I have spent the last year planning for my trip to Romania: to work in an orphanage for disabled children on behalf of the White Cross, a Cornish charity born nearly 10 years ago, shortly after the fall of Ceaucescu. It was originally set up by the Reverend Pat Robson, and works primarily in two orphanages (or Spitals) near the Romania / Hungary border... at Bratca and Remeti (pr. Remitz). It has also set up three family homes, with Romanian house mothers, where 16 of the former Spital children live normal, happy lives: going to school and working in the house and on the land attached to it. A fourth house is due to open any day now, and a fifth is in the process of being bought and prepared for 5 children from Bratca Spital, where I spent 10 amazing weeks working.
I left home in the small hours of Sunday 19th September, having raised the money to go by giving a concert with some of my musical friends. At this time, I was really not looking forwards to leaving all my creature comforts behind to go and live in a strange country for 2 ½ months. I drove out to Romania with Jill and Roger Hamer, who are Directors of the White Cross and work primarily with the volunteers, preparing them for their trips and being there for them when they return home. It took just over 2 days to drive from Cornwall to Bratca, stopping overnight in Germany and Hungary. We arrived at my new home from home just before lunchtime on the Tuesday.
My first impression of 'Casa de Pace' (House of Peace), the volunteer accommodation, was fairly favourable... a kitchen-cum-living room, a bathroom, two bedrooms and an outside toilet. I have come to regard myself as fortunate to have arrived in the middle of a summers day, rather than in the middle of the night ( the experience of some later volunteers).
On that first afternoon I was introduced to my new surrogate family: Angie and Carol (the White Cross coordinators in Bratca) and Ruth and Shell, volunteers who came (separately) from Sydney. Two other volunteers were leaving the night I arrived, so I was swiftly introduced to the Bratca nightlife... the bars. I was also taken into the Spital to look around and to meet some of the children I would be working with. It was still the end of summer so most of the 70 kids were outside being supervised by one of the 'femmes' (Romanian women who do the cleaning and look after the children). The first child I met was Pepe, a lively little 10 year old with a severe squint. He immediately climbed up into my arms and nearly strangled me with his hugs. The children have nothing to do all day, unless they are considered advanced enough to attend the Spital school, or work with the Romanian educators employed by the White Cross to work with some of the children on their mobility, vocabulary and behaviour. About 30 or more children spend all day either outside or, if the weather is bad , inside in the 'holding room', doing nothing but rocking, self- abusing, or in some cases abusing others. They do not come out unless taken out by the volunteers.
There are 3 children who spend all day in their cots: Lucian (Luci), Jenica (Jeni) and Adam. Lucian is a lively little boy who is always looking to be taken out of his cot. When I first met him he could walk only with support, and the main focus of the volunteers working with him was to get him to walk by himself so he could be out of his cot for most of the day. He is also unable to talk, but he makes many noises, and we hope that in time he will come to speak. Jeni is a lovely little girl who self-abuses, and has hit herself so hard on one eye that she is now blind in it. Like Luci she can walk with support, but she does not speak. Adam is the little boy I worked with for the time I was in Bratca, and with whom I fell in love at first sight. He is now 9, although he is the size of a baby, and it is very easy to treat him as such. He doesn't speak or walk, although he can crawl and help you dress him. He loves to be cuddled and will hold his arms out to you when you come near his cot.
My first impressions of the Spital were, however, quite good... fed by TV pictures and early White Cross reports, I was expecting it to be far worse. The Spital was clean, even if the children weren't, and, with the exception of Adam, Luci and Jeni, the children were out of their cots or beds for most of the day and got three meals (though admittedly of dubious quality). The longer you work there, however, the more you see that the children get no love and little attention, except from the White Cross volunteers. You begin to realise just how much their love means to you as you see how much your care means to them.