One of my oldest friends decided to celebrate her 35th birthday by volunteering at Firm Foundations Romania for 6 weeks. During that time, she posted 2 notes that i loved so much i asked her permission to post them here. i hope they encourage you in doing what you're doing... i hope they inspire you to seek out the hurting, the lonely and the vulnerable. & i hope that God uses every gentle touch and soft word - to bring His hurting lambs Truth.
Thoughts after my first week volunteering at the Children's Hospital in Brasov.
Everyday this past week I have woken up to sunshine. I have showered, dressed, sipped hot coffee, walked 15 minutes down cobbled streets to the Children's hospital, climbed stairs to the third floor and changed into a set of scrubs in the FFR (Firm Foundations Romania) 'office', a small storage room filled with diapers, toys, and crocs. And then I held babies - lots of them.
The babies we care for have been given clothes to wear and food to eat. The babies we care for have been provided with a bed to sleep in. And, most of the babies we hold, feed, and change each day even have families back in Budila or Apata, Gypsy villages just outside Brasov - they are not orphans.
Certainly the people we've met and the babies we hold are in need - but at first glance, they're not in need to the same degree as those suffering drought in the horn of Africa, or living through the disaster in Haiti, or those refugees fleeing persecution from their countrymen (such as the Burmese fleeing to Thailand) etc etc. I'm reading Half the Sky right now (by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn - definitely worth the read!), and the horrors of sex trafficking and slavery also seem more desperate than the situation here.
But there is something here that is troubling: these young ones are left without nurture. Most of these babies have mothers, but their mothers are not here. Those of you who have studied attachment theory will know more about the long term effects than I do... but children under the age of two who are not nurtured by a stable caregiver are prone to suffer the rest of their lives relationally, developmentally, intellectually, etc. The potential devastation to a person's life, and the community at large, seems like a problem that doesn't have to be. We can't stop drought; we can't stop disaster; but surely we can stop systems that facilitate babies being left alone unnecessarily in hospitals, no?
The reasons babies are left in hospitals in Romania are numerous, and complex. I can honestly say I don't get it... but my heart breaks to see the same children day after day lying alone in their crib with no one to soothe them - for hours on end. Today when I placed Christina (the most beautiful ~6 mos. old girl) back in her bed after only 20 minutes of cuddling, her crying convulsions absolutely broke my heart. She should be held for more than 20 minutes today. Of course at least she's crying; the little boy in the crib next to her self-soothes quickly - he's far to used to not getting responses from his cries than he should be.
One reason is financial: the government gives a monthly stipend to families with children under two, which is a wonderful resource - particularly for struggling families. The problem is that many Gypsy families seem to be abusing this resource: having babies provides a steady income. Daniel, one of "our children" in the hospital, has one such mom who continues to have children for the money. Since she doesn't actually want her children, she leaves them at the hospital for weeks/months on end. When the social worker and FFR team bring her children back to her, she simply returns them to the hospital a few days or weeks later. Daniel is 7 months old now, and he hasn't spent more than one week at a time at home with his family. Rather, he has spent most of his days at the hospital, in a room with 2 - 5 other babies also in cribs with bars that reach 1.5 meters tall. Some of his neighbour-babies are sick and in need of hospital care, some are not. In this particular case, social services has finally stepped in and beautiful Daniel will now be placed in Romania's foster care system, and his mother will no longer receive the government money. When the FFR social worker went to Budila to talk to Daniel's mother and let her know, she was not upset that Daniel was not coming home to her; she was upset that her government funding was stopping. However, she is already pregnant again, so her money will start up again soon.... and FFR expects this next child to end up in the hospital under their care as well.
Another reason children are left at the hospital is poverty. I went to my first Gypsy village today, and it is overwhelming and sad. I was accompanying Steffi (FFR staff) and Gabi (FFR/Hospital Social Worker) as they returned two children to their respective families. Both these children had been in the hospital for months, and though both had been healthy enough to go home for a few weeks, their parents had not come to retrieve them. I have seen slums in other parts of the world -- they are all terrible. What is different here from the others I've seen is that it is also cold. I was in my down winter coat, wrapped in a scarf and wool hat on my head -- and I was still shivering. These houses have no windows. They have dirt floors. Some have electricity; some do not. Regardless - they are cold. For some of these families, they know that in the hospital their children will receive warm bedding, clothing, and food... so they consider it worth it to send their children to the hospital. Further, because many families have several other children at home and can not afford to travel back and forth to the hospital to visit, they leave their child in the care of the hospital and will retrieve their children (maybe) in a few months time. ((Note - in these cases, the social worker deemed that both situations were safe enough for the children to return to and therefore better for the children to be with their families than in the hospital, and each was returned with warm clothing and blankets from FFR.))
Another reason is long term systemic issues... and these are the ones I'm sure I don't understand - so forgive my inaccurate/incomplete/simplistic attempt at articulating this. In 2005 Romanian orphanages closed to children under 2 (and as a result, many orphanages simply closed altogether.) However, for decades prior to this the State paid for orphanages to care for children that families felt they couldn't care for. Under the Ceausescu regime families were urged (or required?) to have at least 5 children... but so many were living in poverty and couldn't support their families and orphanages were a necessity to so many. But they were understaffed and the horrors of the Romanian orphanages of the past decades is well known. Now that orphanages are closing to young ones, the problem is not suddenly solved. It seems to be ingrained into the culture that if a family can't take care of their child, the State should. For example, one mom dropped off her two children at the hospital last week because she got a new job and didn't know where else to take them. The nurses fudged their intake forms falsely indicating that the children were 'sick' so they could be admitted, and now these two are living in the hospital (in separate rooms) locked in cribs surrounded by sick babies... and not for the first time. Finding affordable daycare is a problem in Canada as well, and I absolutely sympathize with families struggling to make life work... but I can't imagine leaving a child at the hospital, unattended, for days, weeks, months...
The nurses are, for the most part, wonderful. But as in Canada they are overworked. They administer medicine and prepare bottles, etc etc, but they don't have time to connect with the babies individually in any consistent manner.
FFR is doing a good job loving both healthy and sick, loved and unloved, children: holding them, playing with them, feeding them and changing their diapers -- as well as handing out clothing and extra supplies to mothers that do come to attend to their children! The nurses are thankful for the extra hands, and It's important for these children who are here now. I know I can't change 'the system' or 'the culture'. But I can hold Daniel, and Christina, and the other dozens of babies that are currently in the hospital today. And I can pray.
FFR is doing more than simply caring directly for the children that have been 'semi-abandoned' in the hospital. They work with a social worker to return children to their families -- their ultimate goal. They run a family sponsorship program to help meet the needs of families in poverty so they can keep their children rather than leaving them unattended at the hospital. They run teenage girl and teenage boy programs to help teach young people and inspire them for a better life. They run a MOMS group to teach young moms how to care for their infants.
Still, something at a deeper level needs to happen...
More Romanians need to get over their dislike of the Gypsies and be involved in transforming lives, and more Gypsies need to step up and make a better life for their children. How easy is it for me to say that?!! I know the history of Gypsy/Romanian people runs deep... and I am an outsider... and blanket statements are unhelpful... and I probably don't have the right to say that...
I am convinced that more education needs to take place - Gypsy kids need to stay in school, graduate, and be inspired to reach for a better life. Kudos to my friend Jenn Jacob for working with Gypsy kids and families in Bucharest and doing just this (and for any of you teacher types out there interested in being part of running an education program to help Gypsy kids, there might be an opportunity for you to be involved...!!)
And I am convinced of our need for God's mercy.
Anyways, these are my thoughts after 5 shifts - 25 more to go. The truth is, I don't really know anything. I don't yet understand Romanian culture, or Gypsy culture, or how the two interact. I can't speak the language and therefore rely on answers to my questions from others... I wish I could talk to the mothers I do meet myself. I wish I could talk to the nurses myself. I want to understand more.
Tomorrow I will go back to the hospital and I will hold babies. And change diapers (I am *very* slow at changing diapers... :) And I will do my best to interact with these little ones in a way that makes them feel loved and worthy.