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"No Romanian will adopt a gypsy or problem or disabled child."

 

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December 27, 2005

Henderson church group gets an in-your-face look at the embattled lives of Romanian orphans and leaves their world .....

Forever Changed

By Christina Littlefield <clittle@lasvegassun.com>
Las Vegas Sun

The Team

The Central Christian Church Romania mission team:

* Professional musician Chris Heifner, 27, and his newlywed wife, Natalie, 19, a poet barista

* Production tech manager Peter Blue, 26

* Realtor Monika Callahan, 26

* Paramedic Tiffany Lopardo, 25

* Substitute teacher Crystal Czech, 24

* Photographer Jose Antonio Lopez, 23

* Bank teller Erica Vasquez, 23

* Insurance salesman Michael Alires, 23

* Future teachers Samantha Knight, 20, and Diane Velarde, 20

* Construction worker Chris San Agustin, 20.

For more information about the mission team and to read detailed daily updates written from Romania, visit mergeonline.org.

 

Tucked away on the other side of the world, in a dreary gray compound on the outskirts of the Black Sea city of Constanta, Romania, lives a 4-year-old girl named Florrie.

There's a sadness in her amber eyes and shy, sweet smile, and a tinge of hope. Her pixie face still lights up when she laughs.

It was the smile that first drew me to her. Like many of the 180 children at the overcrowded state-run orphanage, Florrie was thirsty for love and affection.

As part of a 14-member mission team from Central Christian Church in Henderson, I did everything I could to bring a smile to her face during our four-day visit to her orphanage last summer.

Our mission was just to play with the kids and teach them a few basic concepts: how to love others and treat them as you want to be treated. We did this more through actions than words.

Our days at the orphanage were part of a two-week, three-city tour of Romania, and we were overwhelmed by the realities of the orphan problem in a country still struggling to right itself after a brutal communist regime.

In the capital of Bucharest, we met street kids breathing plastic bags that contained a potentially lethal combination of silver spray paint and glue, their rail-thin bodies scarred from street fights and self-mutilation.

In Constanta, we spent our days with children like Florrie who were physically better off but just as emotionally scarred. At night in Constanta, we visited Turkish kids who lived in Third World villages, ostracized from the rest of Romanian society, and teens crippled since infanthood.

But in the northern city of Oradea, at the tail end of the trip, we also found hope in a Christian community that is placing abandoned children into loving, caring families.

I went for humanitarian reasons and journalistic curiosity, wanting to understand what a Christian mission was all about and to see whether they did any good. Like many of my fellow travelers, I came back with more questions than answers, my worldview skewed and my life choices suddenly seeming shallow.

And now, months later, I still can't get the image of that cute little face out of my head.

* * *

The United Nations estimates that Romania is home to nearly 80,000 orphaned or abandoned children like Florrie.

The mountainous problem can only be solved by chipping away from the bottom, by trying to help one child at a time, said Matthew and Estera Duru, the husband-and-wife Christian ministry team who guided us during our time in Romania. The economic hardships that led parents to abandon their children date back to former communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's regime, and it will take generations to fix.

"I want you to wrestle with a problem that's bigger than you can solve," Mike Arnold, Central's young adults pastor, said during the last leg of our 24-hour journey into Bucharest on July 26. "The response should be that ... there is not anything I can do to solve the problem on a huge scale, but I can be a part of the solution."

This was the seventh trip to Romania for the laid-back, lanky Midwesterner, of whom one team member joked resembled more of a used car salesman than a pastor. Arnold said he brings teams to Romania to support the work of the full-time missionaries, but also to break his team members out of their American bubbles.

This year's team included a mix of 20-something professionals and college students, including a musician, a production tech manager, a real estate agent, a paramedic and a handful of future teachers.

Arnold's goal was to push us to serve others beyond our capacity to serve, and to do it out of the wellspring of our hearts.

"Ultimately, this flows out of a love for Christ," said Arnold, 32, who moved his family to Henderson in November 2004 after eight years as a college pastor in Akron, Ohio. "It's not just a humanitarian cause.

A problem we can't solve

At the orphanage in Constanta, many of the children have developmental delays, learning disabilities or emotional issues, primarily from neglect during their first few years of life.

Each day, they swarmed us just to shake our hands, hug us or play with us. They fought each other to have their pictures taken or to have their faces painted. Enamored with team member Chris San Agustin's tattoos, they had us draw identical crosses on their arms too.

We spent most of our time playing games or doing crafts in the Romanian countryside. The day trips, complete with a barbecue, are a rare treat for the kids, Matthew Duru said. State-run orphanages usually don't let outsiders in, but Arnold's previous teams had made an impression.

The orphanage director "said she would not trust these kids to other people," said Duru, a Nigerian transplant to Romania. "She trusted our ministry because she has seen we have played a big role in the kids' lives."

Questions we can't answer

At night, we ministered in some of the darkest corners of Constanta. We visited the impoverished Turkish neighborhood, which looked like it came straight out of a "Save the Children" commercial, and the children's hospital, where many abandoned children suffer from lifelong mental and physical disabilities caused by neglect. We bribed our way in by donating diapers.

The most graphic sight was a 2-year-old girl with a head the size of a watermelon. She didn't get the surgery she needed to drain fluid from the brain, the hospital director said, without much elaboration. It was probably a combination of economic hardship and lack of adequate medical care.

The patients in the final room were the toughest to look at -- teenagers stuck in cribs their entire lives because no one ever picked them up as infants.

They were permanently paralyzed because they never got to crawl or walk or even flip over as infants, and their muscles were never able to develop. Their minds were similarly stunted.

Stuck in cribs not quite long enough for their limbs, their bodies looked like those of kindergartners. But their arms and legs were much longer, twisting and veering off in strange directions. When it can afford them, the hospital keeps them in diapers.

That's why the room always smells, the hospital director said. The hospital can't afford to change the diapers more than once a day.

Overwhelmed but trying to put on a strong face, Monika Callahan, a 26-year-old real estate agent, smiled at one 18-year-old girl and rubbed her arms. The vacant look in her eyes immediately changed to one of awareness, and a gurgle of a laugh escaped her lips.

Leaving the hospital, we were all filled with grief and anger.

"Seeing all that in one day puts your faith into question," said Michael Alires, a 23-year-old insurance salesman. "Here I am on a mission trip, and I'm wondering where God is and why isn't he here."

For others, the anger was directed at the people responsible.

"These children with problems and issues are pushed away and hidden," said Peter Blue, a 26-year-old freelance production tech manager. "People aren't faced with it, and the attitude is that it's not my problem, I don't have to deal with it."

The situation seemed hopeless, but I thought of how Callahan brought a smile to that one 18-year-old's face. To her, that one moment was worth the trip.

"Even if it's just one life that I can change and bring hope to, then that's entirely worth it to me," she said.

Paralyzed

The need can paralyze you, Estera Duru said. The more you try to help solve the problem, she said, the deeper you realize the need, and it can overwhelm you.

"We don't have this huge ministry with huge resources," she said. "It's just us. We've realized that you don't need to move mountains to have an impact on someone's life."

Estera and Matthew strain financially and struggle to find volunteers. Few people want to work where they work. That we would travel across the world to play with the children touched everyone at the orphanage, Matthew said.

"It gives us a beginning to share more of the life of Christ."

I asked him whether he'd rather have the money, the $37,000 we raised to go over there, instead. (In the end, about $4,000 will go directly to his ministry.)

"If I tell you money can do everything, then I am telling lies," he said. "For you to come here speaks more loudly.

"But," he noted, "we are in need of money."

One life

The Durus stressed the importance of connecting with the children one to one, and I thought about that as we made our fourth and final walk to the orphanage. We've been hugging every kid in sight, but have we made any lasting impact?

I thought of Maria, a 15-year-old girl I met on my second day.

A tomboy with dark, curly hair that she kept pulled back in a baseball cap, Maria spoke English. She sought me out that last day and told me more about her parents, who live nearby but can't even take care of themselves.

"I hate them," she said again and again, tears rolling down her cheeks. She kept telling me that she will miss me, that she didn't want me to leave. At some point, Florrie crawled into my lap, and as I sat stroking her back and holding Maria's hand, I wondered what would become of these two girls.

"I wish I could take you both home with me," I told Maria, who translated that to Florrie. Florrie's face brightened and I hesitated, then plunged in further. "Would you want to come?" I asked, and Maria, saying yes herself, translated for Florrie.

Florrie nodded, flashing that sweet, shy smile. And I wanted to kick myself. "Tell her I would if I could, Maria. I would if I could."

* * *

We left Constanta full of questions, but in Oradea we found one possible answer to Romania's massive orphan problem with a Christian organization called Caminul Felix.

Founded by a Swedish priest right after the revolution, Caminul Felix recruits Romanian couples to raise up to 15 abandoned children each.

"I want them to be a model in their society," said Dan Butuc-nayer, one of the house parents. "I'm dreaming that one of those kids could be president of Romania."

He's already seeing success in some of the first kids he took in. His adopted son Zoltan Deak, 18, wants to become an architect and a pastor, creating new Caminul Felix villages wherever there are kids who need homes.

As we toured the Caminul Felix sites in early August, including a teen transition center we would spend three days working on, we were all struck by the differences between the Christian organization and the state-run orphanage. The Caminul Felix kids didn't swarm us. They weren't desperate for attention.

"They were stable," said Chris Heifner, a 27-year-old professional musician. "They had Christ as the center, and even if they didn't believe, they had hope."

Caminul Felix has "what the state has backwards," Blue said.

Arnold tells the children of Caminul Felix that they are the future of their country. Every year when he flies into Romania with a new team, Arnold said he hopes that they won't be needed.

"It's my prayer that one day, when I bring teams here, that you will be the ones teaching them about Jesus," Arnold told the children on our last night. "You will be the ones leading them."

Back home

Last week, while helping with an annual Christmas party that Central's young adults group hosts at the church for local orphans, it hit many of us who had traveled to Romania how much of a mountain there is to move in Las Vegas.

There's hurt and pain here too, Arnold said.

"I wish we could see into the eyes and souls of the people at Merge (Central's group for college and young adults) to look beyond their physical demeanor," Arnold said.

"... They are broken people. I think if we looked inside them, we would see kids with huge heads and kids crippled in beds."

The Christmas party on Dec. 17 was one of several regular functions Callahan organizes through Central's young adult group for emotionally disturbed children who are wards of the state.

Together with the children, we decorated gingerbread houses, munched on pizza and sang Christmas carols. Then Santa appeared and presented each child with a decorative lawn bag full of presents from basic necessities to remote controlled cars.

The joy on their faces as Santa appeared was priceless, but it just made us want to do more.

As I helped one 12-year-old girl with her gingerbread house, she told me she wished I could adopt her.

"I would if I could," I told her. "I would if I could."

 

Christina Littlefield can be reached at 259-8813 or at clittle@lasvegassun.com.
 

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