Now these children can embrace hope.
Because of Bellingham hotelier Mike Hollander, who established the nonprofit Kidstown International 20 years ago, hundreds of abandoned children in Romania now live in orphanages where they are clothed, fed, schooled and loved.
Others have moved on to adulthood and employment, and have established families of their own.
For a week as autumn began, four Puget Sound residents visited homes where abandoned children live in peace, where they are protected from abuse and given the chance to live normal lives.
During their week in Romania, as a brass band played and a church bell rang, the group attended the baptism of eight children from a Kidstown-sponsored home.
In another village, they stood watching as a grandmother living in squalor held a baby and wept when she saw photos of three granddaughters who live in a Kidstown orphanage.
In yet another village, the group joined in prayer as the residents helped dedicate a new home where abandoned children will live.
Making the trip were Chuck Valley, a hotel manager with Hollander Hospitality and vice president of Romanian outreach for Kidstown; Tim Dust, a Puyallup landscape project manager; Patty Levin, a business trends analyst for Hollander Hospitality; and Saige East, 19, a guest-room attendant at a Puyallup hotel.
A News Tribune reporter accompanied them.
For Valley and Levin, making return visits, the trip was another chance to see some of the children they sponsor who live in orphanages funded in part by Kidstown.
For Dust and East, the visit offered an opportunity to meet for the first time the children they sponsor.
BAPTISM IN A COUNTRYSIDE CHURCH
Horse-drawn carts begin to outnumber automobiles as the American visitors travel through the Carpathian countryside of north-central Romania.
They’re on the way to the baptism of a group of children from the Emmaus Home, a Kidstown-sponsored orphanage in the city of Targu Mures.
The baptism is being held outside the city because some of the children once lived nearby and because the service will be held in one of three small parishes whose minister, Karoly Molnar, is the Americans’ driver and one of their hosts.
Former dictator Nicolai Ceausescu’s favorite lakes, none wider than a city block, quietly reflect the pillowed clouds riding a sapphire afternoon sky. Rows of barren cornstalks cover narrow fields, while sunflowers by the thousand bend heavy toward the ground.
Ninety minutes after leaving Targu Mures, the group arrives at a small church where an old woman standing near the entrance pulls a rope and a bell rings welcome.
Four musicians — three teenagers and their adult leader, three trumpets and a French horn — begin to play as the children about to be baptized arrive from the Emmaus Home.
The eight youngsters, ranging in age from 7 to 13, climb from their van. The boys are wearing white shirts and polished shoes; the girls are in white leggings and dresses.
The service begins with hymns and prayer, and call-and-response from the minister. He gestures for each child to join him near a table set with a lace cloth, a silver chalice, a silver bowl, and a vase of blood-red zinnias.
He speaks words that likely have been spoken for a thousand years, and he pours blessed water over bowed heads.
The children sit with hands folded in their laps. Two dozen people before them pray.
Outside, the sunlight fades and shadows grow long. The calls of gathering crows compete with the rumble of a combine harvesting cornstalks along a hillside a mile away.
Inside, when the ceremony ends, women of the congregation serve refreshments: beverages and home-baked sweets of many shapes.
Three of the girls who received the sacrament came to the Emmaus Home from a village about 20 miles away. By coincidence, the Americans are about to enter that village and see the conditions the three girls once faced, and which continue for the four siblings who remain.
TWO FAMILIES AND A QUESTION
Heading back to the orphanage, the Americans pass through a countryside unlit by streetlights, dark but for the beams of headlights and the brightness that bleeds from the windows of an occasional farmhouse.
After passing through a handful of quiet quiet villages and as the group enters another, Eszter Molnar, the regional director for Kidstown and the wife of Karoly, the minister, suddenly tells him to stop the van. He does.
She has recognized the mother of three of the girls who were baptized, and of two other siblings who live at the orphanage.
The woman also is the mother of four other children, including a 6-month-old boy, who remain at home. Eszter Molnar says she has been trying to convince the mother to release those four into her care so they might join the children at Emmaus.
There is no porch light, no streetlight, where the family lives. Outside, the only light is from the opalescent ribbons of the Milky Way. Inside the house — a room about the size of a second bedroom in a cheap American apartment — a single bulb tries to shine.
Black mold crawls across peeling walls and flies buzz in the heat of a wood stove. Vermin nest in the blankets and scraps of cloth used for bedding.
A nearly empty baby bottle stands warm on a table and the smell of sour milk fills the room. What could be a tablecloth covers a window with no glass.
The grandmother holds the infant boy. Three other children sit beside her. The old woman is shown a scroll of photos just taken at the baptism of her three granddaughters, in dresses: clean, smiling, radiant.
Later, Valley tells a story of similar disquiet concerning another family living nearby. All nine of the children of this other family now live at the Emmaus Home. He talks of the day they were found, and what he saw.
The only food in the house – the single room – was a piece of salt pork hanging from a hook in the ceiling. The parents had left a baby crying in a crib while they visited a family member nearby.
“Eszter says mom doesn’t care, she doesn’t want them,” Valley said. “We were looking at each other. Why are they still here? Eszter explained she was working with the mother to bring the children to the home.
“The conditions were so horrible. My first thought was just disbelief. Why? Utzi, in his crib, soiled, crying. His eyes were red from crying.
“The other three had distended stomachs. One of the girls had come home with a nail embedded in her arm. I don’t know if it was punishment, or what.”
Some parents choose to keep their children in odious homes, in conditions horrid to American eyes. Valley asks why. No good answer occurs.
IN A GYPSY SETTLEMENT
On another day, the group visits five gypsy families living 30 miles or so outside the city of Timisoara in a cluster of low-ceilinged huts, each about the size of a one-car garage.
They’re here to meet Patrik, who had spent years in a Kidstown orphanage and now is supporting his own family, including an infant daughter, Evaline.
Patrik and his wife, Alexandra, live in one room; 16 people — men, women and children — live in the other.
Blankets not worthy of the name hang on peeling, mold-caked walls. Flies browse on loaves of dry bread. A single bulb hangs through a tangle of wires.
Several children approach, and are all given candy. Valley suggests the visitors also buy groceries, for all the families. At the village store they purchase rice, pasta, oil, sausage and pop, two large bags each for the five groups, for 35 people.
Six children from this settlement live at a Kidstown-sponsored orphanage. Their father was unknown and their mother had died, and now they have found a home.
Valley recalls another mother who would not allow her children to leave such difficult conditions to live in a Kidstown home.
“She said she will not give up her children,” he said. “If she will starve, they will starve with her.”
The five families accept the groceries with thanks.
A FAMILY ACROSS A WARM RIVER
On their last full day in Romania, the Americans visit a family of special interest to Patty Levin.
She had been looking forward to meeting two of the family’s children, Karoly and Csilla, whom she began sponsoring years ago when they were residents of a Kidstown-supported home in Bogata.
Though she has seen the children only four times over the past six years, she considers them part of her family.
“Maybe it is because I watched them grow up,” she said. “I think about them all the time.”
But when the Bogata orphanage closed and moved to Targu Mures, the parents pulled their children back. Today, the four boys and two girls, 6 to 18, live with their parents once again,
“My heart breaks for these children, knowing their chance for a better life may have slipped away, and I wonder if they know or think it, too,” Levin said. “Maybe just the older ones feel it since they spent more time at the orphanage and had a taste for what life could be like.”
The group arrives on a flat-bottomed raft a woman pulls via cable across a small river. The river does not freeze in winter, she says, because an “energy plant” upstream constantly disposes hot water into the flow.
A soft fog hangs like polished silver over the water. Disembarking, the group walks a quarter mile along a road of dried mud, deeply rutted.
The family lives in two rooms, one that serves as a kitchen, and another, 12 by 10 feet, where people sleep.
Again, flies. Again, squalor. Empty half-liter bottles of a beer called “Beer” predominate in open piles of garbage out beyond a pigpen. A doll in the character of Disney’s Goofy hangs like an icon above an inside doorway. A cross hangs on a wall.
The group distributes gifts: sports equipment, shoes, athletic suits, other clothing, toys, candy, plus a jar of preciously rare-in-Romania peanut butter.
Karoly and Csilla and the other children smile, sharing their things.
The father watches.
Eszter Molnar said earlier in the day that she thinks the parents demanded the return of the children so they could earn money working at local farms. She also said she fears the father will take the gifts the children have been given and sell them for beer money.
“There has been this back-and-forth struggle where we have continued to help these children,” Valley said. “The mother still won’t let the children come to Emmaus.”
Said Molnar, “The mother needs the children to take care of her needs. School is never a thought for her.”
After the visit Levin talks about seeing Hilda, the family’s oldest child, four years ago at the orphanage. She was a typical 13-year-old, Levin said, “giggling with friends, doing schoolwork and flashing that beautiful smile.”
The next day Levin saw a different person.
“She was home caring for the younger children and had just finished washing all of the soiled clothing in a pan in the back yard. Her hands were black with filth and her beautiful smile had disappeared; it was as though her childhood was torn out from beneath her.
“It made me very sad.”
AT THE ORPHANAGES, PLAY AND WORK
Some of the children who live at Kidstown homes truly are orphans. Many have simply been abandoned, and others have been given up by their parents or grandparents.
Johnny was abandoned as an infant at a train station.
Albert was born to a mother who was in the ninth grade, father unknown.
And after lunch at another Kidstown home, Casa Otniel, the children sing. Outside, they turn cartwheels on the lawn, they ride pogo sticks and challenge visitors to revisit the hula hoop.
Leo, a teenager, says all of the children have duties to perform, and his job is chopping wood. He points to a woodpile surely large enough to accommodate the coming winter.
“Isn’t that a lot of work?” someone asks.
“It’s a piece of cake,” Leo answers.
NO MOMS, NO DADS
At the Kidstown home Cerantul de Sus, the Americans distribute gifts: scarves, toys, balls, glowsticks, Crayons, coloring books, Frisbees, bracelets. As he does at every home, Tim Dust hands out Superman capes to the boys.
One of the workers at the home says orphans and abandoned children once carried the stigma of their situation. To other children, these kids were shameful, “other,” lower.
Not so now.
“Ten years ago, yes,” she said. “Now they attend the same school, and they are invited to birthday parties.”
One morning midway through the journey, the Americans visit General School No. 12, a school in Targu Mures for children with special needs. Several of the children living at the Emmaus Home attend the school, and after classes the group meets with all the children at the home.
After gifts, after songs, each child is asked what he or she wants to be, what their ambition is.
Elemer wants to be a construction worker, Kete a hairdresser, Melinda a teacher, Eilena a dance teacher, Elsabeth a computer designer. They want to be hairstylists, a sports teacher, auto mechanics, police officers, football players.
None of the girls answers “mother” and no boy says “father.”
FINDING GRACE, AND A SIMPLE GIFT
On the morning the group leaves Targu Mures and the Emmaus Home for the city of Cluj, a boy named Elemer comes along part of the way. He wants to visit his home village, about 20 miles distant.
Eszter Molnar says Elemer’s father is unknown and his mother is mentally challenged, but the boy loves her and longs to see her.
She also says Elemer once lived in squalid conditions similar to those the group has seen in the shacks and huts where other children live. His mother still does, and he will be checked and disinfected for lice when he returns to Emmaus later that day.
When Elemer sees his mother he runs to her and they embrace. He leads her down a thin road to the group’s van and proudly introduces her. Then he runs to a gate, opens it and bends down to greet the family dog.
Molnar tells a story about Elemer from a few years back, soon after he arrived at Emmaus Home.
Timidly, he spoke with a minister connected with the home. He inquired if he could ask a favor. Molnar said the minister figured the boy would request toys, or new shoes, or some special privilege.
She says he asked, “Will you please pray for me?”
Outside Cluj, the group visits Bethesda Home – with 66 children the largest in the Kidstown Romanian portfolio and at 20 years, the oldest.
When the children are given gifts and letters from sponsors, they do not scramble or push or grab. They thoughtfully choose, they share and they say thanks.
Later, the children and the Americans walk into the village and visit the church and a cheese factory. The first leaves of autumn have begun to fall.
A boy comes running up, smiling, and offers an apple he has just now picked.
ANOTHER DAY IN THE WEEK, A SPECIAL DAY
The village orchestra — mostly brass with a big bass drum — is playing outside along a newly poured walkway at the entrance of the Open Doors Home in Bencec de Jos, population 1,000.
Sixty people, give or take, find seats inside.
Lyrics of a hymn written in Romanian are projected onto a wall behind a lectern, and the people sing.
“Glorie, Glorie Aleluia!”
Some are members of the congregation, Christian, but many are simply members of the community surrounding Bencec. They are primarily of the Orthodox faith, and they have come to honor the new addition to their village.
The mayor offers his congratulations. A donor from Ireland and a donor from Holland each give thanks for the opportunity to help.
Chuck Valley, representing Kidstown, presents a plaque. He begins, then waits for the translation, “Our goal is to take care of children around the world, and also in Bencec de Jos.
“There is an organization called Rotary International,” he continues. “Kidstown has partnered with the Rotary in Tacoma, Washington. I have been to this club and I spoke of the progress of this building.”
He presents the plaque.
“So this is a special day,” he says.
Children squirm as the service continues with prayer and song, with lessons read.
At the end, the congregation is invited into the kitchen to share a community potluck buffet of cabbage rolls, deviled eggs, boiled potatoes, chicken, pork, sausages and desserts by the dozen.
A teenager named Johnny — the boy abandoned at a train station as an infant — stands outside in a courtyard.
He imagines what life must be like on the other side of the world, where he says people are rich, where they do not steal. He struggles in English to find the right words.
Frustrated, he finally finds a perfect way to conclude the conversation.
“God Bless America,” he says.
C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535
Go online for more information about Kidstown. Visit kidstown.org.
FACTS ABOUT ROMANIA
Location: Borders Moldova, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary. The Danube River flows through it on its way to the Black Sea.
Size: About 92,000 square miles, making it smaller than Michigan but larger than Minnesota.
Population: Nearly 22 million people.
Affiliations: Member of the European Union and NATO.
Child protection*: In June, 58,013 children were in the child-protection system in Romania. Of them, 20,887 were in residential care. “Classical” orphanages housed fewer than 10,000.
* Source: ChildPact, a London-based coalition of child protection of non-governmental organizations