Saint Jim dragged his family to an orphanage in Roumania for Christmas. Here's the story:
The arranging of the whole trip, as you already know, was remarkable, with not a word exchanged, except via email, between us and the team that runs the orphanage: no phone calls, no letters and our only attempt at taking up a reference was an outright failure with the "referee" recommending that our proposed adventure was pretty risky. But I was reminded of the story of the bank teller who can tell good money from bad, not because they have seen a lot of bad money but because they spend so much time handling the good. The first and only email we got from the American who started and remains overall responsible for the orphanage just felt good – and I'm glad to say, with hindsight, that was proved right....

The American, from Texas, is called Cecil, with "Ce" pronounced as in "see", and I think said he is 58.  He was running a youth summer camp in Brosteni (pronounced Broste), in North East Romania, about 10 years ago, with a local man called Adrian, known to all as Uncle Addie, who is aged 52 (now).  As they did this, more and more children appeared out of the shadows to see what was going on at the camp.  The perceptive and quick witted local mayor suggested to them that the town desperately needed an orphanage and he could arrange for them to buy a suitable building – an ex miners' dormitory – on reasonable terms.
 With funds from America, the building was bought.  It was utterly derelict as the locals had stripped it of everything, even window frames (for firewood), piping and wiring.  But, 18 months later, it was ready to go and 80 orphans were housed, four to a room, in relative warmth and comfort.

Uncle Addie is father to them all, supported by a team of about 30 cleaners, housemothers, cooks, security guards and a leadership team including his son Alin aged 29 and Gabbie a builder who was involved in the refurbishment but now does everything including leading worship with his guitar.  Cecil visits about once a month for a week at a time and is in overall charge.  He also does all the fund-raising – about $600,000 per year – that is required to pay the wages of staff, buy food and heating fuel (wood for a wood burner that powers central heating 24 hours a day in winter), run a one room office in Bucharest etc. He commented he and his wife have said to each other that they are "living their dream".  I think they have given up most of their life savings as part of the funding.

I found myself thinking the generosity of Americans is very striking.  I wonder if the blessings they have received as a nation reflect this.

It is slightly odd that Addie, his wife and five of their seven children (all late teens / early 20's) live in Bucharest while Addie and Alin run the orphanage 600 km and 9 hours drive away.  But that seems to be the way God has organised it, and Emma and I assume He knows best.

We arrived in Bucharest near midnight having been delayed three hours at Gatwick as we left.  Hospitality began at once with Alin and two of his brothers waiting with three cars to greet us.  They drove us to the other side of the city where Alin's grandparents' live in a flat, which was a hangover, in our eyes, of communism being in one of thousands of Bucharest tower blocks, each like the worst of London's council blocks.  They contain tiny flats, three or four small rooms each, off really grotty communal stair-wells.  But what a welcome we received there, just as at the airport: a three course meal awaited, which the granny served while we sat and ate like kings.  The children were good at eating the strange food, but I did do a bit of finishing up where they got stuck with Romanian specialities.  The feast finished about 1am.

We were woken at 5.45am for breakfast, during which there was a miscommunication between me and the granny, who spoke not a word of English.  I ended up with five fried eggs and we all waded through a multi-course breakfast, piled on top of our already full stomachs.

Issie and Polly then went off in one car with Alin, Cecil and Maria who was formerly at the orphanage but is now studying law in Bucharest and had been assigned to us as translator.  Emma, Josh, Rosie and I went with Addie in another car.  Outside, the weather was Siberian winter – very cold.  We drove for about 500km North across a vast plain with smog/haze/fog almost always obscuring the horizon on either side.  Only very occasionally could we see far off mountains.

I had thought we would be heading South West, but in fact we were going North East – over 1,000 km from where I had expected.  I had said to Emma we were off on an adventure and that was about right!  After the 500 km of plain, we were in mountains and a couple of hours later at our destination, the orphanage in Brosteni.
 The first couple of days were unrepresentative of the rest of the trip.  An English speaking missionary couple and some friends of theirs were staying as guests, Cecil was there and the atmosphere was generally one of celebration with special meals and distribution of shoe boxes of presents which had arrived from the US (about 200) and in our suitcases (just 4).  Also there were about 40-50 orphans who still were on site at that stage of the Christmas holidays.  After those first few days, the English speaking missionary couple, their friends and Cecil all left.  Embarrassingly, suffering from over-politeness at having tried to finish all food offered to us over three days, I had to make a dash for comfort just as they were all leaving – never mind!

Cecil is a very special chap, though we did not get to know him very well.

From then on, we managed to get into the more normal orphanage routine, which in the holidays includes three meals a day at 9am, 2pm and 7.30pm.  So we were eating with the orphans – Josh and I with the boys and Emma, Issie, Polly and Rosie with the girls.
 The food was often awful – cold or tepid and sometimes almost impossible to get down – like bad 1970's prep school food.  Bread which got increasingly stale as the fortnight wore on (it is only picked up once a week or so) plus spam or salami for breakfast, soup and stew of some sort for lunch and supper with occasional treats like shop bought pudding, all served in Oliver Twist style damp metal bowls/plates by a rather cross looking cook.  I think they probably need a new cook, but Cecil is already on the case so it was not for us to comment.

What is an orphan?  Someone, Emma and I concluded, who would rather be – or those responsible for them would rather they be – in the orphanage than anywhere else they might live.  Some orphans really have nowhere else to live and no-one to care for them;  these included 20 or so who remained in the orphanage full-time throughout the Christmas break while we were there.  Others may have one or no parent remaining, or an aunt, uncle, grandparent or friend, who can care for them occasionally but not full time – these account for the balance of the 80 on the books of the orphanage who were there only part of or none of the time that we stayed.  Some are "day cases", coming in just for food and warmth after school before going home each night.  Addie explained that it is of course difficult sometimes to work out if a lazy parent / aunt / uncle / grandparent is taking advantage of the system or if there is a real need – and he says he and his team do not always get it right (though I say he is very wise and actually should think almost always makes the right judgement).

Why are there orphans?  They are the result of the ravages of communism and, in the case of Brosteni, the exhaustion of the local coal mines – reducing the population in the town from 7,000 to 3,000.  The area is poor, with for example horse-drawn carts being a regular site.

Addie is a wonderful Christian.  But back to his parents for a minute: his father was converted as a boy in the Romanian pentecostal church.  I was struck that while his mother did the cooking and waiting at table (as is the Romanian cultural norm), he too smiled and wonderfully welcomed us in their tiny flat.  Many another man – me included probably – would have been the grumpy male regretting the intrusion on his space.  But not him – he was filled with peace and joy, generously seeing what was probably a large proportion of his pension going out in eggs and the rest as we ate our fill.  He and his wife have being doing this for over 50 years according to Addie, always being the first to offer to put up any visitors to their church.  Addie has all the same qualities and maybe more.  As a family, they survived 40 years of communism ending in 1989, when the dictator Ceacescu was deposed and executed; during this time they were allowed to practise their faith but not tell anyone about it except at Christmas.  I hope that some of their goodness will have rubbed off on us.

The orphans are amazing.  One day I went to with Addie and two of the boys to buy supplies and had half an hour to spare with them in the supermarket.  I offered to buy them whatever they wanted – but as far as I could tell they had no wants.  They are truly content in the care of Addie and the rudiments of faith he has taught them.
 On another day we had the huge pleasure of taking the whole orphanage skiing:  25 of us for the day for about £200 all in.  Addie always looked happy, but I never saw him happier than when we left for the trip in his minibus for 10 crammed with 25 of us and his favourite Christian music at full blast.  Now I know where the end of season kit goes from Meribel (actually, I should say, went about 15 years ago!).

One morning we chopped wood, including logs that were 4 feet long and 3 feet in diameter – what an amazing combination of skill and brute force this required (theirs not mine, which was very feeble by comparison).  At another time, we collected 15 bags of potatoes from their cellar store – ten tons (yes) poured down an old coal shoot at the last delivery and now lying a foot deep across the floor of several cellar rooms – we walked on potatoes!

Josh fitted in well with the boys, ping pong, snooker and sledging being key activities.  Issie, Polly and Rosie likewise hung out with the girls, cards, sewing, hairdos and laughter being the order of the day for them.  We went daily for walks along the river or in the hills, taking those orphans with us that wanted to come – one day a bridge we had crossed the day before had disappeared, swept away by melting ice.

Special friends for me were Gabby, aged 12, Robert and Marian (all boys).  If I had been able to bring one home it would have been Gabby – but there is no need as they have already, for all practical purposes, been adopted by Addie and are as happy as they could be with him.

The whole trip was as tough as anything we have done as a family.  In the first few days I wondered if we would make it to the end.  But on our return to England, we all want to go back – we have come to love our Romanian friends too much for anything else.  Yes we would have liked to go skiing this year (for a week in a non-Romanian resort!), but we preferred our orphanage adventure.

One final thing, which despite everything leaves me feeling slightly confused / sick: we return to the home comforts of England but the orphans can't. There is much more to tell, but that will be for a verbal report when we next see you.

Philippe found this on his computer when we had abandoned the test match in despair. It made our lunch at the Arpasson on a very foggy and difficult day. Thank you all for entertaining us so well. Love to you all from your aged parents
Posted by: Mum and Dad | January 17, 2010 at 07:35 PM

I feel ashamed never to have done anything quite like that and I am looking forward to hearing more about it. it must have been very special - lots of love Ursula xx
Posted by: ursula Keeling | January 17, 2010 at 06:26 PM

Dearest Jim - How amazing and very evocative of the trip I made 8 or 9 years ago - except Addie sounds amazing and there was no Addie where I was, your orphanage sounds so full of love and some hope - sadly, the one I went to in Siret was beyond either. I fully appreciate the toughness of the whole experience and it will stay with you and the children forever - so great to have found a relatively small project where every penny and prayer counts. I am in constant touch with the halfway house that is linked to the orphange in Siret and JV Productions continues to send miniscule amounts of money but like you, having been there, we can envisage exactly where those tony amounts count - a treat here or there is all important! Anyway, well done for bringing it all to our attention - awareness is key. Much love to you all - Van xxx

Posted by: Van | January 17, 2010 at 10:57 AM

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