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Getting attached to Romania


When Kirk Olsen stepped off of the bus in the small town of Galati in Romania, it was like stepping back in time. There were horse-drawn carts moseying down the road. People walked to a well several times a day to fetch water in buckets. The shops were few and tiny.

Kirk couldn’t think of a better way to describe the town than this, “Think of the way an Eastern European village looked 50 to 100 years ago. That was it.”

But Kirk didn’t go to Romania just for a change of pace. The 48-year-old retired bus driver from California traveled to Galati, and stayed for eight weeks, because a group of young orphans were counting on him.

Kirk volunteered last May through the Global Volunteer Network (GVN) to work at one of several group homes run by the Tanner Mission, where he helped to care for a group of eight physically and mentally handicapped orphans, ranging in age from ten to 22 years old.   

“All of the orphans were rescued from state-run institutions,” Kirk said. “None of them is able to function on their own. This is their home now.”

The Tanner Mission was started after an American couple watched a startling documentary about the dire and horrible conditions of state-run orphanages in Romania. There are currently 80,000 to 100,000 orphans in the country. Their plight was made public after the fall of communism in 1989, when it was discovered that children were living in deplorable conditions in the country’s 650 orphanages.

The orphans were a result of Romania’s former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s “family planning policy.” In an effort to increase the population and the workforce, Ceausescu denied birth control to families until they had produced five children. Because most parents were unable to care for that many, children were often sent away to be raised by the state, most often growing up malnourished, mistreated and with little or no affection.

Today, Romania is still feeling the effects of this draconian policy. Exacerbated by extreme poverty—UNICEF estimates that 30 percent of Romanians live in poverty—orphanages remain full. Recently, however, Romania has made moves to close orphanages and improve the conditions of others in response to demands from the European Union. The country is hoping to become part of the union, but must meet certain conditions before granted entry.

Bruce and Sandie Tanner, however, couldn’t wait for bureaucratic action, and have taken their own steps to rescue 33 orphans from state-run institutions. The rescued children now live in group homes that the Tanners built. At Christmas, they put on a recital, bake cookies, and cover the houses with homemade holiday decorations. The contrast between the orphans’ old home, and new one, is astonishing.

But the Tanners can’t, and don’t, do it alone. They rely on volunteers like Kirk to help teach and counsel the orphans, as well as feed, cook, clean and play.

“I did everything and anything they asked me,” Kirk said. “A lot of it was just hanging out with the boys. I chopped wood by hand. I helped plow a field. I even gave driving lessons at one point.”

Through his experience, Kirk made lasting relationships that had a profound impact on his life.

“There was one boy that I would have brought home if I could,” Kirk said. “He’s in a wheelchair. We would watch this Romanian program that would show music videos. We would both sit there dancing. He would just dance away in his wheel chair. He really touched my life. When I told him it was time for me to leave, we both started crying. I got attached.”

Kirk kept a journal while he was in Romania. From his writing, it’s easy to see how he got so attached:

“Last Sunday was the big Easter egg hunt,” Kirk wrote. “It was very much like a big family thing, and very much like home. I pushed one of my boys in his wheelchair and before it was over, I had three more boys in tow. Over 300 eggs and tons of candy and prizes for everyone. We, I mean all the kids, colored the eggs on Saturday. It’s an Easter that I will never forget.”

Making the decision to leave his home and life behind to work in Romania was a difficult decision for Kirk, but one that ultimately has him grateful for the experience.

“I had never traveled by myself before,” Kirk said. “I had never done anything like this. Half way there on the plane, I went into panic mode. I thought, ‘What am I doing?’ But in hindsight, it was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.”

While his trip to Romania may be over, Kirk thinks it’s only the beginning of a new path that will have him volunteering for the rest of his life.

“When I first got on the internet to look up volunteering, I was surprised that you had to pay to volunteer,” Kirk said. “But once you’ve done it, you’re happy to pay for it. Other people asked me, ‘Why don’t you just go on vacation?’ This is a different kind of vacation. You’re giving back to the world.”

Interested? Find out more at www.volunteer.org.nz

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