Katelynn Corkern will never be heard griping about having to complete her chores.
“I see chores as a really good thing,” said the student from Blue Springs. “Because if you’re, like, washing dishes, you realize you just had food to eat.”
That’s because food was never a given when Katelynn was trying to survive as a homeless child on the streets on Nanjing, China.
From that self-described low point, the 20-year-old has made an amazing journey from being discovered in a trash can as a baby to living on the streets of Nanjing to adoption and, finally, to becoming an honors student and soon-to-be graduate at Metropolitan Community College-Blue River.
It even amazes her adoptive parents, Susan and Doug Corkern, that she still possesses a bright, cheery and positive outlook on life and a helpful spirit after all she has been through.
“Katelynn is a huge blessing,” said her mother Susan. “She has grown into a beautiful, intelligent, caring person. She has always been a good role model for her siblings and she is so helpful and caring toward others. She is the type of person that is always looking for the good in others and in every situation. Her smile lights up a room and her ability to give of herself – even after all she has been through – is a gift. Kate has overcome so much. She inspires me.”
How that inspiration came to be is nearly improbable.
It started when Katelynn was born in Nanjing, a city of about 3.6 million people in east central China about 190 miles west up the Yangtze River from Shanghai. She was just days old when an older, disabled woman heard crying from a trash can in a bathroom as she passed it.
She found Katelynn wrapped in a blanket – which she still owns – and picked her up as a crowd gathered. Though it was considered illegal, the woman decided to keep her.
“She just decided that she’d take me home,” Katelynn said. “They had a boy and in China there’s only a one-child policy, so they just kept me because they never had a girl and they wanted one.”
Katelynn, then known by the name Liu Wei Wei, spent the next six-plus years with what she calls her “first foster family” being raised largely in secret for fear of being caught. But when Katelynn was about 7 years old, the woman who was raising her became ill and couldn’t take care of her.
They found a “second foster family” who wanted a child and turned her over to them, but the situation was less than ideal.
“The dad was an alcoholic and did drugs and he would kick me out all the time,” said Katelynn, who then went by the name Zhang Xiao Li.
Roughly from age 7 to 11, Katelynn would be in and out of the second family’s house, mostly fending for herself on the streets and in a Nanjing train station.
She would gather newspapers and stray clothing to keep warm and would dig through trash or rely on the kindness of passers-by for food. She would sleep in the train station because it offered a crowd that would lessen the chance of being taken.
“It was really hard because you don’t know where your next meal would come from, didn’t know if somebody would kidnap you, you had to really just take care of yourself,” Katelynn said. “Some nights you just don’t sleep. … You had to gather trash, or people were kind enough to give food to me.”
When she was 11 she caught another break. Her “first foster family” found she was living on the street. They found her and took her to an orphanage. She said authorities later found out she had been staying with that family but “didn’t care then because I was so old.”
A new beginning
She found some stability in the orphanage and regular food and shelter. She finally started going to school, gaining what amounted to a second grade education.
But in her two and a half years at the orphanage, she learned from the other orphans that adoption by Americans was possible.
“Every child in China who was in an orphanage or in a foster family system, they want to come to America because America is like the dream country,” she said with a smile. “… I knew a lot of other kids who went to America and they were doing so good and even got to come back to China to visit, and they had education. They had a way better future than people who were left behind in China.”
Katelynn, known then by the name Hua Xiao Li, became disillusioned after more than two years of prospective adoptive parents never asking for her file. She thought she would miss the deadline for foreign adoption in China, which is age 14.
That’s when the Corkern family entered the picture. Doug and Susan Corkern had already adopted a Chinese boy, who they renamed Cole. When the family returned to China for him, the orphanage pulled Katelynn out of school and asked the Corkerns if they would like to meet her in an effort to get her adopted.
The Corkerns, though, were financially strapped after the first adoption and weren’t sure they could manage another child.
“It was not in our plan to adopt so soon, but I do believe our hearts were always open to the idea,” Susan said. “The barrier for us was financial. Adoption is very expensive and we could not see ourselves adopting again so quickly.
“However, it was her smile and the way she made a room seem brighter that made her impossible to forget. We initially came home hoping to advocate for her but how many families want a 13-year-old girl? After several months, we felt that God had laid it on our hearts to be her forever family. We were encouraged by friends to trust that we could raise the funds to bring Katelynn home.”
Actually getting her to America was a different thing.
“The international adoption process is lengthy and sometimes challenging,” said Susan, who with Doug has three grown children of their own, Christopher, Kyle and Caleb, and six adopted from China. “Kate’s adoption was unique in that it was completed during the transition to the Hague Treaty. Kate was one of the first children approved under the new rules, and since neither country was sure what was needed or how to process paperwork, under the new laws, her adoption took longer than expected. We waded through 14 1/2 months of paperwork while Kate waited in China hoping she would have a family before she aged out.”
Finally, it was worked out and the Corkerns returned to get her. Katelynn says she will never forget the reunion.
“It was like super exciting. It was like a dream come true,” she said. “… It made me cry. And my parents, of course, they were crying but filled with joy. It was hard to communicate, so they had a translator. I just thought (to myself), ‘Oh my goodness, I’m going to come to America. I’m going to be there and I’m going to have a family.’”
Coming to America
Getting acclimated to America was difficult, Katelynn said. When the Corkerns brought her home to Independence, where they lived until moving to Blue Springs two years ago, it was a completely different world.
“When I came here it was so different because the toilets were different, the food was different, people looked different, and things they did were different,” Katelynn said. “It took me getting used to having a family, that was different, and having an education and learning, that was different. Just like everything was different.”
The world she was now living in was different from the impression she had of America living in the orphanage.
“I didn’t really know a lot about America. I used to think all Americans were like all blond and tall, stuff from TV, like all the models,” she said with a laugh. “I didn’t think I was ever going to come to America. It was a huge shock to me, and I was overwhelmed.”
Not only were the cultures different, Katelynn didn’t understand a word of English. At first the family had to use a translator to communicate. They enrolled her in public school, determining that she should go into the seventh grade.
But with her language limitations and only having a second grade education in China, she struggled. The Corkerns pulled Katelynn out of public school and started to home-school her.
There she started to blossom. She managed to learn more English and quickly caught up from her second grade level to where she was supposed to be.
“I had to talk to my parents and other kids, so I was very focused on learning English, and my parents helped me out a lot,” Katelynn said. “I would get up super early in the morning and start studying and go until 4 or 5 (p.m.) – even on Saturdays and Sundays – until I learned it.”
She earned her high school diploma on time eventually and decided to enroll in MCC-Blue River.
Because she was home-schooled, she was a bit apprehensive about starting her college career.
That first semester Katelynn met with a peer mentor, who helped her get adjusted and involved on campus.
“I got connected with campus and they found me tutors. It was perfect for me,” she said.
So perfect that when she saw there was a chance to join the Peer Mentor program after her first semester, she applied and was accepted.
“I said, ‘I need to do this,’” Katelynn said. “I wanted to help people who were maybe home-schooled or from a different country. I thought my experience might help them.”
For example, she said she was able to help a Korean student get acclimated and that student is now very involved in campus activities.
She later joined the Student Ambassador program and gave tours of the campus to prospective students.
Now, armed with a 3.816 grade point average, she will graduate with a associate of arts degree in May, and will be transferring to the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, where she plans to major in international studies and where has gotten a scholarship. She hopes to one day serve as a diplomat in the U.S. State Department or as a foreign service officer or translator for a business or nonprofit.
She, of course, speaks fluent Chinese. She has also learned Spanish and is taking courses in Japanese now.
Her knowledge of the Chinese language has already paid off. Her parents have since adopted four more from China – Kendall, Claire, Kennedy and Carson.
Katelynn got to return to China to years ago when the Corkerns brought home Kennedy, 13, and Carson, 7. She served as her parents’ translator and was able to return to her hometown of Nanjing and visit the orphanage and her “first foster family.”
“At first I was like, ‘I don’t know how I’m gonna do this,’” Katelynn said, citing her apprehension at going back. “But I’m glad I was able to do help my parents out.”
Susan said the transition of having a larger family was a bit trying for Katelynn at first, considering where she came from.
“In fact, Kate was not very happy when we decided to adopt her two younger sisters (Kendall, 13, and Claire, 12). I think she was afraid she would be replaced,” Susan said. “Once they were home and she could see that she was still very much loved and valued, she became a wonderful big sister to the girls. She has always been very kind and supportive to her siblings. She was much more prepared, even excited, when we went back to China in 2014 to adopt another younger brother and sister.”
Now, with the couple’s three grown biological children, the family has grown to 11 in all, with nine children.
“It was a hard transition at first but then we all got along really well,” Katelynn said. “We had to become a family. For a normal family, that is usually really easy. Our parents always told us, ‘You were born in our heart, not in our tummy, but our heart.’”
It has been trying recently. Her sister Kennedy was diagnosed with cancer, specifically osteosarcoma, but Katelynn says it has possibly gone into remission. And her grandmother was recently put into hospice care.
Susan said Katelynn has been a blessing to her and Doug and the children, helping out in the household while maintaining her status as an excellent student.
“If it had not been for Katelynn’s help during this time, I’m not sure how we would have fared,” Susan said. “Katelynn stepped in at home, caring for her siblings and taking care of the household so we could be at the hospital or at work. She worked, took 17 to 20 hours of classes a semester and managed a household of eight and still maintained her GPA. We are grateful and proud of her accomplishments.”
Now Katelynn, in addition to helping her parents, just plans to enjoy her new life and chase her dreams, something that she realizes would have been nearly impossible in China.
“They give me a new name, they give me a whole new start in life,” Katelynn said. “I would never have had a chance to go to school, never had a chance to ever feel like a part of a family, to have siblings and a mom and dad. Just having the freedom too, and to be able to dream what I want and chase after it.”
And she’ll keep on smiling and keep her now positive outlook on life.
“I feel like I have always been cheerful even though I think I went through a lot,” Katelynn said. “You just can’t look in the past because you can’t change it, just look forward to your future because you can do way better if you don’t just concentrate on your past.”