by Ken Myers
When we think of an orphan, our thoughts are formed and developed from our experiences and by the media. Haiti comes to mind with the problems caused by calling some kids orphans when they had parents. Such a distinction does not apply in Romania. I'll explain why a little later:
Romania is a beautiful country with wonderful people. But while its history is rich and vibrant, the recent past casts an ominous cloud over the country. The communist regime was swept away in an incredible sequence of peaceful acts by the people and murderous violence so cavalierly directed at them. But that's getting a little ahead of where I want to be right now. However, it is important to understand the "God Like" authority the prior communist regime thought it had, to impose its will on the Romanian people.
Under the communist authority, it was a legal requirement for women to bear at least five children. Those that did were hailed as 'heroines of the state' while those that did not had to prove infertility or were fined and imprisoned. So there was a strong incentive to have a lot of kids. It was rewarded by the government, at least until sometime after the revolution. Of course the revolution changed leadership, but as a practical matter, it really didn't change much. Everyone but the Party Chairman remained in place. The good news is that there was some management of the political structure. But it took many years to finally get a leader not tainted by the malignancy of the previous government.
Of course, the other directive by the communist government was that the state was more qualified than parents to raise children. So there were mandates and incentives to place children in government facilities.
Now to the definition of an orphan: A child not living at home. Including those abandoned by their parents and given to the government to raise. And in the social structure of Romanian culture, they are the lowest caste, even below the status Gypsies experience.
So where were all these children abandoned to? Well, it wasn't just to orphanages. There were nearly 70,000 kids living in the sewers of the capitol of Bucharest. Sure, some were probably runaways. But 70,000 - just imagine that number in a city of just 2 million.
These children in the sewers were not getting the social upbringing that normal children get. They were the closest thing to a wild human you could find on the planet. The new government has taken some positive steps to get control of the issue. They welded manhole covers closed and then drove the children from one end of the system to the other and basically caught them in nets. But they did get them out of the sewers.
Typical of one of Romania’s Street Children -
living ‘at home,’ in the Romanian sewer system
When the kids in the sewers were captured, if they could be identified, there was an attempt to return them to their parents. But nearly all the parents refused to take them back. They had been employed in communist factories but there was no longer any work, and they had little capacity to support these kids.
Now the current government had all these unsocialized wild kids in the child protective service system. The government staff does what it can, but they are overburdened. I've been in the schools/orphanages, and it is an interesting experience. It is just so intense all the time.
There are teenagers possessing the social skills of an American four-year-old. It was common to see 17 and 18 year old kids drawing in coloring books, working on crafts. When a Romanian child (including adult sized teens) talk to you they will have their hands on you. Often around your neck. If you're sitting down, they will climb in your lap. The younger children will grab anything they can, and then run. Sunglasses are especially vulnerable, as are hats or anything visibly in a pocket. Yet there remains in them the innocence of childhood. They are just kids, neglected by their unintended poor choice of parents and nationality.
It is both mentally and physically tiring to be with these kids. In the moment you just don't have time to think about it, because you're busy and you're tired. However, afterward, when you get a chance to reflect on the experience, you realize it was very rewarding.
Some parents visit their children, perhaps once a decade to see how they're doing. Of course kids are not machines. Generally they want nothing to do with strangers that threw them away and they had not seen before. So any link to the family is destroyed.
Believe it or not, this child, with all his agony and fear, is one of the lucky ones. He is not living in a sewer . . . but, clearly, he lacks love, and the touch of a parent. One is compelled to ask, “What if this was my child?”
This is how we got here. Lots of kids with the cards stacked against them. But why Romania? Why should we care about this country when children are in need in our local communities? Because this stigma is imposed on innocent children to a degree not found anywhere else in the world. What other culture was encouraged by their government to abandon its children? Maybe WWII Germany. But I'm not aware of this anywhere else in the modern world.
As the children age, they move out of the orphanages. Recently at age 18, but they can now stay to age 26. What a disaster! Twenty six and never been employed? Anyone in that situation does not face good prospects. Even at 18 there is a problem the children face. To get into the European Union, Romania reclassified the orphanages (can't have too many orphans) to disability treatment facilities. At first that seemed OK, except that this is a former communist country. The children must have their identity 'papers.' And in bold red letters across that document for someone in a treatment center is "Not suitable for employment."
Whoops! First thing a prospective employer wants to see for a first job are the individual's papers. Not the way to make a good first impression.
So what are the prospects for an 18+ year old Romanian child just out of an orphanage? Crime, drugs, and prostitution.
The Kiwanis Clubs of Division 37 have teamed with an organization called 'Heart 2 Heart International Ministries.' H2H was chartered by the Romanian government. A helpful Romanian lawyer assisting to write the charter took every line directly from the Romanian constitution. The judge that approved the charter didn't seem real happy about it, but only eliminated a couple of lines. So H2H assists in the orphanages and the schools that teach them. But again, what happens when they 'age out?'
H2H also runs two trade schools, one for the boys and one for the girls. Roles for genders are determined by culture, so this is simply facing that reality - the boys are trained in welding, metal fabrication, mechanical work, and personal hygiene.
The girls are trained in hair styling, sewing, cooking, computers, general housekeeping, and personal hygiene.
Then H2H got a little creative. An employer hiring someone already working does not want to see their papers; he wants to see their 'workbook.' Merely a book that lists dates of employment, salary, and duties. So actually employing these kids, and paying taxes sidesteps their scarlet letter by giving them a workbook to show to their next prospective employer.
There was a young man named Bogdan, about 20 years old at the boys’ trade school. He was pulled out of the sewers by a H2H member at about age five. Imagine the fear of being a five or six year old child, dropped off (think Hansel and Gretel) and left to survive in a sewer. Today, he is strikingly handsome, and very bright. He is working to become a welder. But these kids lack the social skills to fit into Romanian Society. These kids had an absence of human touch in their lives. To console themselves they would rock back and forth. It is so common that it seems to just be part of human nature that most of us never see or experience. So part of their training has to focus on not acting like an orphan. To not rock. To speak in a conversational style typical of the Romanian people. To act normal.
Boys Trade School
The children in this photo are Romanian Orphans – adults from left to right: Krista an H2H employee, Ken Myers from the Kiwanis Club of Escondido, and George Harrison from the Kiwanis Club of La Habra. All are holding bells and being directed when to ring them by another orphan not in the picture.
Want to change the world?
Take boys destined for a life of petty theft and crime, take girls destined for a life of begging or prostitution, and mainstream them into their society.
We give them an opportunity for an ordinary life. It is really not any more special than that.
We've been doing this long enough now that we have many examples of this working. Like two orphans that graduated from the trade schools and got married. They are working and living in a modest apartment. Both are now employed in their second jobs. They had a child, now one year old. That child will never be an orphan.
Today, untold numbers of Romania's children face hunger and deprivation and are often forced to endure institutionalization or the dangers of life on the streets. We are committed to providing alternatives to these bleak choices.
While their stories have faded from the news, the suffering of impoverished Romanian children remains a cruel reality. We are working with poor families to address the crushing poverty that often results in children being abandoned or having to leave home to beg on the streets where they face abuse and exploitation.
Romania has an estimated 6,000 children living on the streets. Our team works daily with them to identify children at risk before they are irreparably damaged by street culture.
Transition to a free market economy has left Romania a staggering eight times poorer than ten years ago with 44% of Romanians living in poverty. However, this figure rises to 80% in rural areas of the North East.
This has had a devastating effect on family life. Facing extreme poverty, many parents resort to home-made alcohol. Their children face the resulting brutality and a life of enforced begging or stealing. More and more children are running away to escape these hardships.
The children migrate via the railway network and congregate in large city stations. Historically, the state has only intervened once a child is in trouble with the police and has a criminal record. For the children to have any chance of a healthy future, this is too late.
The local Department of Child Protection is an outreach program. It identifies homeless children very early in their life on the street before they succumb to the inevitable risks of substance abuse and criminality.
Girl's Transitional Home
To help resolve this problem of young people going back into the ‘real world,’ a two-phase project to build, equip, and support the operation of a Trade School for boys and a Transition Home for orphaned Romanian girls was begun.
The Kiwanis Club of Ramona initiated Phase I, the Trade School Project, in the fall of 2001. In less than two years, with the help of many Division 37 Kiwanians, and working together with Heart 2 Heart Ministries, land was purchased, permits obtained, and construction of the Boys' Trade School was completed. A grant from Kiwanis International completed efforts to furnish and equip the shops and classrooms. Trade School classes began in October, 2003.
Playing a prominent and active role was Joe Heard from the Kiwanis Club of Escondido and David Imper of the Rancho Bernardo Kiwanis Club. Joe Heard went to Romania every year since 2002, except for 2007 when local fires prevented him from going. David Imper went every year but one. Nat Heard and Natalie Galt from The Escondido Kiwanis Club have gone twice and Evelyn Madison from the Hidden Valley Kiwanis Club went to Romania last year for the first time. This was President Ken Myers (of the Escondido Kiwanis Club) first year to travel to Romania.
While Jodi Heard, Jo’s wife, does not like to fly, he has managed to get more of his family members involved; his daughter, Janet White, who teaches at Oak Hilll Elementary in Escondido and her 19 year old daughter, Crystal White, also journeyed to Romania.
In October 2004, the Girl’s Transition Home was dedicated and is fully operational today.
Editor’s Note: This cover story was written principally by Ken Myers with additional data supplied by Messrs Heard, Imper, and published accounts of the work of Kiwanis within the nation of Romania.