The Indomitable Jane Aronson

GLOBALLY INSPIRED: Jane Aronson has spearheaded numerous initiatives to help orphaned children internationally.

GLOBALLY INSPIRED: Jane Aronson has spearheaded numerous initiatives to help orphaned children internationally.

They call her the orphan doctor. For sure, Jane Aronson is that and more—adoption expert, pediatric AIDS specialist, non-profit CEO. She has been profiled countless times for her advocacy on behalf of orphans and her practice in international adoption medicine. She has accepted awards from the Congressional Coalition on Adoption, Glamour magazine, and other institutions. She has even gained a measure of celebrity, having worked with many Hollywood clients, among them—you guessed it—the Jolie-Pitts.

But talking into her cell phone at the headquarters for Worldwide Orphans Foundation (WWO) in Maplewood, Aronson, 58, answers to mom. “Be home by 3,” she says firmly and then softens, giving in. “Okay, okay, 3:30.” She’s talking to Desalegn (pronounced Des-a-lin), 12, whom she and her partner, Diana, adopted from Ethiopia when he was 6 years old. Des is older brother to Benjamin, 10, whom the couple brought home from Hanoi in 2000. (Aronson is also step-mom to Diana’s domestically adopted daughter, Hilary, 22.)

Before she was an adoptive mom herself, Aronson cared for internationally adopted children as a physician, helping adoptive parents navigate the labyrinth of developmental and medical challenges orphans face, and the adoption process itself. “For every three months in an orphanage, a child faces one month of developmental delays,” says Aronson. “Kids who are adopted abroad are complicated kids. There’s a lot of denial out there, but if you don’t tell the truth, you can’t get better.”

Aronson still spends half her week running her pediatric practice on 30th Street in Manhattan; she’s seen more than 10,000 children. But the other vocation she’s taken on for the past thirteen years isn’t about evaluating the lucky few children who get adopted—it’s about coming up with a plan for those who don’t.

In 1997, Aronson decided to tackle the problem of the world’s 163 million orphans at its source, and to see the conditions these kids were living in, the obstacles they faced, and the circumstances that led to their being orphaned in the first place. The Orphan Rangers program was WWO’s first initiative, a Peace Corps-like reconnaissance mission of sending students and health care professionals to visit orphanages where they would keep a journal, identify needs, help in any way they could, and report back. With the information these rangers brought home, WWO’s mission advanced to improving the health and living situations for children residing in orphanages by training staff in psychosocial care, and creating stimulating environments in which these children could thrive. Today, WWO is in six countries—Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Ethiopia, Haiti, Serbia, and Vietnam—providing early intervention programs to work on developmental delays, one-to-one initiatives to give orphans individualized attention, HIV/AIDS treatment centers, sports and arts outlets, schools, summer camps, and more.

After she says goodbye to Des, Aronson continues telling the richly detailed, open-book account of how she came to this point in her life, before she was in celebrity photos next to Mary-Louise Parker and Hugh Jackman, and before WWO made headlines for being one of the first organizations to provide HIV/AIDS meds to orphans in Ethiopia and Vietnam. Aronson tells her story better than any journalist ever could, with a reporter’s attention to minutiae. She is cerebral and drops words like “avuncular” and “cachetic,” without pause. Her speech comes quickly and with a New York accent, but she slows down to pay homage to mentors, family, friends, and neighborhood folks.

MAPLEWOOD MOM: Jane Aronson with her adopted sons, 10-year-old Benjamin, left, who is from Hanoi, and Desalegn, 12, from Ethiopia.

MAPLEWOOD MOM: Jane Aronson with her adopted sons, 10-year-old Benjamin, left, who is from Hanoi, and Desalegn, 12, from Ethiopia.

Aronson describes her childhood in Franklin Square, Long Island (though she was born in Jamaica, Queens) as magical. She couldn’t match her older brother’s athletic abilities, but she excelled academically. Science was her favorite subject, and she always wanted to be a doctor. Aronson’s Russian-Jewish parents were of modest means; both college grads, her father had a grocery store in Queens and her mother taught accounting at a local high school and college. She chokes up remembering how her father would let the poor families in the neighborhood buy groceries on credit, her eyes misting behind the big, round, sky-blue frames for which she is well-known. Other mentors were her great-uncle Joe, an infectious-disease doctor who treated Native Americans, and her childhood rabbi, Harold Saperstein, who spoke of his travels and the plight of the Jews and other oppressed people all over the world, inspiring Aronson’s global mind set.

Medical school brought Aronson to New Jersey. After graduating from Hunter College, she dreamed of going to Yale. Not getting accepted was a blow, and she moved to Greenwich Village, cultivated her independence, and tried carpentry, bartending, and teaching. Later she was proud she attended a quality state medical school, UMDNJ, and could pay off the tuition loans herself. Aronson did residencies at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, Monmouth Medical Center, Newark Beth Israel, and Morristown Memorial, and lived in Fair Lawn and then Oceanport. The Jersey Shore reminds her of her childhood on Long Island, and she remembers bringing Des there for the first time. “We all held hands in Sandy Hook,” she says. “He was 5 years and 11 months old. He didn’t speak any English, but his eyes couldn’t be bigger. He wanted to be in the ocean. He wanted to lie down and bury himself in the sand.”

Aronson and Diana were drawn to Maplewood in 2002 after deciding to leave the Upper West Side because they wanted a backyard for Ben. Though they thought about Westchester, they were won over by Maplewood’s diversity and turn-of-the-century homes (they settled on a plum-colored, circa-1902 Victorian). “We love to walk into town and have little adventures,” says Aronson. “Ben says, ‘When you go into Maplewood, you always see someone you know.’” She stresses that she wants to teach her boys to be generous, to “save your own butt, but then save someone else’s.”

Aronson acknowledges that her life has perfectly prepared her for the work she does with WWO, and says being childlike herself (she loves adventure stories, cartoons, and play, in general) helps her connect with children. “It was a confluence and a conspiracy to entice me and seduce me, and I was easily enticed and seduced to do this work,” she says. She’s become the go-to expert on international adoption and the global orphan crisis, and has been engaged in policy, though she says she’d never run for office. She also says she has no interest in convincing anyone to adopt, though she thinks it’s a wonderful gift to give a child, and she believes gays and lesbians should have the same right to adopt as everyone else. In Aronson’s mind, adoption is only part of the picture.

When the earthquake hit Haiti in January, Aronson set off to assess the needs of the many orphaned and vulnerable children there. On CNN, Anderson Cooper asked Aronson about the impulse some felt to move quickly to get Haitian orphans adopted, but her message was clear: “Kids can have a fantastic life in their own countries if there are proper services.”

Get Involved

Interested in helping Worldwide Orphans Foundation do more for children around the world? Here’s how:

Donate funds. Organize a fundraiser, donate online at wwo.org, or buy tickets for WWO’s star-studded annual gala.

Get the word out. Become a fan of WWO on Facebook or arrange for a WWO representative to visit your workplace, religious institution, school, or community group to speak about the organization.

Donate time. WWO can always use extra office help at its Maplewood headquarters. Contact office manager Roz McAndrews at 973-763-9961.

Become an Orphan or Service Ranger. All Orphan Rangers must be over 18 and are expected to pay for their trip expenses, but WWO provides a stipend to support the trip. The Service Ranger program sends small groups of volunteers to work on a specific project or goal as requested by the in-country personnel. Apply online at wwo.org.


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