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Lily Nie, MBA ’94, is changing the world, one adoption at a time.
Lily Nie and Joshua Zhong have built an empire based on love.
Twenty years ago they founded Chinese Children Adoption International, an agency based in Centennial, Colorado, that specializes in finding families for orphaned Chinese children, mostly girls. Two decades later, CCAI has become the largest such organization in the world, with 10,160 adoptions to its credit.
But Lily and Joshua have accomplished more than that. They’ve helped change gender prejudices that have had tragic consequences for girls in China, where many thousands are abandoned or in orphanages, and as Joshua says, “dreaming to be hugged and kissed and washed and educated and provided the right medical care to grow up like someone with dignity.”
It began when Lily had a simple thought: “Maybe I can save one girl.”
Nie grew up in northeastern China during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, living through the dictator’s Great Famine and his political persecution of her family. Always a good student, Lily became a successful business lawyer.
She came to the United States in 1987 to visit then-fiancé, Joshua, who was attending bible school in South Carolina. The visit became permanent, and later that year the couple moved to Colorado to pursue Joshua’s studies at Denver Seminary.
They lived hardscrabble lives, working long hours as janitors to pay bills. At one point, Lily held five jobs to cobble together tuition money for language school.
Lily entered the adoption world almost by chance. One day in 1992, Joshua brought home a copy of the People’s Daily, a Chinese government newspaper, which published the text of that country’s first adoption law.
Lily put the paper beside her bed, alongside other material she read before sleep. She didn’t get to it for two months. But when she did, she noted that China started allowing foreign adoptions, and she thought of Liz and Jack Layman, friends from South Carolina. The couple had four adopted kids and treated them with all the love two people could give.
“Adoption isn’t Chinese tradition, so it’s hard for Chinese to believe you can love an adopted child like biological children,” says Lily, 49. She and Joshua have an adopted daughter from a Beijing orphanage. Anna is 17. They also have biological twins, Art and Amy, now grown. “The Laymans so impressed me, I wondered if they’d take one abandoned Chinese girl.”
Nearing their 60s, they declined. But the Laymans advised Lily that plenty of Americans would love to adopt Chinese girls. Within the year, she and Joshua started CCAI, which has since expanded with a network of supporting agencies. “Joshua bringing that paper home change everything about our lives,” Lily says.
Today, Lily runs multiple agencies with varied missions. In China she operates seven orphanages, dubbed Lily Orphan Care Centers, and a nationwide education and training program for Chinese childcare workers. She also oversees the Chinese Children Charity Fund, which has raised more than $10 million for children left behind in China.
In this country she has a counseling program to help Chinese children adjust emotionally to their new homes. She also operates the Joyous Chinese Cultural Center, which helps adopted kids understand China’s language and culture. To serve this latter goal, which she considers critically important, Lily leads heritage group tours to China that allow adopted kids to visit their homeland.
“These children are missing quite a few puzzle pieces from the beginning of their lives,” she says. “Knowing where they came from is very important for their self-esteem. It helps them understand why they’re having the kind of life they’re having.”
Lily uses every bit of her education in her role as chief executive of CCAI–her legal training, her degree in human resources management from Colorado Christian University, and her MBA from University of Phoenix.
When she began her master’s studies in 1991, she had toddlers and a crazy schedule. And her language skills were still developing. To meet the challenge of reading 150 pages a night, she took a speed-reading course. She taped lectures and scribbled notes later from the recording.
“Lily demonstrated incredible persistence in doing this,” says Dwight Reimer, her former instructor and a past director of academic affairs at University of Phoenix. She received her MBA in 1993.
As impressive as her persistence during school, says Reimer, has been Lily’s work with the Chinese government, which includes writing new regulations on how adoptions should proceed. She avoids politics and makes her work only about people.
“I doubt we have State Department diplomats as effective in dealing with human issues as Lily,” says Reimer. “What she has done is a great story on an international scale.”
The situation for girls in China has improved somewhat. When CCAI started, farmers were 70 percent of the work force, making boys more valued for manual labor. Also, this country of 1.3 billion people has only 500 last names. Keeping the family name is a treasured cultural goal and only a boy can do that.
“There’s still prejudice against females,” says Lily. “People have to make the hardest decision since the government only allows one child per family.” But that policy isn’t as strictly enforced today and economic reform has brought farmers into cities to work, easing the premium on boys.
Much remains to be done, however, in China and around the world. Lily says CCAI is working in Haiti, where 170 children have been placed, and the agency is building an orphanage in the Congo.
As is common among those driven to help others, Lily prefers not to talk about herself, referring such questions to a 2010 book about her work, Bound by Love.
The title could not be more apt. Nor could the date of CAAI’s first adoption. Even though the agency began in 1992, delays pushed back its initial placement to Easter Sunday 1994.
“This has all been God’s will and God’s plan,” says Lily. “After 20 years in adoption services, I believe this is what I’ve been called to do.”
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