Laura Peterson wanted to make a difference in the lives of children, and that's exactly why she chose a career in social services. She wanted to reach out to children in need and set them on the path to healing and love.
But seeing the abuse and heartache of children in the system began to take its toll on Peterson.
"I got tired of seeing kids hurt at such a young age," Peterson said. "And there was not a whole lot we could do to fix it."
She remembers the case of a 5-year-old boy, placed in his second adoptive home, who one day walked over and dispassionately, purposefully slammed the door on the hand of his 2-year-old sibling. Shortly afterward, he was placed in a locked psychiatric unit.
Peterson, who lived in Corvallis until last year, began realizing that many of the antisocial behaviors exhibited in these young children might have been prevented by something as simple as touch.
"The simplest, most cost-
effective model of health care is basic parenting," she said. Children between the ages of 0 to 3 years old must form a bond with an adult in order to be able to form "normal" attachments as older children and adults.
"Then the window closes on their ability to form relationships," Peterson said.
Peterson wanted to use that knowledge to benefit the youngest and most vulnerable, and she recognized that one group in great need for such attention was children in orphanages.
So armed with her experience in social services and her desire to change the world for at least a small group of children, she created Hands to Hearts International, a nonprofit organization aimed at reaching out to children in orphanages in India, and providing training and employment for impoverished women.
As this article goes to press, Peterson is in the middle of a 28-hour flight to India, where she will begin a pilot project at an orphanage in Chennai. She will be training 10 local women to provide nanny-like care to the infants and toddlers at the orphanage, freeing up orphanage workers to provide basic care like feeding and cleaning.
The training is simple, as the women will learn basic infant massage techniques and will spend their days establishing a bond with three to four children each. Their health and response will be tracked by researcher Vonda Jump of Utah State University, who is partnering on the project and will measure the long-term impact of the program.
The second part of Peterson's trip will be spent training representatives from 20 different Indian orphanages. They will learn the latest in child development and attachment research. By learning about the model Peterson is using at Chennai, the representatives will be able to take the program back to their own orphanages and implement it themselves.
"We can reach modestly 700 to 800 babies," Peterson said. "The goodness can just spread."
Not only does Peterson hope that the program will make the babies socially and emotionally healthier and more adoptable, but it will also empower women who might not otherwise be able to support themselves financially, "Single moms, widows, women who have been pretty disenfranchised," she said.
The program is being supported by donations, and will become self-sustaining through adoption fees, Peterson hopes. Eventually, Peterson hopes to implement a sponsorship program, so people in the United States and elsewhere can donate money that will go directly into supporting the women and children in the program.
She also emphasized that her program is not aimed at telling the orphanages what they're doing right or wrong, but instead simply provides the latest information in child development and offers suggestions on how to nurture healthy kids.
"People are hungry for information," she said. "They want to do what's best for the kids. We'll have a ton to learn ourselves. There's a big learning curve and we're excited about that."
For more information, go to www.handstohearts.org