Zayne Callahan felt the warmth of sunshine for the first time when he was 7 years old.
Born with spina bifida in 1991, Callahan was left unnamed at the doors of an orphanage in Changshu, China. The orphanage staff named him Yu Liu — Liu meaning “tumor.” He lived confined to a wheelchair in the orphanage’s basement with the rest of the disabled children until an LDS couple from the United States adopted him.
“The basement was dark,” Callahan said. “I don’t remember any windows. The only sunlight that came through the basement was through the door when it was left open.”
Callahan, now 23, is a BYU sophomore majoring in physiology and developmental biology. Lack of care and his long battle with spina bifida didn’t conquer him but filled him with gratitude and a desire to serve others.
Spina bifida is a congenital disease that prevents the spinal column from closing all the way. It may lead to physical and mental impairments, like loss of muscle function and learning disabilities. Callahan’s condition left him with no feeling below the knees.
Callahan recalled there were two levels at the orphanage. Visitors only frequented the main floor, where the healthy children lived.
Callahan’s parents, John and Wendy Callahan, first saw him on a Children’s Hope International video. The international adoption agency sent a film crew to the Changshu orphanage. The crew decided to include Zayne Callahan in the video because of his bright smile, despite the orphanage director’s protest, “Oh no, not him. He is an embarrassment to China.”
The Callahans already had two foster sons when they learned about Zayne Callahan through Children’s Hope International. Wendy Callahan grew unsure about the decision to adopt him, but everything changed when she saw the organization’s video. The camera lingered on Zayne for a short moment, but it was long enough for his smile to melt her heart.
“I heard a voice saying, ‘He is your son,’” she said. “I knew he was going to be mine. Now, I can’t imagine not having him as my son. If you wanted to order a child from the catalog, he would be the one you want.”
Shortly after returning to Montana with their new son, the Callahans took Zayne to the doctor to treat his spina bifida. He underwent seven surgeries and gained enough strength in his legs to walk with the aid of crutches. “He is a survivor,” Wendy Callahan said. “He should not have survived the orphanage. His spina bifida was very serious, and they did not do anything for him.”
Wendy Callahan said her son has never blamed anyone in spite of his unpleasant circumstances. “He is always full of gratitude and happiness,” she said.
Zayne Callahan said his experiences have helped him be more understanding of others.
“Everyone struggles with something they can’t control,” he said. “I know people are still trying their best at things they have to deal with.”
Zayne Callahan applied to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when he was 19. He waited seven weeks, only to receive notice that he was “honorably excused.”
“I was really bummed,” he said. “Because I was expecting something to work out. I did all the preparation for it since I was baptized.”
But an unexpected letter arrived a few weeks later, calling him to serve in the Provo MTC Referral Center.
“It was crazy … I didn’t know where it was,” Zayne Callahan said. “But I was still excited because it’s a real mission.”
The missionaries in the Provo MTC Referral Center share the gospel through the Internet and phone. Zayne Callahan shared his testimony on his blog and through social media. His two-year mission, from 2010 to 2012, strengthened his desire to serve others.
Zayne Callahan sees a parallel between his story and the 2,000 Stripling Warriors from The Book of Mormon. It was his mother who taught him the gospel and guided him through life. She always encouraged him to remember the principle taught in Doctrine and Covenants 82:3: “Unto whom much is given, much is required.”
“She would say that even though I may not be able to do a lot of physical activities like other people do, I still have been given a lot of other things,” he said. “The adoption itself is a huge blessing. If I were still in China, I don’t know where I would be.”
According to China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs, 92,000 children lived in orphanages throughout China in 2011. Because of China’s strict requirements on adopters’ age, marital status and income, most orphans were not as lucky as Zayne Callahan. Only 2,306 Chinese orphans were adopted by American families in 2013.
“Because of the opportunities I have been given, it’s only fair and right that I do what I can to help other people, with whatever skills and talents that I acquire,” Zayne Callahan said. “That was the biggest drive for me to serve a mission.”
Jane Jackson, a friend and co-worker of Zayne Callahan at BYU’s Career and Academic Success Center, interviewed him for a job at the center. She said he was “very personable” and the one she and other co-workers wanted to work with.
“He is always on top of things and willing to help out in projects,” Jackson said. “He is really detail-oriented and reliable. Zayne is probably one of the people I admire the most in the whole world. He is the kind of person I want to be like.”
He tries to serve others and has volunteered for different organizations, like the Utah Home Health and Hospice and Crisis Line.
“If friends ask him for help, he would do all he can to help,” said Jenny Zhang, a friend of Zayne Callahan. “At the same time, he is always grateful for what people do for him. He never takes things for granted.”
Once referred to as “an embarrassment to China,” Zayne Callahan now serves as an example of service to those around him. He plans to continue serving as a doctor in the future. He said that when he studies, he always works as hard as he can because it’s the best way for him to prepare to help others.
“I know that I have a lot of blessings, and I want to help other people,” he said. “It’s kind of to give back. I want to help people wherever and however I can. ”