When we set out on this trip almost nine months ago, Tom and I knew that we wanted not just to see the world but also to participate in it. By finding opportunities to help, even in small ways, we hoped to increase our family’s appreciation for what we have at home and prove to ourselves that even though there are only six of us, we can make a difference. As we’ve traveled through some of the world’s most impoverished regions, we’ve been discouraged by how much work there is to be done but also heartened that everywhere there are courageous, selfless people trying to do it. Last week we discovered a Romanian woman who through tireless work and unwavering devotion is trying to improve the lives of Romanians one child at a time.
One of the first associations for Americans when they think of Romania is orphans. Many of us have friends or family members who have adopted children from the country. Before arriving, I had never given much thought to why these orphans existed. I offhandedly assumed they were casualties of the revolution, but then I realized it happened in 1989 over the course of a few weeks and only a few thousand people died. So how is it that a country of only 22 million people could continue to produce parentless children for almost two decades following this traumatic event? The answer is tragic and yet another legacy of one of the world’s most ignominious leaders.
After assuming the helm of his country in 1965, Nicolae Caecescu implemented a Hitler-like policy of forced fertility. Hoping to build his own empire, Caecescu required Romanian women by law to have four and later five children and outlawed birth control for women under 45. For a people already struggling with economic deprivation the results were devastating. Parents neither wanted nor could afford children and simply began abandoning them in nation’s hospitals. State-run orphanages, bleak loveless institutions, were built to house the thousands of homeless children and simply kicked them out when they turned 18. Following the revolution, Western nations swooped in and began adopting these abandoned children, a practice that ironically only served to perpetuate the orphan crisis. Mothers saw that abandonment provided not just their children but potentially themselves with an opportunity for a better life. Giving children up to private groups provided a healthy income for some otherwise destitute women. Prior to Romania’s January 1 entree into the EU, it’s “orphan” (child abandonment) rate stood at 1.5%, a staggering figure.
Even with legions of eager foreigners hoping to adopt, the reality for Romanian babies was grim. Until their placement, whether at home or abroad, they were left to languish without love or proper nutrition in state hospitals, spending 24 hours each day in steel cribs. This was something Simona Stewart could not abide. WIth the support of her American husband and an American adoption group, she founded House of Angels, a facility dedicated to the nurturing of abandoned infants. The city of Gaesti gave her a long term lease on an abandoned school and she singlehandedly transformed it into a place where each and every newborn orphan in her county would receive all the necessities of life plus a healthy dose of the warmth and affection babies need to thrive. She had no grand visions of placing all the babies in foreign homes; in fact, very few ever ended up overseas. She focused only on the very real and immediate need of protecting and nurturing them through their critical first few months of life. Some were able to stay up to three years in the facility depending on the government’s success in placing them in foster or adoptive homes.
Simona was overjoyed by the work House of Angels performed and felt she was fulfilling her life’s calling. She had steady funding to cover the babies’ expenses, over $1000/month in diapers alone, a caring, competent staff, and boundless love for the scores of children that entered her care. Then the laws in Romania changed. The EU demanded that in order for the country to join the union it had to do something to fix its orphan problem. Rather than doing anything to actually help the children, officials simply changed the legal definition of an orphan and mandated that no child under 2 could be housed in a private facility. This way all abandoned children (still over 1% of all Romanian newborns) could be hidden within the system. In addition, international adoption was outlawed, in theory to prevent Romanian women from purposely conceiving unwanted children for money. Abandoned children were now required to go into permanent foster care or back to the families of their parents. Since their families often could not be found and rarely wanted them, they usually ended up with poor, rural families who were eager for the 100+ euros/month stipend the government paid.
These changes were like the rug being pulled from under Simona’s feet. No longer would she be able to care for her babies. Newborns would once again be relegated to a cold, sterile existence in hospital wards and state run facilities. She was bereft at the loss of the babies and furious at the government’s willingness to sacrifice them. She testified before international commissions in Washington and Brussels and pleaded with the world to protect Romania’s still numerous orphans.
A year and a half later, she’s made little progress. Change can only occur at the presidential level, and her president is not inclined to act. In the meantime, the cribs at House of Angels lie empty, much of the staff has been laid off, and Simona’s heart aches for the babies she is prevented from helping.
The changes in the law could have been the end for the House of Angels. Simona could have packed her bags and headed back to Atlanta for a life of comfort and privilege, but instead she began searching for new ways to help Romania’s children. She redirected her focus toward a group she was allowed to serve–the poor. She visited local schools, got names of families on the government welfare rolls, and searched for those too poor to even register. She kept a core staff of dieticians, teachers, and cleaners to maintain the House of Angels facility and transformed it into an afterschool center where children could come for hot meals, hot showers, help with homework, and organized play time–all luxuries they did not have at home. In addition, she hired a pair of physical therapists to work with handicapped children. She sought out those children needing therapy and in some cases, made arrangements for her onsite director to shuttle them back and forth to the House multiple times each week for treatment.
We visited House of Angels and spent the day with Simona, her staff, and her kids. Our presence, as always, proved a great curiosity to the children, who couldn’t get enough of the Andrus kids. Like many young people we’ve encountered in our travels, they equate America with the WWF and were eager to wrestle not just with the boys, but with Asher as well. They tried to teach us to dance, eagerly tested their limited English on us, and begged us to join their handball match outside. Tom and I visited a therapy session of a little boy named Vlad who though severely handicapped had one of the sweetest spirits we’ve ever encountered. The smile that spread over his face as his therapist whispered tenderly in his ear was enough to melt even the most cynical heart and one I will never forget.
The children at House of Angels are no different than those we’ve spent time with in India, China, and Cambodia. They are full of life, enthusiasm, love, and magically hope. They do not seem to know that the world expects them to be full of sorrow and suffering, nor that their opportunities might be limited. Instead they reflect the confidence of children who are cared for and from whom much is expected. This is Simona’s effect.
When it came time for us to leave, the kids all put on sad faces and handed us a card they had made earlier in the day. Yet again, we felt we had done little for them, while they had done much more for us.
Simona and her uncle drove us back to the station in Bucharest where we boarded an overnight train for Budapest. As we parted, Tom and I could not believe the sheer will and resourcefulness of this amazing woman. Unwilling to give up, even when her chosen mission was banned, she has committed her life to finding and helping the needy children of her country. I asked her what her focus will be in coming years and she explained she will try to build up the center’s physical therapy program in order to reach a larger group of needy, handicapped children. As for how the rest of us can help, she welcomes one week visits from volunteers and will undoubtedly put any donated funds to good use. For more information and inspiration, please visit the House of Angels website.