Ministering at the (City Name Removed), Romania Special Needs Orphanage

(This is a blog that was originally posted in July of 2016 and I was asked to remove it. Since I am no longer affiliated with the church that mission trip was organized through and since I have removed all specific names from this blog and my mission trip blog, that was allowed to remain, I hope I can share my writing at this point. I felt led to repost this blog and yes, it’s gut wrenching, but I feel like it needs to be part of my story because it deeply affected me. To make matters worse, there was a baby girl I fell in love with from this orphanage and I later learned that she passed away. I don’t think I can put into words how hard that was to learn, as I would have taken her home with me had I been allowed to. I wish I could show her to you; she was beautiful and I feel like she just needed love. I know she’s with Jesus now and that brings comfort, but it’s hard when you wanted to do more to help and we’re not allowed to and then to hear something terrible happened. Maybe I’ll have to pull my journal entries from this trip and after receiving the news and share more about this. Until then, let me start with the original (edited) blog from July 2016. I am not sharing this on Facebook, as I don’t want to encourage anyone to ask me to take it down again. Maybe here, my writing and my feelings can live in obscurity for those who will benefit from my experience.)

I like to think I’m a pretty tough person emotionally, but Wednesday night, I cried for hours and just couldn’t stop, after experiencing a place so horrible I’m afraid I will always be haunted by the images of the children. As part of our mission trip to Romania, we are serving at the (City Name Removed) Special Needs Orphanage, a place where children with various diseases and disabilities are sentenced to live after being outcast from society. Maybe that’s a harsh way to put it, but that’s what it feels like.

Well-meaning people have tried to help me come to terms with all that I saw. While some do have valid points, I cannot simply un-see or become desensitized to the horrible conditions these children live in. I am thankful that other people care enough to try and help me get past this hurdle, but I do not believe I will get used to the way things are, accept that this is all the children know, or simply be grateful that we are so much more fortunate in the United States.

The best advice I was given is to look at how orphanage conditions have improved over the past 25 years, and especially more recently, now that (Organization Name Removed) has been ministering to these children. I was encouraged to look into what orphanages were like previously, and see they have come a long way.

Not being a history scholar, I had to spend some time researching orphanages in Romania. I was shocked to learn that communist leader Ceausescu, who came into power in 1966, sought to form a society of worker bees. He made abortion and birth control illegal and required all mothers to give birth to at least five babies to form his army of laborers. Women were monitored for signs of pregnancy and there were punishments imposed if they didn’t deliver their babies. There were taxes on childless couples. This was governmental control that invaded into the reproductive rights of families. I cannot imagine living under this type of regime.

The reality of the population increase that resulted from this is that families were not able to support themselves, were forced to abandon their children, and place them in state-run orphanages. They were encouraged to believe that the state could do a better job raising their children than they could at home. Unfortunately, that mindset is still prevalent today in certain Romanian people groups.

Orphanage populations grew; orphanage funding decreased; conditions in the orphanages deteriorated. When Ceausescu was removed from power in 1989, the orphanage system was in shambles. From https://www.theguardian.com/news/2014/dec/10/-sp-ceausescus-children:

<em>”Electricity and heat were often intermittent, there were not enough staff, there was not enough food. Physical needs were assessed, emotional needs were ignored. Doctors and professionals were denied access to foreign periodicals and research, nurses were woefully undertrained (many orphans contracted HIV because hypodermic needles were seldom sterilised) and developmental delays were routinely diagnosed as mental disability. Institutional abuse flourished unchecked. While some caretakers did their best, others stole food from the orphanage kitchens and drugged their charges into docility.</em>

<em>When the revolution was over, the world’s press discovered Ceaușescu’s archipelago of orphanages and the appalling images went around the world: disabled children with bone-stick limbs tied to their beds, cross-eyed toddlers who couldn’t walk, malnourished babies left unattended in cribs with metal bars, little corpses stacked in basements.”</em>

Romania’s little secret was exposed to the rest of the world and that prompted reform. Open adoptions were possible for some time, but that ability was revoked in 2001/2005 due to corruption and greed. The situation has improved, and orphanages have been abolished for “normal” children. Babies are now placed in foster homes, a much better alternative that orphanages, although still far from perfect. However, reform in the special needs orphanages has been much slower.

My perception of the Special Needs Orphanage (extraneous detail removed) at (City Name Removed) is that it has improved from the conditions previously described for Romanian orphanages. It appears clean and decently maintained. It is warm, but not too hot in the summer, and it appears there are adequate furnaces for the winter. It seems that the children are on a time-based schedule for feeding, bathing, clothing changes, and diaper changes. I don’t know what the frequency is, and it’s not a need-based schedule, but these needs are being somewhat met. There are ~6 staff members (a nurse, a cook, and a few caretakers) per shift to care for the ~40 kids in residence. I understand there is one physiotherapist that works the facility. From what I can tell, the employees are loving people doing the best they can with the number of personnel, conditions, and regulations they are given.

However, it’s far from ideal.

I apologize that some of this will be hard to read and I hope i don’t offend anyone by my observations, but it’s what I saw and it was very hard to see. When something like that happens, I feel like I have to do something about it. I tried to talk to a local Christian lady today about getting her church involved, and I am committed to loving these children to the best of my ability while I am here. But, I don’t know what else I can do – so I feel compelled to share what I saw and how I felt.

How often, exactly, are the children’s diapers changed? What happens if a child soils or wets his or her diaper or bed in between diaper changes? Apparently, they wait until the next regularly scheduled change and sit in their excrement. I have been in several rooms with children wearing dirty diapers and have not seen any intermediate checks in between official changes.

The walls of the (extraneous detail removed) orphanage are bare; there are no pictures or anything child-like to look at. There are no toys in most rooms; in fact, I’ve seen very few toys at all over the entire (extraneous detail removed) floor. The clothing doesn’t always fit the children, nor is it necessarily the right gender or “appropriate” (I saw a little girl wearing a t-shirt with inappropriate writing on it).

Here’s where it really starts to get brutal.

All of the children wear diapers, regardless of their age or physical limitation. Some children are fed through a feeding tube. The children who do not eat solid food tend to have disfigured teeth. The food I have seen children be served are bottles or a mush type substance that is spoon fed. I have not seen the feeding tubes get utilized, but I can see the lines connected to some children’s noses for that purpose. The children are extremely thin; you can feel many of their ribs without much trouble at all. Many of the kids look years younger than their biological age, as they are significantly smaller than you would expect for their age.

Most of the children never leave their beds, unless they are being placed in a stroller or brought to the bath stations. Even children who should be able to learn to walk are not given this right. As a result, many of the children have limbs essentially frozen in awkward positions; they cannot even stand up. Some of these issues are caused by their disabilities, but I do not believe that is a universal truth. Many of the children’s limb issues are exacerbated by (if not fully caused by) not using their muscles or bones, or in other words, laying in a bed all day.

Many of the children have severe disabilities, such as Downs syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, or a host of other neurological issues. Some children appear less severe in their condition, but seem to have the same physical consequences after years of residing in the orphanage. But, even in the midst of these horrible diseases, early intervention, therapy, and education would be a great way to help these children lead the best life possible. I feel like these important physical and emotional needs are being neglected at this orphanage.

After my first visit, I was horrified. More specifically, after my first encounter with one of the children, I was in shock, frozen, not knowing what to do, wanting to help, but completely clueless of what would be helpful. I wasn’t sure if I could move the children’s limbs, for fear of causing injury. I am not a physical, or occupational therapist; I wanted to help, but I had no idea how.

Finally, I decided that the power of touch was well, powerful, and the only chance I had at making a positive change. I stroked the children’s arms, touched their face and hair, held their hands, prayed for each one of them while touching them. I was able to make some of the children smile, but others just laid in the bed. Most did not make any sounds other than a laugh or a grunt. Other than the tiny babies, there is not much crying at the orphanage. There was one deaf and blind boy who repeatedly hit his head against the side of his bed. Other kids rocked and a couple did something similar to the head bashing. I could, and maybe will, write about some of the children (anonymously, of course), as I am journaling about my interactions to help me process what I witness.

It would have been so easy to not return to the (City Name Removed) Special Needs Orphanage after my first visit. I did not like what I saw, but I am a logical person, and the truth is, if I didn’t return to show love to these children, who would?

Today, I saw the same horrible things that break my heart, and while I am not desensitized, I am focused on my purpose. I am here to share God’s love with the unloved children of Romania. If there’s the slightest hope that any one child will be touched from my presence, then my time in the orphanage is worth it. I will volunteer at the orphanage six more times before I leave; I pray that I leave some lasting impact on at least one of the children.

I am so thankful to be volunteering with (Organization Name Removed) Romania. They have a long road ahead of them in improving the conditions at this orphanage, but based on the people running the ministry and their success in other segments of their ministry, and with God as the focus of their efforts, I know they will be successful.

Please join me in praying for these children and the work of (Organization Name Removed) Romania. (Extraneous Detail Removed).

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