After a flurry of stories hit the Chinese media three weeks ago about a “missing” American man raising 11 orphans in Beijing (and the subsequent death of one of them), one thing was absent: a response from the man himself. theBeijinger were able to arrange a face-to-face interview with the person at the center of this drama, Ray Wigdal.
Over the course of two three-hour meetings last weekend in Beijing, we did our best to gather Wigdal’s side of the story.
Inconsistencies in the story remain; in particular some accounts we’ve read in the Chinese news and coming from additional unnamed sources remain contradictory.
Nevertheless, we wanted to give Wigdal the opportunity to answer the accusations that have whipped the Chinese media into a frenzy, with reports referring to him as “torturing” the children and references to the kids he had been caring for the past 11 years as “starving.” This has resulted in the children being removed from his care and placed in protective custody.
There’s no doubt that Wigdal is a polarizing figure: six sources reached by the Beijinger have characterized him on one hand as selfless and heroic in his passion for rescuing orphan children; others have painted him as a misguided rebel with a short temper deliberately working outside normal channels, without the capacity to give the children proper care.
Below we present a profile of the man based on our conversations with him.
Despite press reports to the contrary, Ray Wigdal is not missing – nor has he left Beijing, nor is he in hiding. The 56-year-old American that has called Beijing his home away from home for the past 30 years is right here.
In fact, for most of the past 10 days, he has spent his time talking to the police about his unusual situation, between doing what he can to assure the children are OK and keeping his mind off the situation by continuing to engage in his hobbies such as playing pickup basketball and watching Green Bay Packers NFL games.
“As far as this disappearance thing, I’ve never been out of sight,” Wigdal said at a Starbucks in the Lido area over the weekend, one week after one of the children he cared for, eight-year-old Phoebe, died in a Beijing hospital.
Since her death, Wigdal has been in almost constant contact with officials who have questioned him extensively about his situation and Phoebe’s death. His Chinese-speaking basketball teammates even chuckled about the news reports. Those playing with him joked, “Hey Ray, aren’t you supposed to be missing?”
Wigdal said the allegations against him are “trumped up” and he notes that Chinese officials have not told him he has done anything wrong, other than not possessing proper documentation for the children. Nevertheless, the children are in custody at a child protection center and he has not been allowed to visit them there.
Widgal, who grew up in Wisconsin but considers his home to be Alaska now, traces his interest in helping needy children to experiences when he was young.
He recalls his grandmother caring for mentally challenged children, and he also had disadvantaged friends as a consequence of his father’s occupation.
“My dad was a chef and a counselor at a juvenile detention center – the children there were either abused, or they had committed a crime,” he recalls. “I spent my youth growing up there and met a lot of children – they were down and out, but they were just like normal kids.
"I was not a down-and-out kid and we did everything as a family like camping and fishing, so it was so sad to see these kids didn’t have that.“
After attending two years of university in Wisconsin, he left school and landed a high-wage job as a production supervisor at an engine manufacturing plant. At age 20 he found himself making good money, driving a nice car, and managing people twice his age – but he wasn’t happy. One of his friends at the plant told him one day, “You know what? You don’t know Jesus.”
He wanted nothing to do with what he called “Jesus freaks," but his friend managed to convince him to attend a weekend retreat for Christian businessmen. He showed up in a three-piece suit, only to find the attendees were casually dressed and had no intention of talking business. He felt conned.
Nevertheless he stayed and played Frisbee and basketball with some of the people there and found them to be “regular guys.” But it was that evening that his life was changed: the personal testimony of a 96-year-old man who was alcoholic and broke by age 66 before being saved by religion.
When Wigdal returned to work, he felt changed, as the days went on, he realized that simply earning a living was not his calling. He wanted to do something more meaningful. It wasn’t about going to church or reading the Bible: he wanted to be a force for good in the world.
He declined an offer from his company to pay for business school and instead enrolled at a Christian college at his own expense to get a degree in Bible Studies. At one point he spent a semester abroad in Jerusalem, where he picked up Hebrew quickly and realized he had a knack for foreign languages.
After finishing school, he moved to Alaska, lured by high-wage jobs, doing everything from working as a fisherman, to road construction crews, and later as the superintendent of a small school. He was putting money away, but still seeking his mission in life. “I wanted to do something as a good Christian and also as an American,” he recalled.
THE CHINA CONNECTION
After researching many countries, he honed in on China. Most Americans knew nothing about China at the time, and he contacted an organization that could get foreign students permission to study in Beijing, still a rarity in the mid-’80s.
In 1985 he enrolled in Beijing Language and Culture University (known then as Beijing Language Institute), where he was a quick learner. He would continue to return to Alaska in the summers, where he would make enough money on seasonal high-wage jobs to pay for his living expenses as a student in China.
This became a pattern that he has sustained for nearly 30 years – spending his summers working in Alaska and returning to China for the rest of the year.
For the first six years he concentrated all of his time on learning the language. In the ’90s he continued making much of his income in the summers, while regularly traveling the world and returning to Beijing and finding occasional work doing everything from business consulting to translation to coaching tennis.
HELPING THE DISADVANTAGED
All along Widgal continued to think about how he could make a difference in the world. At that time he was deeply moved by numerous news reports he was reading about female infants that were abandoned by their parents, primarily because they wanted sons and only had one chance under China’s one-child policy.
Reading a book published in the mid-’90s on high mortality rates in Chinese orphanages was enough to push him into action: he decided his mission was to find a way to help Chinese orphans outside the mainstream system, where he felt children had little chance of survival, let alone leading a normal life.
“From a spiritual standpoint, everybody is born as an orphan,” Wigdal says, while pointing out that the New Testament refers to orphans throughout.
Via the connections he had built during his years in China, he began to spread the word that if someone knew of a baby that has been abandoned, he would figure out a way to get medical treatment for them.
THE FIRST CHILD
As a result, a child was delivered to him, in 2002.
The infant, who he named Elizabeth, was found with severe birth defects, lying in a shoe box. However, by the time the child was delivered to him, there was not much Wigdal or the doctors he consulted could do – the infant died ten days later, which devastated him. Wigdal wondered then if he was cut out for this mission. “I was concerned whether I could go through this emotionally,” he said.
The second child he took in was a mentally challenged six-year-old boy who had been surviving as a beggar and rummaging through trash at a train station. Wigdal named him Blaza, a Romanization of the nickname that stuck from his days as a beggar.
From then on, his network of contacts would let him know when an infant was found and he would arrange to take care of it in Beijing. Wigdal would arrange for surgeries for the children, and as word spread about the success he had in getting them treated, it made it more likely that another child would be found.
Over the course of the next 11 years, 17 children passed through his hands, all of them born with birth defects such as cleft palate, spina bifida, heart defects or scoliosis, and all in need of immediate medical treatment.
Six of the children died either before, during or after operations to fix their problems, Wigdal said.
Though each was a devastating loss, he feels that none of children would have made it if he hadn’t taken them in.
“They would not be alive if I didn’t do this,” he said, referring to his research that indicated that the vast majority of orphans with birth defects died before adoption.
However, he does not consider himself a savior. “I am not the giver of life or death. I am no more responsible for their lives than I am for their deaths,” he said.
ROLE AS CAREGIVER
Contrary to reports that imply that Wigdal is the children’s full-time foster father, Widgal claims he’s never been a prototypical live-in parent for the children – in fact he spends almost half of each year in the US, working in Alaska in the summers and visiting his family in Wisconsin in winter.
To supplement his efforts, Wigdal put together a team of friends and contact that would help take care of the children. Consisting primarily of six or seven Chinese women who range in age from their 20s to 60s, the group would share childcare duties supplemented by a number of volunteer ayis who were compensated for travel and other expenses but were not paid regular wages.
When in China, Wigdal maintains a separate residence from the children, but spends almost all his time with the kids. His role in the children’s life, in addition to assisting with basic care, was to arrange for their medical treatment, educate them in English and take them to play outside to do “kid stuff.”
While he is in the US, his volunteer corps – the most regular of which is a now 76-year-old woman referred to as “Granny” Guo – take care of the kids. Meanwhile he maintains contact with them via Skype or Yahoo Messenger, usually twice per day.
THE COST OF CHILD CARE
As for how he has afforded to take care of 11 children, he says funds come from several sources: his own income and savings from work in the US; contributions from Chinese volunteers; and charitable contributions from hundreds of supporters overseas, the vast majority of whom he has never met.
Although he does not actively solicit funds from supporters, he travels frequently and speaks regularly at churches in the US. “When people ask me, I say ‘l won’t solicit money directly, but if you want to contribute, I can’t think of anyone more deserving than these children.’”
Donors find out where to give through word of mouth, and the money is deposited to a US bank account that is managed by Wigdal’s accountant.
The other component to affording 11 kids – six boys and five girls – is relatively frugal living and depending on the kindness of others: things like Guo’s negotiating inexpensive rents for the apartments the kids have lived in, while Jenny Lou (the owner of the well-known Beijing grocery chain) offers Wigdal bread that has passed the sell-by date but is still fine to eat.
But the question arises: 11 kids? Some married couples complain of being able to handle one child. How is it he was able to handle 11?
First, he says, he’s never been a single caregiver – it’s always been a team effort. And the range in ages of the children has meant the older children can help the younger ones.“ When you have a group with 12, 11, ten, nine, three eight-year-olds – they all learn to take care of each other,” he said. “The only time I ever had trouble with children was when I had eight bottle feeding babies at the same time – now that was crazy.”
Wigdal is quick to point out that the stories in the Chinese media have plenty of inaccuracies and exaggerations; however he also admits they contain grains of truth.
One of the more scandalous accusations in the original reports was an eyewitness saying the kids had been seen begging and rooting through the trash. Wigdal admits this happened – but with only one of the children, the oldest under his care, now 17-year-old Blaza.
“Blaza is mentally retarded. Before I took him in, from four to six years old, that’s how he survived: he ate out of the trash,” recalls Wigdal. It’s been a hard habit to break due to the boy’s intellectual limitations. “He still does this once in a while when I’m not around. I tell Granny Guo not to have him take out the trash, but sometimes when I’m not around, she forgets – and then he ends up rummaging around in other people’s trash.”
Were other kids doing the same? “There’s no way the other children were eating out of the trash," he said. "They’re so picky about what they eat.”
Wigdal assumes that Blaza is also the cause of the rumors that the children were hungry. He claims the children were adequately fed, but that Blaza, like most teenagers, has an insatiable appetite.
“Blaza is always hungry. In fact he can’t help himself, he’ll even keep eating until he throws up," said Wigdal. "I have to have him eat separately from the other children as he will try to eat their food too.”
He also admits to twisting Blaza’s ear in public if he wouldn’t listen, and being stern with the children to teach them to be disciplined. “But hitting them and kicking them? Come on,” he says.
The most damaging accusation against Wigdal was the suggestion that he was the cause of the injury that sent Phoebe to the hospital in September.
Wigdal was in Alaska until flying back to Beijing on the evening of September 10, and showed his visa entry stamp to prove it. According to his account, he returned that evening to find Phoebe was in immediate pain from an injury that occurred an estimated two weeks before. Her abdomen was swollen from fluid buildup and she complained that she was in so much pain that she thought she might die. Wigdal took her to the hospital immediately in the early hours of that next day. Doctors determined that she had a ruptured kidney due to blunt force trauma and immediately performed surgery.
Phoebe remained in the hospital for most of September, and came out by October, doing fine and acting normal. Pictures taken during this period show Phoebe smiling. But by November, she took a turn for the worse, and her condition declined until her death in early December.
Wigdal says that Phoebe could not pinpoint the exact time or nature of her injury, but that she had told both Widgal and Guo that she had hit a table when roughhousing with one of the other children, and also had fallen off her bike.
During her hospitalization, Wigdal said he visited Phoebe numerous times, and called when he could not be there. He was unable to explain why reporters quoted volunteers attending to Phoebe during her stay as saying that he had not been there. He suspects reporters may have talked to one of the caregivers that were keeping vigil with Phoebe that did not know him.
According to Wigdal and one additional source, Phoebe’s eventual cause of death has cited as heart failure, a fact corroborated by another source, although a formal autopsy report has yet to be issued.
“Phoebe was a very spiritual person," recalls Wigdal. "More than any of the other children, she loved reading the Bible, and throughout her illness she’d ask for Bible time either in person or if I wasn’t there, over the phone.”
WHITHER THE CHILDREN?
Wigdal has been concerned with the children’s well-being since they were taken from him, but has had no direct access as he is not on the approval list for visitors at the center where the children are staying. He made one visit to the center and was able to view them via a closed circuit camera and he claims they didn’t look happy, and even said that one of the children, 11-year-old David, managed to contact him multiple times via a cell phone, and on one occasion claims to have been hit by staff at the facility.
Since that time he’s done, what he can to try to arrange the children the continued medical care they need. One of the children has a severe form of scoliosis that impacts the functioning of her internal organs, and over the weekend Wigdal was at Oasis Hospital to try to arrange a checkup for her.
He is also working to prepare a memorial ceremony for Phoebe at Babaoshan sometime before he heads back to the US on December 22, although at this point Phoebe’s body still has not been released from the hospital.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR WIGDAL
Wigdal admits that he deliberately worked outside of the system to get the kids the care they needed. His plan all along has been to prioritize the immediate life-or-death medical needs of the kids, and worry about getting them proper identification papers later. He admits this has been an uphill battle, mostly handled by one of the volunteer members of his team.
While he finds himself unable to see the children he’s been raising for the better part of 11 years, he holds out hope that he will one day be reunited with them. “As for our team, we just want to get back to where we were, helping [the kids]with their medical issues and working through the process to get their hukous [household registrations],” Wigdal said.
In an ideal scenario, he’d like to see all of the children get the paperwork they need to be adopted by American parents, and live close enough to each other to stay in touch with one as a family – although he admits this is a long shot.
In the meantime, Wigdal will return to the US next week to spend Christmas with his elderly father, who is in a nursing home. He plans to return to China after Chinese New Year, as has been his pattern for years, and ideally wants to continue to assist orphans in China.
Wigdal’s passion for helping orphans seems undiminished. He says wants to establish a more formal foundation to raise money for the ten children, to give them a chance to get continued medical care and eventually go to college. And, he says, if he has any way to help change the way orphans are cared for in China, then he’d be happy to do so. “I just want to see change – orphans adopted faster, better foster care," he said, and he doesn’t expect the recent developments to change his mission. “My heart for the past 20 years has been dedicated to orphans,” Wigdal said.
This post first appeared on thebeijinger.com on December 17, 2014