Cleft lip girl not adopted time after time. Then, surprise!

Think you had it rough when you were passed over when kids chose players for sports? Imagine watching while other kids around you got chosen for adoption.

An improbable, happy ending for cleft lip girl.

Of course, if you live in an orphanage in Shenzhen, China just north of Hong Kong and  you have a cleft lip and palate– you’re used to difficulties. Among

Sophie’s challenges, difficulties in eating, drinking and especially talking. Still, fate finally smiled on the little girl when–miracle of miracles–a couple from a storied Hollywood suburb  adopted her.  Besides arranging for a slew of surgeries to bring her lip, face and palate up to par, they brought her up well.

Helping others with cleft lip.

Wanting to pay forward her good fortune, Sophie raised enough money in 2014 through CrowdRise to enable another cleft-affected at her old orphanage in China to receive corrective surgery.  Sophie is continuing her good works (called Sophie’s Project) as she finishes up a stellar high school career. Her choice to give back gives a different, wonderful meaning to the horrific phrase “Sophie’s  Choice.” (Sophie’s Choice was a novel and movie with a stunning substory about a WWII prisoner was forced to choose which one of her two children would be gassed and which would be spared.)

Asian girl with repaired cleft lip and palate smiling outdoors.

Sophie Johnson

 ‘Sophie’s Project.’

In her article in The Malibu TimesJudy Abel tells the amazing story of Sophie Johnson 

“After spending her earliest years in an orphanage in China, Malibu High School (MHS) senior Sophie Johnson could not have imagined the turn of events that landed her here in Malibu.

Born with a cleft lip and palate, Sophie saw other children around her being adopted while she was left behind with a birth defect that made it hard for her to talk, eat or drink. When she turned three, the orphanage was able to arrange for lip surgery, but it was unlikely that anything more would be done to help her condition.

Then, in 2003, when Sophie was five years old, local couple Ann Brenoff and Vic Johnson traveled to Shenzhen, China. After what they described as a long and arduous process, they were able to adopt Sophie as their daughter.

Within two weeks of returning home, the family was able to arrange for surgery on her cleft palate. She has since had roughly a dozen painful surgeries to repair her mouth and face.

Fast forward to 2012. Sophie, her parents and her younger brother Simon, who was also adopted from China, traveled back to Shenzhen and visited her old orphanage. She met a young woman there named Fu Hui who was also born cleft-affected and with whom Sophie identified.

“We didn’t speak the same language, but a translator helped us talk,” Sophie said. “I felt a connection with her. She was shy, always looking down. She often put her hand by her face and didn’t like to go out — she spent all day in her room.” 

Sophie explained that she felt sad that Fu Hui wasn’t able to get the same medical treatment that she had gotten.

“So I looked her in the eye and said, ‘I am going to help you,’” Sophie shared. “I didn’t know how exactly, but I was determined to find a way.”

Well, Sophie found a way and helped many times over.

In 2014, with the help of MHS friends Sara Joshi and Jacqueline Ayala, Sophie launched a fundraising campaign through CrowdRise, a website that uses crowdsourcing to raise charitable donations. The girls reached out on social media and Sophie wrote an appeal on The Huffington Post, where her mother is a writer and editor.

Not only did they raise the $3,800 necessary to fund the surgery for Fu Hui, they exceeded their initial goal beyond their wildest expectations. Instead of a few wealthy donors writing big checks, most of the contributions came from Chinese adoptees from around the world.

“Kids in New Zealand, the UK, the Netherlands, and, of course, from all across the United States and Canada made donations — their allowances, their babysitting and dog-walking earnings, their birthday money — just to help a sister left behind,” Sophie said.

She explained that she was touched by every donation, large and small.

“This was us [fellow adoptees] rallying around someone who needed our help — connecting through social media and taking command of a situation that we wanted to fix,” Sophie shared.

Today, Sophie continues to fundraise in many capacities, including organizing community wide garage sales, direct donation campaigns and publicizing her cause on the Huffington Post and other publications. Another charity, Love Without Boundaries (LWB), reached out to her and has partnered to identify Chinese orphans who need special medical or educational help.

Sophie’s Project, which was launched with LWB in spring 2014, hosts global fundraisers through social media to fund each designated child’s need. Along with funding four reconstructive surgeries for Fu Hui, Sophie’s Project has also gifted another child, Lilly, an education. She is an older orphan who grew up with no indoor plumbing or school, and aged out of the system.

Now 18, Sophie is a busy student and varsity athlete at MHS where she plays soccer and runs distance for track and field as well as cross country. While applying for colleges and scholarships for her own education, she still spends time each week fundraising, blogging on The Huffington Post and other publications, and reaching out to adoptees and people around the world to help her fellow “brothers” and “sisters” left behind overcome their difficulties.

The Chinese government recently thanked Sophie for her efforts when a delegation visited Southern California to check up on some of the adopted children from Guangdong province. She was presented with a scarf made by Fu Hui as a thank you.


To learn about CLEFT HEART: Chasing Normal, click the Amazon or Barnes & Noble buttons in the margins. Or click the image of the book cover. My coming-of-age memoir has intertwining love stories, mystery, tragedy, and triumph.

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