunity to attend the reunion in November.
Dr. Verent Mills, CCF’s third executive director (and before that, our overseas director), was like a father to many of the Hong Kong alumni. They remember being fortunate to grow up in an orphanage village started by Dr. Mills in Hong Kong. Many, if not most, of the orphans who escaped from war-torn China would not have survived if their paths did not meet that of Dr. Mills and CCF.
My trip to Hong Kong reminded me of how many people before us faithfully served the mission of ChildFund International, and we are here today standing on the shoulders of giants. ChildFund left a legacy of faith, love and hope for hundreds of orphaned Chinese girls and boys, who are now continuing the legacy of giving back as adults.
In our 2013 annual report we shared that we have helped 18.1 million children and family members in the past year to reach their potential. Our reach is exponentially greater than this number because of people like the Hong Kong alumni, who have assisted thousands of others through their generosity.
Among them, there are successful doctors, surgeons, bankers and building contractors, but there is one man who stands out to me, having had a difficult life as a laborer with only a sixth-grade education. He lives in Australia with his wife and made a generous donation, especially in proportion to his income, to the endowment fund named for Dr. Mills. This man was unable to attend the gathering in Hong Kong, but he sent this note with his donation:
Please accept our small offering to express our sincere gratitude and support of the works of ChildFund International. May our Lord bless ChildFund, as well all the people working there. Last but not least, may we say a big THANK YOU!
Please enjoy a short video slideshow of our Hong Kong alumni from past and present day:
By Kate Andrews, ChildFund Staff Writer
With credit to A Book about Children by Larry E. Tise and Yankee Si! by Edmund W. Janss
A name you’ll see often in our 75th anniversary blog series is Dr. Verent Mills, who was our third executive director from 1970 to 1981. But his connection to ChildFund (and our preceding identities as Christian Children’s Fund and China’s Children Fund) goes back much further.
Born in Birmingham, England, and raised in Winnipeg, Canada, Mills became a missionary to South China in 1931 and remained in Asia for decades. He and his wife, Alma Kenney Mills, and their three daughters lived in China through the 1940s, where Mills was director of an orphanage in Toishan, in the region of Sz Yup. This area was cut off from food supplies beginning in 1937, when Japan began its invasion of China.
In 1942, Mills led 142 children more than 300 miles to KuKong, where he knew CCF had established an orphanage. These children were malnourished, and others did not survive the journey. In 1945, Mills called upon CCF’s help again, as he moved 700 children from Toishan to Canton, another arduous journey.
Dr. Calvitt Clarke, our organization’s founder, agreed by letter to help support the 700 children by finding American sponsors for them. Ultimately, Mills moved the children into an orphanage in Canton, where they went to school and received training in skills that would be useful for their livelihoods: weaving for girls, carpentry for boys.
In 1947, Mills joined the CCF staff as regional director in Shanghai. He scouted existing orphanages in China’s northern provinces, which were underfunded and needed help. Funding came quickly from the United States, where Clarke was recruiting new sponsors so fast that Mills could hardly keep up with the writing of children’s case histories.
But in December 1949, the communist government was established on China’s mainland. At the time, our sponsors were assisting 5,113 children in 42 orphanages across the country. But Westerners, CCF staff members included, realized quickly that they were not welcome under the new regime. Like many others, Mills was accused of being a spy.
The government took over orphanages, and Mills was not allowed to visit the 11 homes for orphans in North China or have any contact with them, and he and all foreign CCF personnel were forced to leave the country shortly. The Mills family moved to Hong Kong.
Most of the 5,113 children’s fates are unknown, but 280 children, who were among the 700 orphans that Mills moved to Canton, were able to cross the border to Hong Kong. Many received full educations, and among them (according to an interview with Mills in the early 1990s) were five pastors, nine doctors, four dentists, three professors and two millionaires.
Mills, who was named our overseas director in 1950, continued his work for the renamed Christian Children’s Fund through the 1950s while based in Hong Kong, opening orphanages and expanding operations through Asia and the Middle East. He was instrumental in opening the campus-style Children’s Garden in Hong Kong for Chinese refugee children.
Coming to the United States
In 1958, Mills was transferred to CCF headquarters in Richmond, where he worked as a coordinator and then director of operations, and in 1970, he was named our third executive director.
During the ’70s, CCF concentrated its focus by decreasing its span from 70 countries to 20; we left Europe and the Middle East and focused greater attention on Africa, where a regional office in Nairobi, Kenya, opened in 1973.
Mills commissioned two evaluations of CCF’s philosophy and practices, which led to a shift toward home- and community-based projects, with less concentration on orphanages and boarding schools.
In 1976, CCF launched TV and magazine ads featuring actress and sponsor Sally Struthers, a move that brought greater attention to the organization and helped the number of sponsors grow through the 1970s and ’80s. Mills retired in 1981, and in 1995, the Verent Mills Endowment for Health and Education was established. This fund fosters innovative health and education programs in countries where ChildFund has long-term commitments.
Dr. Mills died at the age of 83 in 1996, but his legacy carries on. In a 1991 interview, he quoted a Chinese proverb that he thought demonstrated our philosophy: “If you plant for a year, you plant grain. If you plant for 10 years, you plant a tree. But if you plant for a hundred years, you plant men.”
By Kate Andrews, ChildFund Staff Writer
With credit to A Book about Children by Larry E. Tise
Between 1949 and 1951, about 2.5 million Chinese refugees fled to Hong Kong, which was not equipped to handle such a crowd.
At the same time, ChildFund, started in 1938 as China’s Children Fund, also found itself unwelcome in China, which had ushered in a communist government that insisted it could take care of its own orphans and also confiscated CCF’s properties. It was clear that our organization could no longer operate in China, and because we were already working in other countries since the end of World War II, CCF’s board changed our name to Christian Children’s Fund in 1951.
In 1952, under the guidance of then overseas director Verent Mills, we began building Children’s Garden in Hong Kong, a campus for orphans who were assigned 12 to a cottage. It remains the most ambitious building project in our history.
Each cottage was assigned a “mother” (often a widow) who oversaw the children, who were of all different ages, and they also attended school on the grounds. This project was groundbreaking in its vision to provide more than just food and shelter; it aimed for a higher standard of care, giving children a supportive, loving home.
Children’s Garden, which was placed at the base of Saddleback Mountain, was finished in 1957, and for years it served as home and school for thousands of children. In 1977, as CCF wrapped up its work in Hong Kong, Children’s Garden (renamed Wu Kwai Sa Youth Village) was donated to the Hong Kong YMCA for its youth programs. The increasingly prosperous colony could now build its own schools and day care centers, as well as assist children and families with special needs.