Saturday, June 9, 2012

One Month in Romania

The train station in Arad.
One month in Arad, Romania!

I cannot believe that I have been living in Romania for a month already! Time that I thought would crawl is quickly passing me by. With 31 days behind me, I have already experienced once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that make me anticipate what the next 60 days might bring. Now that I have learned some of the language, met many people, and have settled into this whole new world, I am able to tell you some of what I have been doing!

Me, Alina, and Lola =)
I am working at the Sunshine School for children who have
disabilities as a volunteer teacher’s assistant. Among my many colleagues, I work in a classroom with two incredible ladies that are teaching me so much! Alina is the teacher of the classroom and is expecting her first baby girl in July. She is incredibly sweet and patient. The way that she loves and believes in each of the children is absolutely inspiring. Her assistant is Lola, my kindred spirit. Lola is tough, full of funny antidotes, and provides my daily humor in her on-going commentary. I couldn’t ask for better women to work with.
The Sunshine School's playground.

      I work in the classroom Monday-Friday, 8-2, but on Mondays and Fridays I am fortunate enough to be able to stay after school for an extra five hours and work with the psychologist, speech therapist, and behavior specialists. So far I have been able to observe all of the sessions with the children, take notes, ask questions, and work with the children during their sessions. I am also starting to work with the psychologist and behavior specialist to form lesson plans for the children's therapy sessions. They are teaching me age and disability appropriate methods, learning games, and different forms of therapies to use.
My gator and pisica (cat).
Requested drawings while
playing with sidewalk
chalk with the cottage-house kids. 
 I have always known that the word "disability" is a very broad umbrella, mentally and physically. But until I started working with the doctors here and began making these session plans with goal lists for the children, I never realized how many different problems and difficulties came along with each individual's disability or disorder. I am so happy to be here and to be able to learn so much.

RCE is celebrating 20 years
of service this year!

So far, my most memorable experience has been visiting poor families that RCE helps support. These families are considered “gypsies”. RCE (Romanian Christian Enterprise) is the organization that funds the Sunshine School and children’s cottages where children who have special needs have been abandoned and now live. RCE does something incredible for these “poor families”. Instead of freely providing the families with the things they needs, RCE encourages each family to help meet the organization half-way. This means that if the family needs food, RCE provides a cow for milk, or seeds for a garden. In return, the family must do their part in caring for the cow and tending to the garden. Not only does this method decrease the families dependency on other people (and the government), but it also teaches them responsibility, independence, and how to work for what they need.
If your mind pictured a TLC episode of gypsies living large, or the beautiful, hunchback-loving Esmeralda when I mentioned “gypsy” families, your mental images couldn’t be more wrong. These families live outside of the clean, safe city, in a remote and dusty village. The houses resembled shacks more than homes and I could smell the village before I had actually seen it. We visited four families that day, but two stuck out in my mind in complete opposite and surprising ways.
The first family had seven people living in a three room house. Two adults with five children, one of the boys is mentally disabled and another is blind.  When I say that there were three rooms in the house, I do not mean three bedrooms, I mean literally three rooms. One of the rooms served as the kitchen, eating area and where they had a couch. The other two rooms were packed with beds for the seven people to sleep.  Please note that I did not mention a bathroom. After touring the home, we walked outside with all the barefoot children following. I was happy to see that this family had taken the assistance from RCE and were working hard to improve their lives and to give their children a better life. This family had grown a prosperous garden that gave them food to eat and sell, they had acquired a hog for meat, and a cow that produced milk for drinking and selling.
 Seeing that cow made me feel closer to home than anything else, ya’ll!!   =)
Though the first family’s living environment was shocking, it had not come close to preparing me for the introduction of the second family.

In an area where people were all outside tending to their gardens and feeding their livestock, our RCE van pulled up to a gated shack. I have honestly seen tool sheds bigger than what this family of five called home. I might sound heartless, but it didn’t take me long to realize that this family’s predicament was the outcome of their own laziness and government-dependency. Many times RCE had given them seeds to plant, but overgrown weeds and excuses were in the place that the garden should be. They had been offered livestock, but didn’t want to take care of an animal despite the milk and meat it could give their three young children. The children, by the way, are just additional examples of their parent’s government-dependency. The mother is illiterate and the father refuses to work. To compensate their nonexistent income, they have children for the small, time-limited monthly payment the government gives anyone who has a baby. Every time the money stops coming because a child is too old, these parents decide to have another, despite the fact that they cannot provide for the ones they already have. The couple is young. The mother held the newborn, while the other two children played on the floor of the house. The floor was dirt. No carpet or rugs covered the dirt that the barefoot children played on. Black sand covered their hands and feet, the middle child was not wearing pants. I don’t mean to paint the picture of a toddler in a Pampers commercial running around in a diaper. This baby wasn’t wearing anything but a shirt that was too small and a smile. I left their house that day more mad than I had ever been in my life. It was unfortunate to see two parents that were unwilling to provide for their children, but that happens all the time. The image that will always linger in my mind is of those children that didn’t take a pre-birth survey choosing to be born into that family. They will grow up without an example of what responsibility and hard work looks like. They don’t know that it’s not acceptable for the bed that they share to be placed right beside the kitchen stove, or for their parents to choose buying cigarettes over clothes for them.

 I left their house not only with an immense appreciation for the work that RCE does, but also with a new understanding for what it means to do the work of Christ. Just like the children in that village, I didn’t take a pre-birth survey. I didn’t choose to be born into the lives of people who would love and care for me. I didn’t hand-pick my parents.  I didn’t decide before birth that I would meet an incredible woman who would lead me back to church, I didn’t know I would be so accepted by a loving church family and I didn’t pre-determine that I would be called to work with children who have special needs or even missions. But I did. And because I was chosen to be so fortunate, to be so blessed, I can’t help but also feel like it’s my job to show God’s love through acts of service for the people who also didn’t choose to be born in the back of the line. Getting to know the children here, meeting these poor families, and  watching children climb out of dumpsters with someone else’s leftover food every day on my way to work reminds me that as part of the body of Christ, we are called to love.
 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’’’ Matthew 25:40
God shows us His love through times of happiness, trials, our success, our families, our deepest despairs, through the blood that covered our sins, and the overwhelming grace in His forgiveness. God’s agape (unconditional) love challenges us to love others as He loves us and as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40). The deeper I find myself in this mission God has placed on my heart, the further I find myself committing to that love for “the least of these”. I am so blessed to be born into the life I have, but I can’t imagine going home and forgetting what I have seen here. I find myself wondering what America’s “least of these” look like and how I can help at home.
Please join me as I pray that my heart will be continuously receptive to the opportunities God could give me to help love others as I love myself, whether it be in continuing to care for people with disabilities, missions, or reaching out to those that weren’t born into the blessings that I had been taking for granted.
Thank you for your prayers, emails, love, and encouraging words. They help more than you know. The support of those that love me, gives me the support I need to love others the way that God has called us to.
Love from Romania,
Madalyn Payge <3