July 17, 2022 –
Early in the morning, Nataliya, Sue, Jamie, Daria and Dan head north to Botosani, Romania. Traveling with 5 adults (4 seniors) in our car creates its own challenges with different biological needs, but after a very long day on 2 lane roads, we arrive in Botosani. We are the guests of Cristi and his wife Alina at Casa Ioana, a nonprofit, private orphanage that is home to 19 children ages 8-22. These children have been taken by the state from their birth homes for a variety of reasons. We enter through an impressive electronic gate with security cameras in the yard and home. The 4-level house has communal rooms and dorm-like bedrooms and baths.
We met Cristi through Kidstown International, a nonprofit headquartered in Bellingham, WA. Cristi and his church have assisted more than 700 Ukrainian refugees living in his local region. In addition, he takes 2 mini buses full of hygiene and food products into western Ukraine on a weekly basis.
Most of the children greet us enthusiastically upon arrival. We take a quick tour of the new home on the property which is under construction. It was 95% complete when last week’s roof fire set the opening back to October. This structure will allow them to house more children, volunteers and guests. It will also provide a modern kitchen with a dishwasher. The current kitchen is very basic and approximately 70 SF. How do they feed 22+ people daily?
After the tour, we are treated to dinner in the dining area. At the end of a long travel day, it is a welcome feast. The children eat quickly and happily go about their chores, which include cleaning up after dinner. During the meal, we plan our next two days with Cristi. We tentatively plan a trip into Ukraine, but it will be a last-minute decision. Cristi and his contacts will share the latest news from the region as it happens.
With plans set, we spend some time with the children (and young adults). The “mature” children are allowed cell phone time. Like American kids, they are obsessed with their phones, but they must receive permission to access any social media. We learn there are several sets of siblings at Casa Ioana. In spite of previously troubled home-lives, they are joyful and playful. Cristi and his staff have done a wonderful job with them.
As we head off to bed, Cristi warns us about the rooster. Exhausted from the long travel day, we can’t wait to fall into our twin beds located on the top floor. The foam mattresses are surprisingly comfortable. We end the day with the realization how spoiled we are, yet extremely thankful for our lives (and a little worried about the rooster).
July 18, 2022 –
Right on schedule, the rooster wakes us at 4:13 am. We gather for breakfast at 8:30 am and spend time with the children. Nataliya turns on Ukrainian music and starts an exercise/dance class in Casa Ioana’s parking area. The children join in - loving the music and “sport”. Before long, we all join in for a special moment with the kids. Next, some pile into Cristi’s van, some into Nataliya’s car, and some walk – all of us headed to the pharmacy to buy medicine and supplies for Misto Dobra (“City of Goodness”), a Ukrainian orphanage and a haven for abused women and children. Misto Dobra needs medicine, assorted supplies, and food. It’s a daunting list of gel, pills, liquids, and creams for eyes, ears, nose, digestion, and assorted ailments. The medicines for ringworm and lice are disconcerting. We manage to secure 254 medical items, approximately 25% of their list.
While Sue and Nataliya are shopping for supplies, Dan, Daria, and Jamie walk with 10 kiddos to the park. Field trip! Despite the hot weather, the children want to hold our hands and are thrilled to be outside on a beautiful day showing us their city.
We spend the afternoon with the children. We go to Casa Ioana’s warehouse to check on supplies, return home to play cards, then take them out for ice cream. They are happy, hardworking, helpful, friendly, inquisitive, and love hugs! English is easier for some than others. Those who don’t speak English ask to borrow our phones and use google translate to communicate with us.
In the early evening, we pile back into the vehicles (who needs seat belts?!) and drive a short distance from Botosani for dinner. It has cooled off enough for us to sit outside at a huge restaurant located on a working farm. Cristi, Alina, and many of the children order Cristi’s recommendation – grilled half chicken, polenta, and fries with garlic sauce. We take 26 people out to dinner and the total bill is $253. There are several boxes of leftovers that Alina carefully packs up to take back to the orphanage.
Cristi, Jamie, Dan and several of the boys make a quick trip to the warehouse to fill the van with supplies for tomorrow’s planned trek into Ukraine.
After hugging the children good night, we go to bed a little nervous about traveling into Ukraine in the morning, but mostly thinking how remarkable Cristi and Alina are to provide such a warm, loving home for the children at Casa Ioana.
July 19, 2022 –
Today is the big day! All systems are “go” for our day-trip across the border into Ukraine. Cristi and his brother-in-law, MaDa, take the lead in a large van filled with the supplies packed by the boys from the orphanage the night before. We follow in Nataliya’s car. Excitement and stress rise as we reach the border at 9 am. It takes about an hour to get through the border crossing without incident.
Our destination is the area in and around the city of Chernivtsi, a city of 260,000 (and birthplace of Mila Kunis). Since Russia recently opened a new phase of the war, Chernivtsi expects to see an influx of 500,000 displaced Ukrainians from the war zone. This will put further stress on already strained resources.
Forty-five minutes into Ukraine, we arrive at our first stop to drop off food, clothes and pampers to a local church to be distributed to Ukrainians who have been relocated from the war zone to this area. At the stop, we pick up Igor, a local pastor/humanitarian who is orchestrating relief in this region. He does not speak English, so Cristi is our interpreter. It doesn’t take long to realize Igor is a saint. He has opened his home since March to 12+ relocated Ukrainians by putting bunks in his dining room, family room, and bedrooms. He also led the local effort to fix up abandoned and dilapidated homes in the area to house more refugees (more on this later).
Igor takes us to Chernivtsi city center to a food kitchen that serves 1300 meals per day to those who have been relocated. We meet volunteers from Springfield, Missouri and Portland, Oregon. Everywhere we look we see people in need, but also amazing people who are serving those in need.
At this point, a bit of miscommunication between Cristi and us, leads to a profound experience. Nataliya has planned for us to visit Misto Dobra. We previously told Cristi our plan to visit this orphanage in the area that serves children with disabilities, and he let us know he’d been there and had supported it in the past. Upon arrival, we realize it is not Misto Dobra, but an orphanage with a similar mission only 15 minutes away. We stop anyway and deliver pampers, wipes, toothbrushes, toothpaste and other supplies.
This is a government run facility. Mikhail, the director, does a great job with limited resources. The facility is clean, but tired. The staff is attentive and compassionate. We can’t describe the impact this visit has on us. When we arrive, there are 10 children outside in wheelchairs. All the children are non-verbal and suffering from a wide range of disabilities, including polio and severe autism. The facility is crowded with 52 children, 42 of whom were relocated here due to the war.
Our visit to the therapy room is heart-wrenching and tear-inducing. We witness two sessions of therapeutic massage. For many of the children, it is a rare moment of relief. We spend some time with the children outside. A nurse holds a child who looks like a toddler, but we learn he is 10 years old and weighs only 16 pounds.
After this sobering experience, we visit Misto Dobra, the orphanage Nataliya arranged for us to see. Although the mission is similar to the last orphanage, the facility could not be more different. Misto Dobra is privately funded, largely by German and U.S. benefactors. The campus has two completed buildings. A third building that will house 50 children with polio is scheduled for completion at the end of August. Brightly colored murals, sculptures, and whimsical art grace the campus. Signs of the war are evident as sandbags are stacked at all of the ground-level windows. The basement, formerly a therapy gym, is now a bomb shelter.
Cristi and Igor are so overwhelmed at the relative luxury of this facility, they chose not to take pictures – not wanting to set unrealistic expectations for the children they serve. We deliver the medical supplies we purchased the day before; two duffels of clothes from our clothing drive; toothbrushes and toothpaste. We also deliver pampers and wipes donated by Cristi and his generous supporters.
On our way back to drop Igor off at home we stop by one of the abandoned homes that Igor has refurbished to house a refugee family. There are bunk beds for 12, but no running water. The 600 SF home is housing an extended family of 10. As we leave, Jamie privately hands the matriarch $200, which she initially refuses. When Igor steps in to tell her it’s okay to keep it, she bursts into tears. We are all overcome by emotion as she hugs several of us.
The car is quiet on the return trip to Romania as each of us sorts out the emotions of the day. As we approach the border, we notice a long line of nearly 1,000 semi-trucks waiting to cross into Romania. Sue can’t resist when she sees four truckers mulling around outside their trucks. She approaches them, Google-translate in hand, and learns that it takes the trucks up to 2 weeks to get through customs – predominantly with loads of grain and rapeseed – another costly impact of the war. Fortunately, there is a different line for passenger vehicles and we get through customs in about an hour and a half. We are relieved to be back in Romania, emotionally drained from our experience in Ukraine.
That evening, we spend some time with the children. We plan to depart for Bucharest at 7:30 am the next morning, so we say an emotional goodbye to them before bed. How did we grow so close to these kids in such a short time? We climb into bed concerned for the future of these children, but comforted in the knowledge that Cristi and Alina have made them their life’s mission.