Editor’s note: This is the latest installment in an occasional series called Maine Acts of Kindness, highlighting volunteer and philanthropic efforts during the pandemic.

YuJi Smith, 12, of Edgecomb, in the backyard of the home she shares with her parents, Kimberly Smith and Hal Ostrom. YuJi was adopted from a Chinese orphanage at 11 months old. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Both came from China, special gifts in their own way. A little girl and, nearly 12 years later, a box of 200 surgical face masks.

How the girl and the face masks ended up in the lobby of the Maine Veterans’ Home in Augusta is a story of family members on two sides of the globe – both intent on helping others during the worldwide coronavirus outbreak.

YuJi Smith, a sixth-grader who lives in Edgecomb, was 11 months old when she was adopted from a Chinese orphanage by Kimberly Smith and Hal Ostrom. According to her parents, YuJi has expressed an interest in learning about her birth family since she began speaking English at 3 1/2 years old.

When YuJi was 5, shortly after the family moved to Maine from Connecticut, her DNA sample was submitted to a genetics analysis company that traces ancestors and family connections. As YuJi grew older they would check the company’s website for possible matches. When she was 11, they tried to connect with the top match, but did not get a response.

On her 12th birthday, in November, YuJi and her parents scanned the results of possible relative matches. Again, the same person in China was the clear top match. A message was sent through the DNA website. Twenty minutes later, YuJi had a response from the woman, Qingrong Chen. A third cousin, it turned out, but an important first authentic birth relative.

“I was pretty excited because I did not really know much about my past in China,” YuJi said.

YuJi and her parents began communicating regularly with Chen, using the Chinese social media app WeChat. They learned Chen lives in Guangzhou, the capital city of Guangdong Province on China’s southern coast, and is a mother of three sons. Two of her sons live in the United States.

As the novel coronavirus hit Wuhan, the WeChat messages focused on Chen’s health and safety.

Then the dynamic shifted as the virus spread across Europe and inevitably into the United States. Were YuJi and her parents safe? Did they have face masks?

Despite assurances that YuJi’s family was safe, Chen persisted. The Chinese government would allow her to send up to 200 face masks at a time.

YuJi Smith, 12, donated face masks to the Maine Veterans’ Home in Augusta in honor of her mother’s father, Nelson George “Bud” Smith Jr., who served in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters during World War II. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

When the personal protective equipment arrived, in a tightly wrapped box, YuJi and her family decided to donate the face masks to the Maine Veterans’ Home in Augusta.

“First for us, this is so wonderful for YuJi to have family and not only to find people but people who from the start are acting like family –gracious and welcoming,” said Kimberly Smith. “It’s one thing to find people you’re related to, but I mean, these are really tender, very sweet people, her kind of people because that’s what YuJi is like.”

“I think it shows that all people are connected,” YuJi said.

The masks also provided a way for YuJi to connect to her adoptive family’s history. The masks were donated in honor of Smith’s father, Nelson George “Bud” Smith Jr., who served in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters during World War II as a signalman with the U.S. Navy Armed Guard.

Maine Veterans’ Homes is an independent nonprofit organization with six locations. The Augusta home has avoided a significant COVID-19 outbreak like those at several long-term care facilities in Maine, including the Maine Veterans’ Home in Scarborough.

“The staff was touched by this kind and thoughtful donation,” said Josh Scroggins, the director of development and communications at the Maine Veterans’ Homes.

“In this case to see YuJi, a 12-year-old child, take this gift that was meant for her and then donate it to veterans in honor of her late grandfather is extremely special,” Scroggins added.

Bud Smith died in April 2008. YuJi was adopted in late October 2008, culminating a three-year process.

Twelve-year-old YuJi Smith of Edgecomb recently donated 200 surgical face masks to the Maine Veterans Home in Augusta. Photo courtesy of Hal Ostrom

“He knew we were trying to adopt. That was one of the last things he responded to,” Kimberly said of her father. “We have a special family mythology. That he went up there (to heaven) to lay down the law and help move things along.”

They do not know where YuJi was born, but on a family trip to China last summer they were allowed to go to Beijing and view her official adoption records. Through a translator they learned that YuJi was found, at about 10 days old, by a teacher and then taken to the orphanage.

YuJi enjoys school, attending the Center for Teaching and Learning. She says her favorite subject is math. She also enjoys swimming with the Boothbay Region YMCA Dolphins club team (butterfly is a top event) and taking ballet lessons. Her father thinks she has a potential as a writer.

The coronavirus has impacted YuJi’s family directly. Ostrom is a self-employed optometrist who has maintained his practice in Connecticut.

“When we moved to Maine it wasn’t really practical for me to close up my business and start over up there,” said Ostrom, 62. “So we make it work. Normally I would see patients in Connecticut Monday through Thursday, then take a train to Boston and a (bus) to Portland.”

When the coronavirus hit New England, Ostrom decided he needed to stay in Connecticut to cover patient emergencies and that it wasn’t ethical or safe to be traveling between two states that both have quarantine restrictions. He hasn’t been home to see his wife and daughter since mid-March.

“It’s been tough. Tough on my daughter, too,” Ostrom said.

Ostrom had to appreciate from afar the significance of YuJi donating Chinese face masks to an American veterans home.

“It’s just so cool. The relationship between these two countries is a little strained even before all this started and just to make some sort of connection, no matter how minuscule it is, it’s a good thing, right?” Ostrom asked. “It’s just showing one individual reaching out to another can make some changes maybe.”

Are there folks in your community going out of their way to help others during the virus outbreak? If so, please send details about their efforts to [email protected]

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