Romania: Known for Dracula, Brancusi, Ionesco and, Above All, Beautiful Children By Joyce Leffler Eldridge
The five students and three chaperones volunteering to spend their spring break working in a pediatric hospital in Bucharest were well prepared for the experience … on paper. We had handouts on cleft palate, on the overthrow of the despotic dictator Ceausescu, on the Transylvanian ruler Vlad the Impaler, whom Bram Stoker immortalized as Dracula. We knew the climate paralleled that of March in New England and that our living quarters would run the gamut from homestays with English-speaking families whose children attend the American International School of Bucharest to Bavarian-looking ski lodges in the northern, Carpathian Mountain region of Romania. We knew that Romania’s most famous cultural exports were works by the sculptor Brancusi and the playwright Ionesco.
What we did not know is that we’d fall in love with the babies, toddlers and pre-adolescents who would be entrusted to us for eight hours a day during most of our stay, and that our hearts would be broken when we were scheduled to return home, knowing how much still needed to be done. “I can’t believe people would leave these beautiful children,” HAMBISA GOSA ’06 commented about several of the abandoned babies. We eight had become surrogate mommies and daddies to Princess (4 months, abandoned at birth, now in search of a foster home); Isak (7-months old with asthma, delayed development and bulging eyes reminiscent of a turtle’s), florin (one of 11 children of a schizophrenic mother); Armando (five months, a candidate for foster care, nicknamed “The Bull” for his hefty build); Mihaela (a malnourished 22-month-old, suspected of being abused early in life, who fl ung her hand across her eyes, in fear, when anyone except her trusted Romanian Children’s Relief (RCR) social worker approached her); Gabriel and Andre (both Down’s Syndrome babies with minimal muscle tone and life-threatening holes in their hearts); Maryanna (1-year-old with a thyroid problem who had been hospitalized since two weeks); Elana (abandoned, two-months-old, nicknamed Iluna or “The Peanut” in Romanian,), and Costica (22-months-old, with Phenylketonuria, a.k.a PKU, on a special diet, who was known for banging his head against the playroom walls). These were but a handful of children we worked with.
New talents surfaced hourly in what came to be known as “Team Romania.” BOB MOORE, Nobles’ Athletic Director, was not only a premier photographer, which we knew from his sports slide shows at assemblies here in the Lawrence Auditorium. He was also a muralist of unparalleled skill, creating Snow White and all seven dwarves, not to mention Simba and several dalmations, among other Disney characters.
At the closing night’s “circle time,” in which all eight of us shared the high points and most poignant memories of the trip, Moore said his goal was to “open myself as completely as possible to the experience I was about to embark on.” In looking back, he felt that he had succeeded in taking risks, sharing, being empathic, and enjoying laughter.
Dean of Faculty SANDRA MACQUINN, who instituted the Romanian trip six years ago at Nobles after spending a summer Fulbright travel grant in that country and seeing firsthand the conditions under which orphans were living, said the improvement in the condition of children under the auspices of the Romanian Children’s Relief federation is virtually immeasurable. She cited one little girl now in the hospital who is underdeveloped with a blank stare from her eyes. “They all looked like that when I first got here,” she noted. Herself a product of foster care until she was nine years old, MacQuinn feels she wants to “give back what I never got.”
The student venture is in fact a collaborative effort of two ISL schools, Nobles and Rivers. Patti Carbery, head of the Upper School at Rivers, was on the same Fulbright program as MacQuinn in 1996 and was equally impassioned about enlisting Rivers students to help in a worthwhile endeavor. “When you see a need, you don’t wait,” MacQuinn said. To that end, MOLLY VALLE ’05, one of three Nobles girls on the March trip, described how she ignored the signs on closed doors stating “Do Not Enter” in order to cuddle or feed crying babies on the other side of the glass. BECKY BARBROW ’06 said she was painfully aware that not everything could be fixed or improved immediately; she found herself thinking constantly about the inequities of the distribution of wealth in the world, wondering what she could forsake so that these sick or abandoned children could enjoy a better life.
MacQuinn and Carbery have been organizing fund-raisers at Nobles and Rivers and using the proceeds to purchase medicines, toys, clothes, art supplies and other goods only dreamt of by doctors, nurses and healthcare personnel at the Alfred Rusescu Hospital, where the orphanage is based. Each school delegation lugs eight 70-pound duffel bags filled with these assorted supplies. Most extraordinary was a gift of $6,000 worth of pediatric medical equipment and supplies from Children’s Hospital, at the request of Dr. Paul Hickey, head of anesthesiology there, and father of JULIA HICKEY ’07 who was the youngest member of our trip. Another generous gesture was proffered by New Balance which provided 50 pair of handsome new sneakers, which we parceled out to incredibly appreciative hospitalized children between the ages of 4 and 12.
The Rivers-Nobles cohorts overlapped for one weekend only, just long enough to do “the handover” of responsibility, emotional connection and the purlike. Six tearful Rivers students described their most poignant moments and the infants and children who had affected their lives forever. The Rivers students requested of Nobles: “Take care of our kids. Don’t hold anything back. You’ll find yourselves gratified by the smallest sign of hope and responsiveness.” Little did we imagine that our group would replicate the same tearful scene seven days later.
While the children at Alfred Rusescu captured our hearts, the staff working with these children earned our affection, our gratitude and our profound respect. “The RCR workers showed me an entirely new level of dedication,” MATT MITCHELL ’06 said. Because people in this domain earn so little, several needed to work a second job, at least part-time. That meant that after working more than eight hours a day feeding, changing, and stimulating this special group of children, some Romanian workers needed to take two additional buses to get to their next assignment. No wonder they were so emotionally moved when, as their farewell gift, Nobles and Rivers presented the RCR staff with a supportive, upholstered glider to rock fretful babies and enjoy a few moments off their feet.
The staff works on a host of ageappropriate and age-remedial skills with these children: grasping and releasing objects, gross motor development and fine motor skills, language development and vocabulary. The situation that the RCR rescue is seeking to rectify in Romania is the product of years of political upheaval and mismanagement. Under Stalin, Russia gained sway over Romania which in 1948 became a Soviet satellite. Romania became an overnight urban society, with Nicolae Ceausescu venturing into grandiosely overblown development projects and rigorous austerity programs for his people. His construction efforts, described often as “megalomaniacal,” are bleak or oversized or derivative … sometimes all three. The miles of cinder-block apartment houses, with thousands of windows and hundreds of clotheslines with damp clothing providing the only color, abut some still-standing French Neo-Classical architecture of a more beneficent time. The apartment buildings resulted from Ceausescu’s plan to bulldoze thousands of villages in the countryside in an effort to destroy the peasant class and move the residents into new apartment buildings in the city. He also demolished one-fifth of central Bucharest, purging historic churches, and government and cultural buildings. His plan was to boost the population from 23 million to 30 million by the year 2000, forbidding birth control and mandating that each woman bear five children.
Ceausescu was eventually shot by a firing squad after having been convicted of mass murder in December, 1989, whereupon a Parliamentary government and a free press were reinstated. The country is now making serious efforts to enter the European Union (EU).
While MacQuinn tries to rotate the composition of the Romanian group each year, so that more can be exposed to the experience, she has made a couple of exceptions over the years. Some student volunteers simply go back on their own. APRIL LEVIN ’99, who found the experience lifealtering, reaffirmed her decision to enter medical school after spending her March break with MacQuinn and others in Romania. She went on to study the Romanian language at Brown, then to pursue the specialty of surgery at Yale Medical School so that she can someday operate on hydrocephalic kids. “There’s not a ‘No’ in April’s person,” MacQuinn said poetically. “Anyone lucky enough to touch her life is inspired.”
SAYRE MCAULIFFE ’05, who was fortunate to go twice to Romania, described the experience as “the most amazing thing I’ve done with my life. It’s not something I’ll ever forget.” She too now plans a career in pediatric medicine.
The one reassuring thought that we all left with is that the RCR staff is as dedicated and gifted as any group of people dealing with children whom we have ever seen. As the workers said repeatedly to one or the other of us: “It’s important for you to know that when you leave, we’ll still be here to give the babies and the toddlers and the older children all the love and good care they deserve.”
Molly Valle ’05 a student volunteer from Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, Mass., with RCR in Bucharest, Romania