Pearl Buck's Dream Reaches Age 50 In 1949, The Bucks County Writer Founded Welcome House By Placing Her First Adoptee With Neighbors.

Posted: June 25, 1999

When writer Pearl S. Buck marched to the farm next door to her Bucks County home carrying a squirming baby in her arms, David Yoder became a first.

Yoder, then 1 year old, was fresh from a Rochester orphanage. He was a biracial child, the son of an unmarried 17-year-old American girl who got pregnant while her family lived in India. In the 1940s, that meant ostracism and shame. No adoption agency could place him.

Buck would have none of that. So, as she succinctly put it in an interview before her death, ``I founded my own damned agency.''

Welcome House, founded by Buck in 1949, pioneered the cause of interracial adoption. The Bucks County-based agency, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, traces its roots back to the day that Buck carried baby David over to her Dublin neighbors, Poppy and Viola Yoder, who raised him. It was the beginning of Buck's mission to help disadvantaged children.

Tomorrow, Welcome House will celebrate five decades of finding homes for children with a festival at Green Hills Farm, Buck's residence for 38 years. The author's 65-acre Dublin homestead will be the site of a rain-or-shine celebration that begins at 11 a.m. Actress Sheryl Lee Ralph, who has sponsored a child through the foundation for 15 years, will attend. The celebration will feature an Indian ballet, Korean folk dances, Chinese ribbon dances, ethnic foods, and games.

The festivities will mark several anniversaries in the network of Pearl Buck-inspired philanthropy. While Welcome House celebrates its 50th year, Pearl S. Buck International, the nonprofit parent organization, will observe its 35th anniversary, and its volunteer group will mark 20 years of service.

``Pearl Buck didn't just feel for people,'' said Meredith Richardson, executive director of the parent group. ``She tried to do something about it.''

The international organization is headquartered at the author's Dublin farm, a national historic landmark. The group's mission has expanded from its early days, when Welcome House focused almost exclusively on finding adoptive homes for Amerasian children who were the sons and daughters of American soldiers stationed overseas. Current programs include efforts to assist poor families in countries such as Korea, China and Vietnam.

The organization is the legacy of a complex woman whose life spanned cultures and traditions. Buck, born in West Virginia to missionary parents, grew up in China, adopted eight children, won a Pulitzer Prize for The Good Earth, and later won a Nobel Prize for literature. She was an activist for a range of causes, including civil rights and women's equality, and counted among her friends Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Dubois and James Michener.

``This was a person who understood the strength and commonalities of different cultures, and could identify with a person who was caught between cultures,'' Richardson said. ``In China, she felt like an outsider; that's why she empathized with the outcasts, with people who are marginalized.''

Over the years, Pearl S. Buck International has helped not only orphans but also refugees, and children who are disabled or HIV-positive. The organization has arranged the adoption of more than 6,000 children in its 50-year history, but adoption now plays a smaller role in its efforts to help children.

``Welcome House helps find families for children for whom adoption is the only alternative; Pearl Buck International tries to support programs in countries to keep families together,'' said Peter Conn, chairman of the parent group's board of directors and author of Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography.

Most of the efforts now focus on developing programs that help families with children in other countries become self-sufficient. Pearl S. Buck International partners with organizations and governments in countries such as China, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines to create education, job training and health-care programs.

The shift is part of an evolution in the international philanthropic community, Conn said. Nonprofits seek alternate ways of helping families at a time when contributions from American donors are shrinking and host countries challenge outside organizations to justify their presence.

Richardson said, ``So it's a challenge for an organization like us to work in partnership with communities.''

Still, organizers said, the agency will never abandon children whose lives began like that of David Yoder, now a 52-year-old human-resources executive from Norristown.

``I was very lucky,'' Yoder said, of Buck's efforts on his behalf.

Julie Henning agrees. She was a 13-year-old Amerasian orphan in South Korea when Buck, then 76, brought her to Green Hills Farm.

``When I first met her, I thought, `What big blue eyes, and what silvery hair,' '' said Henning, a school teacher in Souderton.

Henning lived with Buck as her daughter for four years until Buck's death at the age of 80.

``Trying to describe her is like trying to describe the ocean. She had so many interests and did so many things,'' Henning said. `` . . . But her legacy, I think, is that she helped people from different cultures understand each other, and she helped thousands of children like me.''

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