Sarah Sabal and Paul Anderson met for the first time on May 14, 2019 as recipients of the George E. Allen Scholarship, given annually by the Allen Law Firm. Out of 500 applicants, the teens were two of only 15 students chosen to receive the award. However, when Sarah and Paul introduced themselves at the banquet, a quick conversation soon revealed they shared a similar history.
Sarah was born Long Xiu Ying, named after the officer who found her abandoned in Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province and home to some 7.8 million people. In an odd twist, Paul, or Ma Gu Lin, was also named after the officer who found him in the city. Both Paul and Sarah were sent to the Chengdu Social Welfare Institute, an orphanage where their respective stays would overlap three years. Both were eventually put up for adoption due to their disabilities.
Sarah, who has a rare craniofacial deformity that prevented her ears from developing, is deaf. Paul, who was born with albinism, is blind.
In a country of 1.3 billion people, both Paul and Sarah would eventually be adopted and brought to Virginia, where they would both apply to and be accepted as George E. Allen Scholarship recipients, given to students who overcome significant adversity to achieve at a high level.
It was Sarah’s mother, Angela, who would first feel a connection to Paul.
“At the awards dinner, I was immediately drawn to Paul,” says Angela. “So I said to Sarah, ‘Let’s go talk to him.’ When Sarah mentioned she was from Chengdu, they started sharing stories, except it was the same story.”
Paul’s mom, Kimberley, continues: “At first I didn’t believe it could actually be the same orphanage,” she says. But then Kimberley went home and looked in the photo album given to her when she adopted Paul. “And there it was.”
Covered by thin laminate, one picture sticks out. Paul stands in the center, smiling at the camera. In the left corner, Sarah is walking out of the frame.
Angela first discovered Sarah’s picture online in 2007 when Googling places to practice sign language. With two adult children out of the house, Angela had taken up the language and was looking to connect with others. Instead, an extended Google search would eventually yield a website for children up for adoption.
“When I first saw her picture, I thought she was so cute, but I didn’t think anything of it. Then, a couple days later something made me look again, and she was still there. I read that she had a condition called bilateral microtia and so I Googled it. It means having no ear canals. So I said ‘That would be no problem. I love signing.’ Nine months later, my husband and I were off to China.”
While Sarah mostly recalls freezing winters and blistering summers at the orphanage, spending the first seven years of her life there proved advantageous in one way. Sarah can only hear sounds as loud as a dog’s bark, and so the noisy orphanage helped her to develop speech.
Unlike many children who cry when meeting their adoptive parents for the first time, Sarah was excited, tears instead replaced with cheers in the Sichuan dialect: “Foreign mother!” she exclaimed. “Foreign father!”
Relying heavily upon her visual senses, it’s no surprise that Sarah’s first impression of her home in Stafford was one of vivid color.
“I remember that there was so much green and it was so much cleaner.”
Paul has no recollection of his time at the orphanage. Only 4 years old when he left for Virginia, the Andersons speculate he was kept in a dark room, which hindered the proper development of his eyes.
“At the time, we had one child with albinism that we had adopted, and we kept seeing a picture of Paul pop up,” says Kimberley. “I told my husband that it would be nice for Elijah, our other adopted son, to have a brother, and that’s how we got Paul.”
Kimberley’s experience adopting Paul was much different from Angela’s. “It was hard,” says the mother of six — two biological children and four adopted children from China. “When we left the orphanage, he screamed the entire time.”
At home in Smithfield, Paul did not speak for the first year. In his scholarship essay, he writes: “As time progressed, my parents began to accept the possibility that I was mentally slow. They pulled me out of public school in favor of homeschooling, and it was at this time that things began to change.”
Despite growing concern that Paul wouldn’t develop like other children as a result of his homeschooling, Kimberley persisted. Along with her husband, she taught Paul how to adapt to his blindness, giving him magnifiers to help him read, and retrofitting his computer with accessibility tools like a large-screen monitor to help him study.
“Through homeschooling, I was able to discover that he really understands numbers, so I kept throwing math at him,” says Kimberley. Paul soon accelerated to the point where he was ready for AP Calculus in 8th grade.
Against All Odds
As Sarah and Paul sit across from each other today talking about their experiences, their easy familiarity would lead one to believe they’ve never been apart. In addition to the circumstances of their past, they also share a resilience that speaks to how far they’ve traveled. From children once abandoned to finally embraced, both have overcome adversity to discover true passions, and both have used their disabilities, not as a crutch, but as a platform.
Due to her inability to hear, Sarah taught herself to communicate through drawings, saying that “art became my language without words.” In her scholarship essay, she writes that at the orphanage she collected “scraps of paper and pencil nubs” in order to communicate. “It was a medium in which I conveyed my thoughts and emotions.”
Likewise, Paul says that math is his form of “artistic expression.” His love for the subject has helped him discover a second passion as well: astronomy. In his scholarship essay, he writes that “this may seem somewhat paradoxical, as astronomy is a visual science. However, I have found ways of overcoming my blindness and explore the field to my heart’s content.”
“It’s amazing to see what can happen as a result of giving back to the community,” says Edward. “It’s been such an honor to have been a part of this remarkable story. I am so proud of everything these two have accomplished and I know they will both go on to do great things.”
Indeed, Sarah, who has undergone multiple ear reconstruction surgeries and uses auditory sound processors to help her hear mechanically, is a proud Oboe player in the high school band. Despite having reconstruction surgery on her foot, she has achieved varsity letters in both track and cross country. All the while, she is a National Honor Society student who plans to blend her passions to study Imaging Science, a combination of math, engineering, physics, and art, at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. She adds that she’d like to one day create a device to help Paul see.
In her scholarship application, Sarah’s counselor writes: “Sarah has always chosen to challenge herself and never takes the easy way out. This is all the more remarkable in light of her background… Sarah is dedicated to her improvement and her tenacity is admirable.”
Paul, who continued to excel through homeschooling, has spent many summers attending programs through the Department of the Blind and Visually Impaired and the National Federation of the Blind. Pursuing his passion for astronomy, Paul has applied to three college-level programs in as many years. Only the top students are selected for the week-long courses. Paul has been selected every year. He attended the Virginia Space Grant Consortium’s Virginia Space Coast Scholars in 10th grade, the Virginia Aerospace Science and Technology Scholars in 11th grade, and the Virginia Earth Systems Science Scholars in 12th grade. Paul plans to attend the College of William & Mary in the fall and major in math.
His scholarship reference writes: “While I am deeply honored to write a character reference for Paul Anderson, I humbly feel inadequate for the job. His life is nothing short of a miracle and a testament to God’s hand and I don’t believe I shall ever have an opportunity to write on behalf of a worthier recipient.”
Today, Paul and Sarah maintain a budding friendship as they Facetime over math equations. However, despite Paul’s penchant for problem-solving, he admits that the probability of the two meeting after living in the same orphanage for three years, being adopted from China to parents in Virginia, then applying to and being accepted for the same scholarship, is against the odds. What is likely, however, is the distance Sarah and Paul will continue to travel, both in their lives and their newfound friendship.