Jane Aronson is sitting in her office, a warm space featuring blue walls and a blue rug that, intentionally or not, complement her signature round blue frames. After dashing off an email on her iPhone, Aronson, 61, leans back in her chair and puts her feet up on the edge of her desk, ready to chat. Behind her, the wall and windowsill are decorated with awards and plaques adorned with her name, not to mention photos of her favorite kind of people—children.
It seems like there are never enough hours in the day—or minutes in an hour—for the widely acclaimed “orphan doctor” and founder of the Worldwide Orphans Foundation (WWO), a global organization that aims to help orphaned children become healthy and independent members of their communities. Petite but full of infectious energy, Aronson’s devoted her life to helping children locally and around the world. Through Aronson’s former private pediatric practice, current adoption medicine practice, and WWO, she’s evaluated more than 10,000 adopted children.
Not surprisingly, Aronson, who’s an adoptive mom of two herself and is based out of Maplewood, NJ, can’t see doing anything that doesn’t involve kids. “I’m a pediatrician,” she says. “And before that I was a teacher. I enjoy kids. I like them. I’m interested in them. They’re fun. I feel that I learned so much from being a parent, but being a pediatrician really for me was always enjoyable and intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically stimulating. I never had a day at work that wasn’t interesting or didn’t in some way change how I feel about life.”
In her consultation work, Aronson doesn’t work for any adoption agencies, nor does she arrange any adoptions. What she does do is to help parents interpret the file of a child an adoption agency gives them after they decide that they want to adopt. Aronson uses growth and development charts to help couples understand the wellness of their prospective children—which includes interpreting physical exam results, family and social history, and how the child came into care. After assessing with Aronson’s help what the child’s health traits or needs may be long-term, couples are then better equipped for the crucial next step: either moving forward to meet their new child and create a family or continue to look for another match.
Given her personal experience in traveling and working with orphanages abroad, Aronson also helps parents prepare for journeying to other countries to meet their new children. Additionally, she lectures and answers questions adoption agencies might have on topics like children’s lives in different countries and medical issues, and she discusses adoption advocacy and education with other pediatricians as a member of the Council of Adoption and Foster Care (administered through the American Academy of Pediatrics).
In the most personal way, the experience of adopting a child, both internationally and domestically, are recounted in Aronson’s new book, Carried in Our Hearts, which features a compilation of firsthand accounts of adoptive parents, many of whom Aronson herself had helped, alongside chapters Aronson wrote on the adoption process.
But as fierce a champion as she is of adoption, Aronson realized years ago that it wasn’t the long-term answer to helping the hundreds of thousands of children without families, both because of financial constraint and the sheer number of orphaned children.
“Adoption is magnificent and lovely and fantastic, and all children should have permanent families,” she says. “But there are hundreds of millions of children living without parents, and so we can’t take care of them all through adoption. It’s just not feasible.” And while there’s plenty of money for the process of executing international adoptions, Aronson adds, there’s hardly any financial investment in social services for families abroad.
Cue WWO, which Aronson founded in the September of 1997. In the beginning, the organization trained volunteers in Aronson’s charting approach and sent them to help the orphanages better care for their children. Today, WWO not only helps orphanages directly, they also provide services and advocacy for families at risk of having to put their children up for adoption, with the inspired goal of keeping these families together as much as possible.
To be clear, WWO isn’t involved in managing orphanages directly, but rather works with local leadership and governments to ensure that both orphans and children at risk receive education, medical care, and psychosocial support. Naturally, the organization is continually adapting to the ever-changing politics of international adoptions. Among other developments, Aronson reports that in more recent years there have been more and more adoptions of children with special needs.
“What I love about WWO is that their programs don’t just provide children with food, healthcare, and supplies—they even offer mentors for one-on-one attention,” says Ali Wing, the founder of popular children’s store giggle, which donates a portion of all qualifying registry purchases to WWO. “I cannot think of a better partner in reaching out to children around the world,” Wing says.
To ensure that WWO is as impactful as it can be, Aronson has visited plenty of needy countries and orphanages around the world. Her travels started long before WWO in the 1990s, when she visited an orphanage in El Salvador and proceeded to immerse herself in that world in Eastern Europe.
“I had to walk in those shoes,” she says. “Children for me, whether they’re sick or healthy, are always a source of inspiration to me. My travel and my meeting children from different countries has always been my favorite place to be other than at home with my kids.”
While Aronson is an inspiring force of nature in the eyes of adults, to children her ability to tap into her wilder, more carefree side makes her a wonderful friend, plain and simple.
“Usually when I travel I have a lot of fun,” she says. “We play soccer, basketball, do art projects, sing and dance, do theater, I get to experience children’s successes in the classroom, I go to camp in Haiti and Ethiopia and Vietnam, take part in activities, and learn about the kids I’m taking care of.”
Even when she’s assessing a child’s health, Aronson looks to that personal bond. “I want to know who they are—and I enjoy knowing who they are,” she says.
On Monday, November 18, the Worldwide Orphans Foundation (WWO) is once again holding their grand annual gala, this time at the grand Cipriani Wall Street. The host of the event is none other than comedian and “Saturday Night Live” cast member and writer Seth Meyers. In celebrating WWO’s mission of bringing orphaned children independent and productive futures and of helping keep families together in the first place, attendees will get the chance to rub elbows with celebrity WWO supporters and even walk the blue carpet—a fun twist on the red carpet that references WWO founder Dr. Jane Aronson’s frames. To learn more and to reserve your table, visit wwo.org/Gala2013.