Verent Mills

Memories from a Childhood in Hong Kong

Ming Chik Chan sent a letter a few months ago to Steve Stirling, ChildFund’s executive vice president and chief administration officer. In these excerpts, Mr. Chan shares his story of leaving China for Hong Kong in 1949, during a time of political instability. He and his siblings were placed in orphanages affiliated with Christian Children’s Fund during the 1950s, which were led by Dr. Verent Mills, then CCF’s overseas director. As an adult, Mr. Chan has worked to help other Chinese children. The images in this post come from his letter.   

75th ChildFund logoTaking this opportunity (the 75th anniversary of ChildFund International) on behalf of my brother, my sister and my family; I would like to thank those who contributed to Christian Children’s Fund/ChildFund, and for those who labored to raise numerous children. Without such loving deeds, they would be lost and without hope. May our Lord bless them and their families for many generations to come!

Also, I would like to mention our PaPa — the Rev. Verent Mills — and Mrs. Mills, who inspired many of us. Our lives were revived by them and many others. We wish them to rest well in our heavenly Father’s bosom. 

During the change of government in China in 1949, my father passed away, and my mother left China for Hong Kong, leaving her three children back in the country. My uncles in Hong Kong requested that my mother get us out of China, and that was when we became refugees in Hong Kong. We thank our Lord that during that time, my mother worked as a housemaid for a family from England. Knowing that we had no place to live and no chance of being educated, the mistress of the house helped to get three of us to orphanages managed by Christian Children’s Fund. Not only we were provided with shelters and food, we were also provided with full-scale educations. 

Dr. MillsWe were taught to value life, to work hard and to respect others. 

My sister’s and my brother’s stories were about the same. We were admitted into CCF orphanages at different times and at different locations. Later on, my sister and I moved to Children’s Garden.

It was the second time I rode a train since I was born. I was 9 years old, and I remember this clearly. My mother was going with me, and I knew it would be a long ride. 

My mother took me to an orphanage far away in the new territory of Hong Kong. That place was called Taipo, a small city near the border of China. After getting off the train, we had to ride a bike, and it took another hour to get to a village. There, we were greeted by several men; later on I found out that they were the staff and principal of the orphanage. 

The name of this orphanage was called Agricultural Project; translated directly, it means the place where people learn how to farm. This project had a huge Chinese-style mansion, where most of the staff and girls of all ages stayed. There were two other old houses, one about 100 yards away up the hill where many of the boys stayed, and the other about 150 yards down the hill, where I was assigned to stay. Our canteen was a three-walled shack built next to a boys’ dorm. Classrooms were scattered around the compound built with mud bricks, wood planks and iron shingle roofs. 

boys weaving

I spent four years here, and during one of the typhoons that hit Hong Kong the hardest, many of the buildings were heavily damaged. I remember my dorm’s roof was yanked away by the typhoon, and all our belongings were wet. Immediately after this disaster, we were moved to a new orphanage built in Wukaisha, named Children’s Garden. 

Children's GardenChildren’s Garden turned out to be like a dream for all of us. This place was set up like villas, built with a huge auditorium, playgrounds, modern classrooms, paved roads and a full-scale infirmary. Each villa accommodated 12 to 14 kids, and we thought of this setup as our family, supervised by a house parent. There were 66 such villas in the time when I lived there. The school systems ran a full-scale program, with lessons from morning to late afternoon, including all kinds of sports and activities. We were also provided with Christian education. Children’s Garden was connected by ferry to a university on the other side of the harbor. 

This was the place where I grew up. I spent a bit more than four years there, and I left when I turned 18.

I migrated to the USA at the age of 32 with my family and worked in several U.S. corporations. At the age of 60, I took early retirement and volunteered in a Christian organization, setting up orphanages in China. From 2003 to 2012, we set up three orphanages, nurturing about 400 children to date. I retired from this organization on August 2012 after I suffered two light heart attacks.

Chinese children

To read more about ChildFund’s 75-year history and what we’re doing today, click here.

The Amazing Legacy of Our Hong Kong Alumni

By Steve Stirling, EVP/Chief Administration Officer, ChildFund International

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.

75th ChildFund logoAs 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. 

Hong Kong alumni

A moment for a group of our Hong Kong alumni to gather and share memories. Steve Stirling is in the center, wearing a white shirt.

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:

 

Verent Mills, ‘Our Man’ in China

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.

75th ChildFund logoBorn 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.

Joining CCF

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.

Dr. Mills in Korea 1959

Dr. Mills spends time with Korean children in 1950.

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.

Dr. Mills in Kenya

Dr. Mills visits Kenya in the 1970s.

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.”

Stories for Telling: A Personal Journey through ChildFund’s Archives

by Jamie Chan

Editor’s note: Today’s guest blogger, whose father grew up in the Faith-Love Orphanage near Hong Kong, is researching a book on Dr. Verent J. Mills, who joined Christian Children’s Fund in 1947 and whose work spanned decades, wars and cultures.

I grew up in a family of fortune. We had two cars and a house with a pool like other upper-middle class households in central California. We spoke English and made friends with Americans as well as any Chinese-American family could. I doubt that if you looked at us, you could tell that my father grew up in a refugee’s apartment made of scrap metal and cardboard.

The most basic version of my father’s life story manifests the American dream: he lost his father at age eight. He was sent to the Christian Children’s Fund Faith-Love orphanage on the outskirts of the Hong Kong, where he lived until he was 17. He then came to the U.S., earned two Ivy League degrees and became a doctor. He says that Faith-Love was the best thing that happened to him; it remains the backdrop for some of his favorite memories, a few of which I suspect have sweetened over the years.

The man behind Faith-Love was Dr. Verent J. Mills. For some, he was a saintly figure whose work spanned decades, wars and cultures. But to orphans like my father, he was a preacher, a storyteller, a jokester and Santa Claus — the only father figure they ever saw in an orphanage run by mothers, grandmothers and young men barely out of high school.

Mills began his career in 1931 at age 19 as a missionary in Southern China. After a decade of rescue work during the wars that followed, he joined Christian Children’s Fund in 1947 as Regional Director of Japan, North China and Korea. He became Executive Director of the organization in 1970.

The Chan family with Dr. and Mrs. Mills in Fresno, Calif. (Jamie in front on rock.)

Recently, I decided to write Dr. Mills’ story in light of my father’s experience at Faith-Love. I began my research in Richmond this August with the help of Joan Losen, ChildFund’s unofficial historian extraordinaire. She laid out an assortment of materials for me — correspondences, newspaper clippings, plans for an orphanage, mysterious photos of men in Chinese pongee jackets. Mills would have been well over 90 if he were still alive. Looking through these documents led me into a world of formality and dignity foreign to a person of my generation.

As I continue my research, I am drawn to Mills’ role among orphans and their families, and his place within the urban chaos of post-1949 Hong Kong. Missionary accounts have been influential in the Western world through their depiction of otherwise inaccessible places.

Because Mills continued his work through the duration of war while many fled, his story brings the possibility of historical insight, if only in bits and pieces. I don’t know quite yet where this research will take me, but I do know that one trip to ChildFund was not enough.

In short, I will be back, and blogging about it once again.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 805 other subscribers

ChildFund
Follow me on Twitter