Good News about Romanian Children

by Bud Philbrook
resident & Co-founder of Global Volunteers

(responding to the New York Times article on Romanian Orphanages)

I was deeply saddened by Sunday’s editorial on the dire conditions of Romania’s orphanages. Having visited Romania several times during the past eight years, I am well aware of the incredible challenges of caring for institutionalized children with too little money and too few staff. However, it is not all bad.

I’d like to call your attention to a "good news" story about ordinary Americans who are truly making a difference for institutionalized babies and toddlers in eastern Romania.

For the past seven years, more than 1,000 volunteers – most of them Americans – have built a lifeline of care and hope for vulnerable children (birth to 3 years old) at the Tutova Failure to Thrive Clinic in the Moldova region of Romania. These compassionate individuals have participated on two- and three-week service programs to provide vital care for the youngsters at this clinic.

These programs – offered throughout the year to ensure a continuity of care – are conducted by Global Volunteers, a St. Paul, Minn.-based nonprofit international development organization that engages volunteers – ordinary Americans – on short-term service projects in 20 countries around the world.

Here’s a little background on the Romania project: The children are brought to the Tutova clinic because they are failing to thrive and, without intervention, many of them will die. Some are abandoned or orphaned, others are from families that are too poor to feed and care for a sickly child. Many of their birth moms had no prenatal care and, thus, the babies were seriously underweight at birth.

Before Global Volunteers started sending volunteers and money to this clinic, the babies were in desperate conditions. There were 35 of them and only three staff members working "24/7." The staff, while loving and caring, was so shorthanded they could do little more than feed and diaper the babies.

I recall my first visit to the Tutova Clinic in 1998. The stench of urine was overwhelming. The grey walls and dimly lit rooms were only overshadowed by the vacant eyes and skinny bodies. The children were lodged in iron cribs with virtually no toys to keep them occupied. The staff had to tie the toddlers to the corner of the cribs by their wrists to prevent them from climbing out – you cannot have babies running around when there is no one to look after them. All of the children were bottle-fed because there were not enough hands to teach them how to eat with a spoon – and the food was prepared in a blender so they could drink the watered-down puree.

As a result of that eye-opening visit, Global Volunteers began sending regular teams of volunteers in 1999. Over the ensuing years, the volunteers have made a dramatic difference in the children’s lives and in the clinic’s physical facility.

Today the clinic is bright, clean, and freshly painted. There are still around 35 infants and toddlers, but several additional caregivers staff the facility. Necessary medicines are available and food is abundant. After the sickly babies have been at the clinic for a while, they become fat and happy. The new cribs are made of wood and colorful mobiles hang over each. There are many educational toys, and stuffed animals compete for space in the cribs. They now have an industrial-sized washer, spinner, and dryer to clean the soft cloth diapers. The smell of urine has been replaced by fresh flowers and food cooking in the refurbished kitchen. The children now have appropriate clothing so they can go outside to be pushed in strollers or play on the swings.

Global Volunteers currently sends volunteers to Tutova clinic year round – 17 three-week teams (more than 150 volunteers annually). To date, 1,077 have served, with 80 individuals signed up and ready to go yet this year. We also have initiated a child-sponsorship program to ensure a steady flow of financial aid for the continued health and wellbeing of the children.

For as much as they give, the volunteers swear they receive abundantly in return. Volunteer Pam Costa of Cupertino, Calif., shares her thoughts: "We have so much to learn in our short lives, and trips like this certainly help the process along. This experience reminded me how important it is to volunteer and to be grateful for the really important things in life – such as friends, family and love. Working with special-needs kids can break your heart with both sadness and joy. The hardships of a little girl with severe acid reflux brought me to tears one day, while the laughter of a 12-lb. 2 ˝ - year-old girl with brittle bone disease warmed every part of my soul. And every time a child smiled made me extremely happy. Though the staff at the clinic do not speak English and I do not speak Romanian, love is a universal language, and we were easily able to work together to feed and play with the children."

Tutova clinic is just a stepping-stone to a better future for the most fortunate of these babies. Depending on the circumstances, the children are either returned to their birth parents when they are strong enough or, if they are abandoned or orphaned, they are placed with foster families at the age of 3. Clinic staff and volunteers have kept detailed journals for each child as they progress from failing-to-thrive to thriving.

Sadly, there are millions of "throw-away" children in countries all over the world. But, thanks to the compassion of these wonderful American volunteers (we’re talking retirees, college students, baby boomers, ordinary folks) and the loving clinic staff, the babies at Tutova clinic in Romania are no longer counted among that number.

Founded in 1984 in St. Paul, MN, Global Volunteers is a nonprofit, nonsectarian international development organization offering short-term service opportunities – all locally directed – in 100 communities around the world. Visit the website at

Barbara DeGroot, Media Relations Manager
Global Volunteers "Adventures in Service" Worldwide

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