Interview with David Gotts

Part 1 of 2

This is the first of a two-part interview with David Gotts, Founder and Executive Director of International China Concern. In this interview, Dave shares his reflections on the 20 year history of ICC. In the second part, Dave will share his vision for the future of the organization and where we will find our next major milestones.

david gotts

What’s your favourite memory with ICC so far? 

Back in 1995, before Oasis House had even opened, I was leading one of the short term teams and at that point in time, ICC was still working out with the [Chinese] government what we were going to be doing long term. I remember feeling quite discouraged about what was going on. It’s hard to imagine how difficult things were back then. You were always walking on eggshells, on this knife’s edge all the time. There was a lot of tension and stress in it. 

One night, after I had settled the team down, I went back to the welfare centre into the orphanage and I started going around praying for the kids. The need then was still very extreme. I remember one of the boys coming up to me and putting his hand on me and praying for me. And that was Li Shi who now sells newspapers, has a cleaning job and preaches at his church. He must have been five years old at that point. It was just a really moving moment for him to be praying for me. 

I thought to myself, “Wow, this isn’t just about us giving to these kids, but it’s this mutual relationship of blessing.” In him praying for me, it really reinvigorated and strengthened me and gave me the ability to push on and I think that’s what helped make Oasis House a reality. 

It was really a beautiful moment. When I see folks crouching over the little kids now, I still think back to that memory of myself crouching over a crib and having Li Shi standing next to me.

What do you miss the most over all the changes we’ve seen in ICC? 

I think as organizations grow and develop, it becomes harder to maintain the intimacy of relationships with all the people who are a part of ICC. For the first five or six years, I led every single short term team so I knew every short term team member and therefore most of the long term team members. As long term staff came in, I lived on the ground with them and we weren’t just coworkers but we were a community and a family. 

But as things grow and develop, you get pushed a little bit further back from the front lines, and it’s hard to maintain the same intimacy with the children and those you work with. The consolation is that whilst you miss that level of connection, you’re multiplying the pairs of hands that are able to fulfil the work that you do and the vision you have. So while there’s a loss involved in not being as close to people and as close to the kids, you’re facilitating more pairs of hands to get involved and that’s just grown and grown and grown. So now there are hundreds of pairs of hands at work, what with volunteers, team members and permanent staff. 

 It’s a double-edged thing because we are doing much more now than we ever could before, but I do miss that level of intimacy the most.

What’s one of the most difficult memories you had in the history of ICC? 

I think one of the most difficult moments we had was when we were told we were going to lose Oasis House. It was back in 2004 and the government had decided there was too much value in that piece of property to remain as a single story building. There were 40 kids living there at the time. We only had a matter of months to move out and we weren’t presented with any options on where else to go. 

At that point, we were feeling like we’d just created a home and given the kids stability. But we were told if we didn’t comply the government would just take the kids back. It felt like we were on the edge of not only having the kids go back to a really hard situation, but into a situation where many of them may end up dying from the reduced level of care. It was a very stressful and difficult time – probably one of the hardest times for ICC. It felt like everything was hanging in the balance. But this is the nature of all things working together. 

This ended up being the catalyst for us creating the group homes. We said to ourselves, “We can replicate Oasis House or we can take a step forward.” That step forward pushed us to the cutting edge of what was being done. Group homes had never been done before; at least not real community-based ones. At the end of the day, something good was brought out of it. You can see how the work has spread and developed in creating more capacity [for care].

Did you have a vision for ICC when we first started? How close are we to that vision?

The work was really born out of seeing a need. When we started, I didn’t have an all-encompassing vision of what we would do or how we would do it. I was responding to the thought that God cannot want that situation to continue. That was not his will. The only way it could change into something more reflective of his will is for people in the Church to respond and get involved. 

That was my response after the first couple of days in the welfare centre. So initially, it was more of a response to the need. But as we began to walk that out, we started trying to push and do as much as we could. At the beginning, it was all we could do to have those short-term teams, but the vision was always being revealed one step ahead. 

When we were doing teams, we knew we wanted to be there longer term. When we were there longer term, we knew we wanted to create Oasis House. I literally remember some of those conversations where sitting down with the Chinese government, they would ask if we had ever thought of doing long term work? And we could say, “Yes we have.” It was because the vision had already stepped forward into [ICC] becoming that. When [the Chinese government] came to us and said we could be there long term, they wanted to know what we would do if we were there long term. Again, the vision had already stepped forward and we had this image of Oasis House, of a care home. The vision was being revealed as we went. 

As time went on, you settle on the values and the things that are fundamental to the vision. How I would express it now is that the vision of ICC is an umbrella and people can stand under it with their visions. But what they bring under that umbrella needs to fundamentally align with the values and philosophies that we hold to be sacred. ICC, under this vision, is about creating families, communities of children that can come together and take a journey to that fullness of life.

What changes have you seen in China in terms of changing attitudes?

Huge amounts. Seismic shifts in attitudes. Take the government for example: back in 1993, you could walk into any welfare centre, they wouldn’t even check who you were and you could walk into rooms of dying kids and no one seemingly cared. It was accepted that the system would produce nothing but death. They may not have wanted that to be the case, but it was just the way it was. 
Obviously the economic changes in China have been huge and, over time, there were also significant government transitions. Between these two factors, you just see greater levels of awareness about what these children need. One of the great things we’ve contributed is a demonstration of what can be done. It’s helped provide a clear vision for the leaders who are now more aware and willing to believe and accept that change can be meaningful and worthwhile.
All of that has led us to today where there’s a government that wants to resource the projects we’re doing. We’re not fighting for every RMB or dollar. They’ll actually bring up to 50% of the financing for a project to the table. You also see the quality of care improving in government-run facilities. 
15-20 years ago, when we brought the children out on the street, you would hear people sitting in the storefront calling them names or making mean comments. The old word for disability used to be chan fei, which means disabled rubbish. Now, the terminology has changed to reflect some level of political correctness. Today, people will ask questions and talk to the children instead of treating them like they’re stupid. They are starting to understand that these kids want to have homes and families, to interact and have relationship. These people are now willing to enter into relationship with them. 
One huge catalyst was the Special Olympics. That was a big booster in perception and the way people saw how people with disabilities could achieve and compete not just in sports but in society. There’s still a long way to go, but attitudes have changed dramatically.