A Chance to Change Lives

Webster University's Applied Educational Psychology program gave Laura Axtetter the chance to achieve one of her life goals

ST. LOUIS – When Laura (McKinney) Axtetter was 12 years old, China first began allowing international adoptions. A news story on Chinese orphanages affected Axtetter so deeply that she made it her goal to work with children in Chinese orphanages.

“I knew at that point that I wanted to do something to help the orphans in China,” said Axtetter. “For 20 years I have wanted to be involved in this cause, but I had no idea how to get involved.”

That all changed in 2011, when Axtetter’s began working on her master’s degree at Webster in Applied Educational Psychology. She heard about the program from Deborah Stiles, a professor in the School of Education.

“This major offered a combination of my three main educational interests,” said Axtetter. “It focused on the psychology of teaching and global outreach. I was excited about the opportunity for research as well as the opportunity to obtain credentials in psycho-educational assessment.”

She was able to combine her interest in child development and psychology and her passion for the improvement of Chinese orphanages through the program. Her thesis focuses on the development of female Chinese adoptees in transracial families. It was during the research of this paper in 2013 that she learned about a trip that A Helping Hand Adoption Agency planned to take to China.

“The agency had just been given the opportunity to team up with an orphanage in China through the China Center for Child Welfare and Adoption One-to-One program,” said Axtetter. “This program matches adoption agencies with specific orphanages so that the agency is able to establish close working relationships with the orphanage staff, as well as provide support and advocacy for children it the orphanage. One focus of the agency is to help find families for their children with special needs.”

The adoption agency was paired with a small orphanage in Beiliu City, in southern China. Axtetter forwarded her educational background and thesis abstract to the agency and received word a few days later that she would take part in the travel group along with another educator, two physical therapists, an occupational therapist and others. The team would work to improve the living conditions at the orphanage.

“It’s hard to fathom the conditions and circumstances these children endure on a daily basis,” she said. “With so many under the care of only two caregivers per shift, individual interaction is extremely limited. With the exception of one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon, young children spend all of their day in bed. They don’t have a chance to experience even the simplest toys and activities that we take for granted in America.”Orphanage in China

The team from A Helping Hand Adoption Agency completed a physical assessment of each child and also donated thousands of dollars worth of rehabilitation equipment such as wheelchairs, walkers, braces, special shoes and chairs.

“We were able to work with the caregivers to show them how to use the equipment and explain the benefits. It was so exciting when we arrived on our second day to find that the caregivers had already placed several children in the corner chair or on wedges. This was a great improvement over the previous day when the children with severe disabilities had been laying on the floor or in their beds. To us, this meant the caregivers were listening, observing and learning from us – they were showing us that they wanted to make improvements for the children.”

Axtetter said that the work that they provided could mean that more of the children will be available for adoption.

“The number of adoptions had greatly declined over the past several years as more of the children living in the orphanage had been categorized as special needs,” said Axtetter. “Through our assessments with the children, we were able to convince the directors that many of the children should have their files prepared for adoption. As a direct result of our time there, six files are being prepared, meaning that if all of the paperwork goes through, six children will be eligible for adoption very soon. Twelve more children are expected to be added to that list in the near future – hopefully resulting in the adoption of 18 children.”

Child in chinese orphanageAxtetter said that the research she’s done during the Applied Educational Psychology program was very helpful during the trip and she feels she was able to use what she’s learned at Webster University to help make a difference.

“My research gave me an understanding of the effects institutionalization has on children. I was able to interact with the children in a way that was supportive and appropriate for their level of physical and social emotional development.”

Deborah Stiles, coordinator of the Applied Educational Psychology program at Webster says that this combination of research and hands-on experience is the core of the program.

“We apply knowledge and we contribute,” said Stiles. “Applied Educational Psychology students are contributing to the ‘knowledge base’ in the fields of educational psychology and school psychology. The students are integrating research and practical experience to meet the diverse needs of children all over the world.”

Axtetter said that this experience is just the beginning of her work. She plans to go back to China and also speaks to classes at Webster and outside groups hoping to encourage others to help.

“These are all things that I never would have done without the confidence that my professors have shown in me. Their belief in me made me believe in myself enough to step outside of my comfort zone and achieve my dreams. Working in the orphanages of China seemed like an unattainable goal a few years ago. Grad school opened doors that changed my life forever.” 

For more information on A Helping Hand, visit the agency’s website at www.ahelpinghandadoption.org.

For more information on an MA in Applied Educational Psychology, visit the School of Education’s website.