I first visited Bucharest, Romania in 2008, when I was 8 years old. Back then, I got to experience the hospital program there and see how the organization was helping children. This summer I decided to go back to Romania with my parents and with my friend, Ava Pacchiana, to get a deeper understanding of the mission of Fundatia Inocenti/RCR and learn more about the country’s history. I had learned about the effects of communism under the ruthless leadership of Nicolae Ceausescu, dictator of Romania.
Before the fall of communism in December 1989, the country was in chains. Both contraceptives and abortions were banned, and Ceausescu demanded that each married woman had to have at least 5 children. If a person didn’t meet those conditions they would be taxed. He wanted to build his empire, and he believed that population growth was in direct correlation with economic growth. Unfortunately, not all families could support so many children, so the number of abandoned children grew immensely during this time. Children were placed in orphanages that were, at the time, not well staffed or maintained. The conditions of these orphanages were beyond horrific. Often times, they were subject to neglect and abuse. They weren’t being fed or clothed properly. Some children were left tied to their beds, lying in their own urine, with no help or loving support. Because of these poor conditions, orphans often died from even the littlest of things. The other reason children were orphaned (and this exists to this day to an extent) was if they had disabilities. So, lack of the ability to care for a child was one reason for abandonment, but the simple fact that they did not want a child with a disability was the other. And, although it does not happen as much, there is still a culture in Romania today to not want a child with disabilities.
Inocenti has been fighting this cause since 1990, and since then we have seen a dramatic decrease in the number of abandoned children. Organizations such as Fundatia Inocenti / Romanian Children’s Relief (RCR) emerged with a mission to help children of all types, and prevent child abandonment. In a combined effort from individuals all around the world, Romania started implementing foster care in 1999, which improved the lives of abandoned children, but unfortunately, the Special Needs Foster Care is not as easy to fund or administer. Today, there are more than 36 children with disabilities living in the Bistrita placement center. We are hoping, through our efforts and those of many other individuals, to help the children still housed in Placement Centers to have a good life while the government continues to work on giving children the family lives they deserve.
This year, Ava Pacchiana, one of my closest friends at school, came with me to Romania. There are programs all throughout Romania, and Ava and I got the privilege to experience and help out at a handful. We began our trip in Bucharest where we visited the same hospital program that I visited eight years ago. There, the improvements were astonishing. The cribs were painted and colorful, staff wore colorful scrubs and smiles, and the kids looked healthy and taken care of. In addition to helping out at the hospital, we also got to take part in a few after school programs. The kids were so kind, welcoming, and made an effort to communicate with us despite the language barrier. All-in-all it was an amazing experience, and it is so clear that Inocenti has had an incredibly positive impact on the community, and will continue to do so in the future.
After four days of working in Bucharest, we drove all day to Cluj. In Cluj, we got to experience two more aspects of the Inocenti programs. The programs there were very different compared to Bucharest for a couple reasons. Primarily the programs are a lot newer than Bucharest. There are fewer staff, and the programs are partnered with other state and volunteer organizations. Because it’s so new, Inocenti has not yet made as big an impact as they have in Bucharest. The work there was different than we experienced in Bucharest. The program we visited first was the psychiatric ward. Here, kids had a number of mental illnesses ranging from mild to severe. The building was small for such a large number of kids; the children were older and they had much more serious issues that were being addressed. The next and final program we visited was the rehab hospital. There, the program focused on helping kids recover from their surgeries with physical therapy, as well as simply helping them mentally with their recovery.
After Cluj, we drove to Bistrita. We spent the most time (five days) in Bistrita. We got to experience multiple aspects of Inocenti here, including the Me and My Family program, the Bistrita Hospital “Child Life” program, and the after school programs.
We first saw the Me and My Family Program, which we visited multiple times while in Bistrita. There were 34 children with varying disabilities living in the placement center. Many of the children had spent their entire life in the center after being abandoned by their family who may have not had the means to care for their child. When we walked through the center for the first time and saw all the kids, each one begging for attention and love, we were heartbroken. It was sad to imagine what their life must feel like, and even sadder to imagine the limited future ahead of them. We all experienced true joy when we got to take a handful of children to the park for a morning. When we walked into the room to gather the kids that would be coming with us, the kids knew what was happening and immediately started yelling and dancing with joy. They all scrambled towards the shoe rack, grabbing the closest pair and attempting to fit it on their feet and then run out the door. The enthusiasm did not wane at the park, where we kicked around soccer balls, played on the swings, and had a picnic. The smiles of the kid’s faces were priceless and their giggles were contagious.
While we were in Bistrita we also got to experience the Bistrita Hospital “Child Life” program. The goal of the program is to provide a space for children to play and learn while receiving medical treatment at the hospital. The space was colorful and had a variety toys for the kids. It felt cheerful and it was clear from watching the kids in the room that it was positively influencing their time at the hospital. We noticed that the Inocenti operation in Bistrita is able to make a big impact, because their services are spread through different parts of this small community, and consequently these diverse services for poor and handicapped children are making a large impact. The programs in Bistrita show a great example of the difference a program like Inocenti can make when given sufficient funds.
Lastly, we got to experience a couple of the after school programs. The first program we visited hosted several kids from the nearby community to come to the placement center and to take part in several crafts. This is where we learned the bulk of our Romanian! The kids were extremely helpful and enthusiastic about teaching us Romanian, and it was so fun getting to paint and craft with them. Another afterschool program we helped out at was at a nearby village. The school there was small but very loved by the children of the community. What we saw there was very similar to what we saw at the other after school program: an eagerness to learn and share. There we played several games, made lots of crafts, and danced to music. It was overall a very happy place to be, and it was so nice to see the kids thriving.
Unfortunately our trip came to a close and we left Romania after 2 incredible weeks. Our time there was short, but the impact it had on us was remarkable and will remain with us for the rest of our lives. The children and staff taught us so much about Romania, the Inocenti Foundation, and ourselves. We hope to give back to the foundation that gave so much to us by raising $4000. This amount of money is enough to cover the entire year of salary for one of the part time Outreach Workers who take the children out on excursions and do weekend activities with the children in the placement center. Please consider helping us give these children the attention and opportunities they deserve by donating or just spreading the word about Inocenti!