I became father to 1million children after man at church told me it was my destiny

FORMER pro footballer Robert Glover was stunned when a man at his church told him: “You are going to be father to as many children as there are stars in the sky.”

He already had six kids with his wife Liz and felt that was more than enough.

But today Robert, who played alongside Chris Kamara at Portsmouth after graduating from the Norwich City youth team in the Seventies, is “Dad” to a million children — in China.

In the week the country announced families are now allowed to have three children instead of just two, a new documentary tells the extraordinary story of how the Glover family helped orphans find loving homes.

Robert, who worked with disadvantaged children in Norfolk after quitting football due to injury, had seen the terrible conditions in orphanages on a visit to China in 1996 and felt compelled to help.

Two years later the remarkable couple sold everything they owned and moved to Shanghai with their children — Rachel, then 12, Lois, ten, Megan, eight, Anna, six, and four-year-old twins Josh and Joel.

They didn’t speak a word of Chinese and, in a city of 24million, the large family was such a phenomenon that locals would stop to touch their light-coloured hair.

Fostering was not a concept in China, but Robert, then a social worker in Guernsey, convinced top officials that the eight million children living in its institutions would thrive if they were given loving homes.

The authorities in Shanghai invited him to launch a charity backed by the British government.

In the tear-jerking Sky documentary, narrated by the charity’s patron and adventurer Bear Grylls, Rob and Liz recall first stepping into Shanghai Orphanage where they were to set up the office for Care For Children.

Robert, 64, recalls: “They had hardly any possessions, there was a little cupboard where they kept their stuff and some books and a few tiny toys.

"And then you saw the older boys and how tough they were and you knew that in their toughness they’d survived.

“For every one of those boys who had survived many hadn’t.”

Liz, 57, says: “Lots of children who were in cots weren’t nurtured and weren’t helped. That was really tough.

“The staff used to bring the children out and tie them together so they could walk in a line and didn’t wander off.

“It was scary, I’d never been to China, I didn’t have a clue what it meant to live there, and to take our six children.

“But the thing that made it more secure was that we’d be helping children that were in much worse conditions and much worse situations than my children.”

It was scary, I’d never been to China. I didn’t have a clue what it meant to live there and to take our family

Among the early obstacles Robert had to overcome was being treated with suspicion by orphanage staff, who would refuse to let him eat with them in the canteen.

But he made a breakthrough thanks to his beloved Norwich City.

Robert says: “The teenage boys weren’t going to get the opportunity to live in a family so I used to take a ball into the playground and teach them a bit of football.

“It started with about five of them and it grew to the point where we were given permission to train them.

“Some of our team were deaf and dumb, and one boy only had one arm. But they were strong and resilient.

“I wrote to my old team Norwich City and they sent out a strip of yellow
shirts and socks and green shorts, and training became a bit more serious.

"We then decided to enter them into the Shanghai Schools Trophy and in the final we beat the American school 5-3. It was a major achievement.”

The astonishing victory by a team of disabled orphans in an able-bodied competition brought honour to the orphanage and changed everything.

Robert, who in 2005 was awarded an OBE for his work, says: “There was a knock on my door and the whole of the staff group were outside with a bowl with my name on it.

"It meant that after six months they had accepted me and I could eat in the canteen with them, which was a huge accomplishment.”

The local press then ran a story about his plan to find foster parents for the children.

Within days, hundreds of families were offering a loving home.

One of the first children to be fostered was nine-year-old Su Yiya, who had been dumped by his birth mother on wasteland between a building site and railway track.

His foster mum, Wu Diying, saw the article and visited the orphanage.

She says: “I didn’t tell my husband. He didn’t know I was going to adopt a child. My heart wanted to offer love.

"When I went to the orphanage they showed me five boys. Four didn’t want to be fostered but one did.

“He was very excited to be leaving. He came into the orphanage office and saw me.

"We dressed him in new clothes. Then he ran towards me and shouted ‘Mamma!’

“I was so moved that he called me mother for the first time.

‘Growing up, I didn’t have a dad. I can appreciate that the kids almost have nothing to direct them or guide them

“We brought him home but we didn’t know what to do next. He was naughty, mischievous and he broke everything.”

Robert says: “Children who come into care have often gone through awful rejection. They’re feeling abandonment, are hurt. Often they will display quite abnormal behaviour. It’s a self-destruct button.”

Su Yiya took an IQ test before he left the orphanage and scored low.

His mum says: “He couldn’t understand what the teacher said in class. But he was really very smart and learned quickly once his father began to teach him every day.”

Now 29, Su Yiya was the first child from an orphanage to go to university and today he is one of Shanghai’s most sought-after computer coders.

Following the success of the pilot project in Shanghai, Robert and Liz were asked to act as an adviser to China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs and to roll out foster care across China.

Care For Children has now placed more than a million orphans with foster families across the country, including in one tiny mountain village where 70 families each adopted a disabled child.

The charity has also helped thousands more in Thailand and Vietnam, and is currently working on opening an office in Cambodia.

Behind each one of those children is a moving story.

One couple, Lee Gong Wei and Wan Wang Bin, fostered Xu Peiwei when she was five.

Her mum says: “She was like a one-year-old baby. I had to hold her all the time because her brain wasn’t functioning properly.

“She couldn’t use the toilet and had to wear nappies. She couldn’t eat solid food, all she could eat was porridge and milk.

“At first she was scared about coming into a new family but we tried really hard to build a connection with her. I was busy with work, so her father did almost everything.

"He even cycled for an hour and a half to the hospital twice a day when she was unwell.”

Testament to the love and nurturing of her foster parents, Xu Peiwei went on to represent her country at the Paralympics in roller-skating and swimming.

Robert, who returned to the UK in 2013 but still works for the charity, says: “Growing up in Norfolk, I didn’t have a father.

"There was clearly something missing in my childhood. And I can appreciate that these children almost have nothing to direct them or guide them.

“We know institutions create dependent, dysfunctional people. And I think returning the children back into family life will change the nation of China.”

The country was so grateful to Rob that it honoured him with a special Chinese name, which means “as many stars there are in the sky, you’ll be father to children in China”.

Robert says: “That really hit me because many years previously in Guernsey, a man came over to our church and said, ‘I sense that God is saying you’re going to be father to as many children as there are stars in the sky’

"I thought, ‘How can you get that many children, have you seen how many stars are up there?’

“But, of course, Shanghai is where I was meant to be.”

  • Children Of Shanghai is on Sky Documentaries tomorrow at 4.45pm as well as Catch Up and Vimeo On Demand.

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