Verent Mills, ‘Our Man’ in China
With credit to A Book About Children by Larry E. Tise and Yankee Si! by Edmund W. Janss
Dr. Mills spends time with Korean children in 1959.
A name that comes up often in our 75th anniversary materials is Dr. Verent Mills, who was our third executive director from 1970 to 1981. But his connection to ChildFund (and our preceding identities as Christian Children’s Fund and China’s Children Fund) goes back much further.
Born in Birmingham, England, and raised in Winnipeg, Canada, Mills became a missionary to South China in 1931 and remained in Asia for decades. He and his wife, Alma Kenney Mills, and their three daughters lived in China through the 1940s, when Mills was a missionary in Toishan, in the Sz Yup region. This area was cut off from food supplies beginning in 1937, when Japan began its invasion of China.
In 1942, Mills led 142 children, starving survivors of the Japanese invasion of Canton and Sz Yup, more than 300 miles to Ku Kong, where CCF supported an orphanage. In 1945, Mills called upon CCF’s help again, as he moved 700 children from Toishan to Canton, another arduous journey.
Dr. Calvitt Clarke, our organization’s founder, agreed by letter to help support the 700 children by finding American sponsors for them. Ultimately, Mills moved the children into an orphanage in Canton, where they went to school and received training in skills that would be useful for their livelihoods: weaving for girls, carpentry for boys.
Dr. Mills visits Kenya in the 1970s.
In 1947, Mills joined the CCF staff as regional director in Shanghai. He scouted existing orphanages in China’s northern provinces that were underfunded and needed help. Funding came quickly from the United States, where Clarke was recruiting new sponsors so fast that Mills could hardly keep up with the writing of children’s case histories.
But in December 1949, the communist government was established on China’s mainland. At the time, our sponsors were assisting 5,113 children in 42 orphanages across the country. But Westerners, CCF staff members included, realized quickly that they were not welcome under the new regime. Like many others, Mills was accused of being a spy.
The government took over orphanages. Mills was not allowed to visit the 11 homes for orphans in North China or have any contact with them, and he and all foreign CCF personnel were soon forced to leave the country. The Mills family moved to Hong Kong.
Most of the 5,113 children’s fates are unknown, but 280 children, who had been among the 700 orphans that Mills moved to Canton, were able to cross the border to Hong Kong. Many received full educations, and among them (according to an interview with Mills in the early 1990s) were five pastors, nine doctors, four dentists, three professors and two millionaires.
Mills, who was named our overseas director in 1950, continued his work for the renamed Christian Children’s Fund through the 1950s while based in Hong Kong, opening orphanages and expanding operations through Asia and the Middle East. He was instrumental in opening the campus-style Children’s Garden in Hong Kong for Chinese refugee children.
Coming to the United States
In 1958, Mills was transferred to CCF headquarters in Richmond, where he worked as a coordinator and then director of operations, and in 1970, he was named our third executive director.
During the ’70s, CCF concentrated its focus by decreasing its span from 70 countries to 20; we left Europe and the Middle East and focused greater attention on Africa, where a regional office in Nairobi, Kenya, opened in 1973.
Mills commissioned two evaluations of CCF’s philosophy and practices, which led to a shift toward home- and, later, community-based projects, with less concentration on orphanages and boarding schools.
In 1976, CCF launched TV and magazine ads featuring actress and sponsor Sally Struthers, a move that brought greater attention to the organization and helped the number of sponsors grow through the 1970s and ’80s. Mills retired in 1981, and in 1995, the Verent Mills Endowment for Health and Education was established. This fund supports innovative health and education programs in countries where ChildFund has long-term commitments.
Dr. Mills died at the age of 83 in 1996, but his legacy carries on. In a 1991 interview, he quoted a Chinese proverb that he thought demonstrated our philosophy: “If you plant for a year, you plant grain. If you plant for 10 years, you plant a tree. But if you plant for a hundred years, you plant men.”