Published: January 23rd 2010January 23rd 2010
After many meetings, much preparation, three flights (one being 11 hours from Salt Lake City to Paris) and 3 movies, we finally made it to Romania. After going through customs and claiming all but one of our 20 bags, the 15 of us (12 University of Idaho Students and 3 advisers) were ready to leave Bucharest and be on our way to Valea Screzii, a village about an hour and a half away.
Well, things didn’t quite go as planned once we realized that one of the guys on our 15 person team had left his passport on the airplane and was now being held in limbo in the Bucharest airport. Hmmmmm. After waiting for five extra hours on the airport floor, we decided to leave one of our advisers in Bucharest to wait for the release (we were hoping) of our comrade.
The rest of us piled into two minibuses and were finally on our way again. Arriving in Valea Screzii was so exciting, you have no idea. It was amazing to finally be there. We got moved into our rooms on the top floor of the volunteer house (one of many houses on the ProVita compound) and fell into
The Church on the Hill
The wooden church we helped finish in time for Saint Tatiana's Day
bed after a midnight snack of grilled cheese sandwiches, tomatoes, liver pâté and tea. Yummmm, minus the pâté. I’m not super fond of meaty cream cheese.
The next day we woke to brilliant sun and hiked up to the tiny little church on the top of the hill at ProVita. We all got soaked and muddy, but it was worth it. (Our comrade was narrowly spared being shipped back to Paris and was released armed with an emergency visa from the US Embassy the next day. Whew.)
ProVita is the largest non-profit organization in Romania, all started by an Orthodox priest. Just after the fall of communism in Romania in 1989 and 1990, Father Tanase decided to open his arms to anyone who could not care for their children. Abortion was illegal in Romania during the reign of communism and Nicolae Ceaucescu, but even so, 60 percent of pregnancies during that time still ended in illegal, backstreet type abortions. During such difficult times in Romania, many people had children, but were completely unable to care for them. Father Tanase saw this problem, and started ProVita (ProLife). The first child came to ProVita in 1990, and since then, many children have
From the top
grown up under the care of Father Tanase and his volunteers.
ProVita is completely run on donations (all ProVita buildings, clothing, food… everything is donated) and 99 percent of those donations are by the Romanian people.
Now there are 53 children that live at ProVita, about 40 single/widowed mothers and their children, about 12 girls who grew up in state orphanages in Romania during communism and about 10 older men who need help. In addition, ProVita has found families to care for about 120 other children who are placed in homes in the surrounding villages.
We had the privilege of having lunch and a long chat with Father Tanase one day after church and he told us many things that I will never forget. Among others - “If you find something good, take it. If you have something good, leave it.” And “You have only one life, live it with intensity.” Coming from him, these words are an inspiration.
Romania is 90 percent Christian Orthodox and we went to many a church service while we were there. It was very interesting and I quite enjoyed going. Granted I couldn’t understand a lick of it besides a phrase repeated over and
over that we discovered means “Lord have mercy,” it was a great key to a bit deeper an understanding of the Romanian culture and a good way to score some boiled wine (just kidding… wasn’t a big fan of scalding hot merlot.) We were told that during communism, attending church was forbidden in Romania but since the fall, the Orthodox Church has helped a great deal in rebuilding a broken country. I realized that the way I view organized religion is case sensitive by country… the Orthodox church in Romania has been so proactive in changing the face of the entire nation. The church has given the people of Romania some sort of structure back and has helped to rebuild a social system that was broken down to basically non-existent just 20 years ago.
Without Father Tanase and the values he draws from the Orthodox faith, there would be no ProVita.
Traditionally, the Orthodox religion fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays, and I was a bit worried about that little fact until we realized fasting just means they eat no meat.
While we were there, we stayed in a house used mainly for guests and volunteers. We hauled all of
For the lads and the schoolboys
our own firewood for the boiler that heats the concrete house, washed our own dishes (unfortunately, we didn’t wash ourselves too often… I took 6 showers in three weeks. Kind of liberating to be dirty, cause when you take a shower, it puts you in an astonishingly better mood. Haha.) We ate only traditional Romanian food while in Valea Screzii, which means about a loaf of bread (each) at every meal, lottttsssss of potatoes, soup, chicken, rice and occasionally some meat rolled in cabbage, salad sculpted into the shape of a cake (verrry misleading) and our personal favorite, Crème Bonjour (like a cross between cream cheese and sour cream. The red pepper flavor was divine.) Tea was served at almost every meal as well, which I fell in love with.
While we struggled a bit to find jobs around the compound that would provide us with manual labor (due to the lack of building supply donations during our time there), we took that extra time to spend with the children. Most days, we spent from morning until about midnight with the older “lads”, watching movies, occasionally helping them with homework, and playing very heated games of cards.
We helped the
Where we attended New Year's Eve service
schoolgirls with their homework, made bracelets with them, watched movies with them (their favorite was this old movie about the Romans and the Dacians. Why? You got me.) A couple of those girls are truly brilliant and much, much more bilingual than I could ever hope to be.
There are also the school boys who think they are quite the smooth talkers, whom we spent a bit of time with too. We didn’t see too much of them most of the time, but when we did, if there was snow on the ground, it was in our best interests to watch out. They aim right for the head. We went sledding with them a few times and on one of our last days we played a game of “baseball” (using inflated mini-volleyballs, 2 plastic bats and 2 pieces of wood used as bats) with them up on the hill.
There were the boys, and two girls, in the downstairs of the pink house who I’m pretty certain waited for some of us to show up every day so they had human jungle gyms at their disposal and flash cards to eagerly practice their English with. I felt a tie with
one of the little 6 year old boys immediately and I credit him with my ability to recite numbers 1-10 in Romanian.
There were also the youngsters in the upstairs of the pink house who were usually entertained for quite a while if we put on our tape of children’s songs. I think I would be pretty entertained watching a bunch of big, silly “Americanies” doing the chicken dance, too.
Last but not least, we also spent quite a bit of time with the “girls next door,” as they were called. These women, the ones who grew up in terrible conditions in state orphanages, taught me a lot more than I realized. We spent a bit of time with them in the barnyard (their daily chore is to tend to the cows) and they were in and out of our house a lot during the day. One of the girls taught us how to make intricate designs using hemp and one of the girls can speak darn near fluent Spanish, so she kept those of us returning to Spanish classes this semester on our toes. If we were put to work on a project outside, the girls were always ready
to help us.
In addition to the time we spent in the individual houses with the kids, we put on a carnival for everyone at ProVita in the volunteer house one afternoon. It was a hit success. We also sorted out a couple of rooms in the volunteer house and made space for a craft room and a dance room for the older boys to hang out and practice their dancing in. It was a pretty rewarding transformation from start to finish.
We also cleaned out houses around the compound, cleaned up the compound itself, cleaned the river of mounds of trash, sorted, moved and built all sorts of furniture, hauled and chopped mountains of firewood, hauled ply-wood all over creation, hauled ply-wood to the hop of the hill to finish the church, finished the church on the hill just in time for it’s purpose (Saint Tatiana's day, on the Orthodox calendar), and sorted donations galore.
At times, it was hard to leave my Western perspectives packed away and not push them on the way I viewed things there. Though in doing so, it’s a lot easier to learn to live simply and really understand the way things are run
outside of the world I'm used to.
There were stray dogs everywhere in Romania, yet, they really weren’t that stray at all. They were more like “community dogs” because everyone fed them when they could. Not a single scrap of food that comes off the table in Valea Screzii gets thrown away. It goes in the bowl set aside for the stray dogs. Pretty good strategy, if you ask me.
There is no place else I would rather have spent my New Year’s Eve. We cleared out the dining room, broke out the Romanian champagne and had a grand ole time celebrating the New Year with lads, and with each other.
One day we were walking home from the village of Valea Screzii and somehow managed to get into a snowball fight with Father Mihail. Can you say you’ve been hit right square in the back with a snowball thrown by an Orthodox priest? I can.
We took a few days off on one of the weekends to go visit the 18th century castle of the first king of Romania, the 600 year old Castelul Bran, aka Dracula’s Castle, a 13th century citadel once taken over by the Turks,
the 12th century medieval city of Brasov and two Orthodox monasteries. I loved visiting Dracula’s castle and the citadel, it really is crazy to be in the presence of something so ancient. I also loved spending the afternoon in Brasov and getting used to the stylish ways of urban Romania.
We were only gone from ProVita for 2 and a half days on our little “vacation”, but I was so, so glad to be “home” when we returned there for our last week. The children came in and sang for us during one of our last lunches at ProVita and it was wonderful. Castles and the excitement of the city aside, it yet again reminded me of the real reason we traveled to Romania.
We had the chance to visit a primary school that many ProVita children attend in the next town over, Valea Plopului. It was very orderly and I am impressed with the way it was conducted. It seems to me that they take education very seriously - it’s kind of invigorating.
We spent our last two days gallivanting around Bucharest before we had to tear ourselves away from Romania and come home. During that time, we visited
the second largest building in the world (by square feet, after the Pentagon).
It was huge, as I’m sure you guessed.
We left Romania at 6:55 am on 16th January. I think it’s safe to say it was a sad day for all 15 of us.
Did I make a difference to the people of ProVita? I like to think I did, but really, who knows? I guess I just have to have faith in things I can no longer see. I could have spent a lot more time in Valea Screzii. It was easy to see how much the children loved and are loved and I feel like you and I could only hope to be as strong and as brave as each and every one of them are. Once again, I am reminded of the beauty of the human spirit. It is people like the ones I just spent 21 days of my life with that make me believe in magic, and it really does comfort me to know that a place like ProVita exists in the world. I’ll carry ProVita, in its entirety, with me for a very long time.
As for the present, I am finding
it quite hard to sit in class when I can’t stop dreaming of a magical little place, far, far away.
There are more photos below