Climbing Higher: Jamie Nofsinger, ’95, building awareness in China about raising kids with special needs

To save money, Jamie Nofsinger and his friends didn’t use sherpas.

“We carried all our own gear, so it took a long time … carrying 70-pound loads up and down the mountain,” he says.

It’s an endurance activity, Nofsinger says of mountain climbing. You spend a great deal of time acclimatizing to the elevation, while planning to hit a small summit window and hoping for good weather conditions.

In the case of his climb up the Ama Dablam, in the Himalayas of Nepal, the weather didn’t cooperate. They awoke at 2 a.m. to begin the final stage of their climb, but the dark and poor weather – they could hear the sound of falling rocks in the distance – made the final ascent too risky a proposition.

While the main peak at more than 22,300 feet eluded him, Nofsinger exceeded an even more important goal. The ’95 graduate used crowdfunding to raise more than $3,000 toward sponsoring a Special Olympics event in Kunming, located in the Yunnan Province of China.

It was a passion project for the Nofsinger family, who have launched a new online venture to assist parents in China who are raising children with disabilities.

Fostering Interests

Nofsinger, an Oklahoma native who came to Missouri Southern on a track and field/cross country scholarship, graduated with a degree in biology and a minor in chemistry. He took a position at Tulsa’s Chapman Institute, which specialized in areas such as DNA and genetic testing, and breast cancer research.

“I was one of the only Americans working in the lab,” he says. “I worked with several Chinese people there and became interested in their language and culture.”

In 1998, he moved to China to begin studying the language and embark on a new career. He spent nearly 10 years managing a Tibetan carpet factory, and later served as project manager for a Canadian country working on conservation projects on the Tibetan plateau.

“Wherever we live, we want to be involved in our community,” says Nofsinger. “In 2012, the government opened the fostering program to foreigners living in the country. My wife and I went to the orphanage, and the director took us through to a room where there were children who needed foster parents.”

It was on the way, though, that they met Kai.

“We walked through a room where there were children with disabilities,” he says. “Kai was in a playpen and he threw a rubber squeaky toy. My wife picked it up and looked at him and he held out his hands. She picked him up and he hugged her.”

At 2 1/2 years old, Kai was non-verbal, couldn’t walk or eat solid foods.

The director initially discouraged their interest in fostering him, saying that as Westerners, they would receive stares in public if seen with a disabled child.

The couple persisted and the director agreed to let them foster Kai. Within three months he was crawling and eating solid foods. In six months, he was walking.

“It was a testament to the love of a family and being involved in a child’s life,” says Nofsinger.

Today, Kai is still non-verbal but is still going through speech therapy and is learning to use an iPad program that converts pictures to speech. He’s also now a permanent member of the Nofsinger family, who decided to adopt him.

Sharing Information

There are more than 80 million families in China raising a child with special needs, says Nofsinger. Due to cultural issues, many families choose to hide them from public view and not discuss the issue openly.

“There’s not a lot of sharing of information, and what there is isn’t really practical,” he says. “We got a lot of questions from people and started thinking about creating a website where we can provide accurate information, encourage resources and build an online community.”

Launched in late 2018, bluepandakids.com is designed to provide just that.

The three pandas in their logo represent the Nofsingers’ children, and blue is the color used for autism awareness initiatives. The site will offer advice from parents and professionals as well as information about resources available in China.

“We’ll provide content from medical professionals and eventually move to a subscription basis,” says Nofsinger.

Changing cultural perceptions surrounding disabilities is a tall order – bigger than Ama Dablam, even. But the Missouri Southern alum feels up to the challenge – moving forward one step at a time.

“There’s a huge need for this here,” he says.

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