Sitting on backyard swing, Kate Friesen is smiling happy and other than being the miracle that is a healthy 3- year-old unremarkable. Which is pretty remarkable. A year ago Kate was in a crowded Chinese orphanage trail and in poor health, abandoned by her parents and suffering from a malfunctioning kidney. She owes her amazing recovery to her loving adoptive parents, Wendy and Eugene Friesen, and to an unusual ally: Matt Delio, a 20-year-old Harvard junior who helps disabled Chinese orphans through a foundation he runs from his dorm room.

"These kids are the lowest on the Chinese social ladder," says Dalio, whose group china Care gives financial support to families adopting special-needs orphans from China and to Chinese orphanages. It also helps make many kids more adoptable by paying for surgeries and other medical care. "They are abandoned, they're disabled, and they're children. They don't have a voice of their own. Our goal is to be their voice."

In the case of Kate, the nonprofit helped ensure her survival. It gave the Friesens, who live in Townshend, Vt., and had just adopted Lily, a baby from China, $3,000 in grants and loans toward the estimated $15,000 adoption costs. "I don't think she would have lived much longer if we hadn't gotten there when we did," says Wendy. "China Care got us there faster than we would have."

Dalio—who grew up in wealthy Greenwich, Conn., with parents Ray, an investment manager, and Barbara, a home-maker, and three brothers—started China Care in 2000 after a family friend told him about China's one-child policy for parents, which results in many babies with disabilities being abandoned. He spent a summer volunteering in a Chinese orphanage, learning about the system in which approximately 50 percent of children in orphanages are disabled. "When I realized the magnitude of the problem, I knew I needed to help these kids," he says. "I started looking to friends and family [for initial donations]. I wanted this to be more than just a high school club."

In just four years China Care, which has a small, part-time staff, has helped 86 disabled children find families in the U.S., renovated three orphanages, placed some 90 kids in Chinese foster homes and paid for about 120 operations. For as little as $500 a year, children with severe disabilities, who are unlikely to ever be adopted, can be placed in loving foster homes in China, notes Dalio, an economics and psychology major who wants to be a businessman after graduation. "For children in worse-off orphanages, you need almost nothing to improve their lives. Bringing in more staff, small renovations—little things like that can radically change the lives of these kids."

The benefits are felt not only by the children but by volunteers as well. This past summer Greenwich high school student Jack Rivers worked at an orphanage in China. "I know I helped kids and that makes me feel good," says Rivers, 15, who raised $28,000 for China Care. "I definitely learned how much power I have in my hands."

The kids feel empowered too. When Dalio first met Grace Liacopoulos in an orphanage in 2001, the then 5-year-old was considered unadoptable because of a skin disorder that left black patches on her body. Now living in Wisconsin with a loving family, "Grace always talks about going back and helping her friends," says Dalio. "It's really cool to see the [desire to help] spread. There are many more amazing kids just dying for a family and dying for help."

Ericka Sóuter. Jennifer Longley in Cambridge

  • Contributors:
  • Jennifer Longley.