The Inspirational People of Romania and Why Humanitarian Volunteering is Such a Worthwhile Thing to Do!

By James White who volunteered in Romania with The Global Volunteer Network.

As I write this, I'm sitting on a train wandering in no apparent hurry through the Southern Transylvanian countryside. Outside it's bleak. Something in between rain and snow is swirling around the windows, and off in the distance it's hard to tell where the sky ends and the ground begins - fog like this is only rivalled in mid-winter Waikato. It's cold, and I have a good couple of hours ahead of me in this seat. It's a good time for thinking.

James with one of his new friends.
Courtesy: Global Volunteer Network

My time in Romania is almost over. This train is taking me to Sinaia, site of the country's most spectacular castle, and a mountain that peaks at two thousand metres. I'm told it's quite chilly at the top, so I'm wearing long trousers. After that, it's a whistle-stop tour of other towns I want to see, before some long bus rides in the general direction of London (what, fly? who, me?)

A number of people have asked me why I came here. The best of a number of possible answers is this: adventure. I wanted to experience a new country and culture in a more in-depth way than my backpacking scuttles through South-East Asia and Western Europe provided. Volunteering for a humanitarian organisation gave me the chance to do this, and something worthwhile as well. In many ways, I found just what I would have expected; a mission that has accomplished nothing short of a miracle in a place of desperate need, and a group of special kids and young adults who opened their hearts and captured mine. But what has impacted me the most has been the host of remarkable people I've met in this country. Men and women who've responded to great need with great acts of commitment and sacrifice. If you have a few minutes, I'd like to introduce a few of them.

Take Bruce and Sandy Tanner, an American couple who some twelve years ago saw a television program called "Shame of a Nation" that deeply impacted them, and galvanised them to action (how often have I seen similar media images, and felt the emotions without being prompted to action?) They sold up shop, moved to Nicoresti, a small Romanian village, and spent the initial years simply serving in the local spital (a hospital for people with mental and physical disabilities). Gradually, after struggling through much administrative red tape, they managed to get some children out of that dreadful environment and into a home. Now, more than a decade later, they oversee five group homes full of thirty-three beautiful kids who are thriving. Tanner Romania Mission continues to contribute to the village, and the spital. They're a huge presence in the village - everyone knows Mama Sandy and Tata Bruce. Sandy once pointed to Florentine, a delightful chap with severe cerebral palsy, who recently celebrated his nineteenth birthday, and told me, "If it was just him, if he was the only one, it would be worth it." She means that.

Then there's Pauline Walsh. A bona fide modern saint, this Irish lass has been serving at the Nicoresti spital for more than four years. I never fully appreciated what this meant, until I visited there in my final week. Home to some eighty adults with various mental and physical disabilities, it's a truly desperate place (the younger children are all, thank God, now all under TRM roofs, or in relatively humane conditions in nearby Galati). Many of the residents wander zombie-like around cold dark corridors, others cringe under dirty bed sheets for weeks, months on end. I saw two men chained to their beds. I saw an ill man sitting in his own defecation, days-old dressings unchanged, as paid local staff sat drinking coffee. Physical and sexual abuse is commonplace. Wild dogs roam the corridors and the eating hall, and the place stinks. I learnt early on not to ask Pauline how her day was - in a place like that, it's only varying degrees of awful. In the face of it all, Pauline has maintained a wicked sense of humour, a wry smile and a very distinctive laugh. Perhaps that's her greatest achievement.

If you've never met Conor Hughes, you've missed out. Conor embodies everything that's great about the Irish - big-heartedness, self-depreciation, and a formidable sense of humour. A long-term fundraiser and rallier of support for TRM he is, along with its founders, the heart and soul of the mission. He's a businessman and musician, yet despite his many commitments, makes the trip out to Nicoresti like it's an outing to the shops (he was here twice during the last three months, and will be out again in January). I once asked Conor why he does it. He shrugged and said, "The adventure, I suppose", a reply that struck a chord with me. Conor equally loves the children at the group homes, and the remaining adult residents of the spital. It makes me smile to think about the man who's crossed paths with the likes of U2, taking walks with the crooked, withered residents of a mental hospital in a tiny Romanian village. Ask most people in the world to name a famous Irish musician with scraggly black hair, and they'll name Bono. Ask the same of the residents of TRM homes, or the Nicoresti spital, and they'll tell you about the man who often turns up, armed with a mandolin, a ready smile, and a silly dance.

These people are a very diverse group - at face value, they have little in common. In fact, most of their similarities are in things they don't do. None count the cost. None, as far as I know, have sweeping visions of bringing change to entire nations or communities. None have political aspirations to effect change through social policy (such people are surely needed, but they are not them). Rather, they are satisfied to make a difference to the lives of a small handful of people who otherwise have no one to advocate for them. They seek no credit or recognition for what they do, indeed, they refuse to see what they are doing as particularly special or unusual. Where I would be daunted by the magnitude of the problem, and struggle to see how I could make any difference, they refuse to think in terms of numbers or statistics - to them, just one baby, child or adult is worth moving mountains for.

If you've ever given thought to doing voluntary humanitarian work, I can only offer my heartiest encouragement. Volunteers enable many organisations to go beyond providing basic human needs like food and shelter, to sharing life, colour and joy. You have a combination of skills and personality traits that no one else can offer. Go on, look into it. After all, you only have one life to live.

GVN currently has volunteer positions available through their partner organizations in China, Ecuador, Ghana, Nepal, New Zealand, Romania, Russia, Thailand and Uganda.

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More of Jame's special friends.
Courtesy: Global Volunteer Network

© One World One People, 23 September 2003
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