(CNN)JiaJia would watch as other children came and went from Alenah's Home in Beijing. The year was 2016, and at nine years old he was the oldest orphan at the small medical foster home, where he had lived most of his life.
JiaJia: One of China's abandoned children, abandoned no more
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Other children had found families and would leave accordingly. The strange thing was, so had JiaJia -- but after months of waiting, he still hadn't met them.
JiaJia had been abandoned outside a fertility clinic in Xinyang in Henan Province, central China in 2006, aged just three months old. Born with spina bifida, the corrective surgery would cost the average Chinese worker up to two years' salary, creating a heart-breaking situation for his birth parents. JiaJia's spina bifida was eventually addressed after being orphaned, but botched surgery left him paralyzed from the waist down, compounding his plight.
Adoption rates have plummeted in China in recent years -- down from 46,047 in 2007 to 22,876 in 2014 according to the China Civil Affairs Ministry. The chances of finding a new family are even slimmer for a child with disabilities.
International correspondent Will Ripley first met JiaJia in 2015 on a visit to Alenah's Home while covering China's abandoned children.
"I've interviewed a lot of people, and nobody has ever inspired me like Jia Jia," he says of the young boy he chose to highlight for CNN series My Hero.
"What really touched me about him was that he was a big brother to the other kids. He would take care of them even though he needed to be taken care of as well."
"His dream was to have a family," says Ripley. A Chinese couple had promised to adopt him but had backed out, faced with a mountain of paperwork and the daunting prospect of bringing up a disabled child in a country still largely wheelchair inaccessible.
"When we met him, we found out there was a family in the United States that wanted to adopt him but didn't have the money," Ripley explains. A middle-aged American couple, Brian and Jeri Wilson, from Kansas City, Missouri had heard about JiaJia through their church, and believed they had found their calling. But the Wilsons couldn't afford the $36,000 adoption fees.
Time was running out for JiaJia. When he reached the age of 14 he would no longer be eligible for adoption, and would most likely spend the rest of his life in permanent care of the state.
"We did a story about JiaJia," recalls the correspondent. "Eight hours later, the family had enough money from our viewers to adopt him."
Ripley followed the Wilsons through the nervy process, relaying the family's emotive first encounter, and later caught up with the new adoptee at home in Kansas City, March 2017.
Now known as Jason, he'd already grown four inches and gained 15 pounds since they last met; succeeding in school and popular.
"To see him in his classroom learning English, out on the playground during recess, with his family, with his friends, smiling and laughing, and to see where he came from was one of the most powerful moments of my life," Ripley says.
"I knew that JiaJia was my hero because he has endured things that I could never imagine -- most people could never imagine... He doesn't let the disability slow him down or let his circumstances keep him down.
"He kept smiling, stayed optimistic... to see somebody with that much strength at such a young age is one of the most incredible things I've ever seen."