For the last two years we covered all the birthday parties for the children at the St Leontie orphanage (links to their Facebook page, and their website).
Saint Hierarch Leontie orphanage, Radauti
Translation from Romanian to English below, courtesy of Amalia Nichifor
It is 6 o’clock on a chilly fall morning. Heading towards an open area where more children are already gathered, several children are coming out of a beautifully painted house. A couple more dozens of children are soon joining them. They are cheerful, lively, and ready to play small pranks. By looking at them you may say that you are in a camp. However, the presence of a nun who supervises them and urges them to run makes you think twice.
This racket happens every morning at the Saint Hierarch Leontie orphanage in Radauti, where many children make up one big family.
With the help of Mother Catherine, the monastic psychologist, we are taking a tour of the place. The first stop is at the house number 2, which hosts preschool and primary school girls. I step in as everyone is combing their hair. Every child in this place has had a hard past. For example, Tina came here three years ago after her mother left home and her father started drinking.
Alina’s story is the same. All the stories sound similar. Here the children have learned how to smile, forget, and enjoy their childhood. After Mother Catherine checks the girls’ outfit one more time, we move into the preschool boys’ house. They are still eating breakfast. We move to the middle school girl’s house, then to the middle school boy’s house, and so on, with ten houses all together.
At 7 a.m. everyone boards the school bus. The short trip is joyful. Once they arrive at school, the children from the orphanage mingle among their peers and there is no sign indicating that they would be different than the others.
The story of the settlement of Radauti started 15 years ago. In 2001, Bogdana monastery’s abbot, Father Justin, submitted to the Government a project that demanded the establishment of an orphanage in Radauti. It was approved. The state gave 15 percent of the money and the rest came from private donations. It cost more than 10 million euros.
He has struggled for ten years to build this place; in 2011 he managed to cut the ribbon and welcome the children who had been scattered across seven government sponsored orphanages that were about to be closed. He often says that even people in the church labeled him crazy at that time. He went on despite adversities and now there are 124 children in the orphanage.
“It was our duty as parents to do this thing,” he says. “Everyone calls me Father. You don’t need to be their biological parent. All of these kids are our children.” These thoughts triggered a new and unique project for Romania: a collaboration between church and state. Part of the money is coming from the government; however, it is not enough. “The government contributions cover 53% of children needs during summer and 39% during winter.” The rest comes from the donors and the monastery.
In total, there are 60 employees in settlement. Only two are from the monastery. The rest are civilians. “That’s because I do not want to turn the orphanage into a religious school. The small ones are not required to fast. Each of the ten houses has three educators selected primarily by the love they show to the children. They work in shifts so that there is always someone to supervise the children, feed them, and help them with homework,” says Father Justin.
The orphanage always has a doctor on call. A psychologist works every day with those who have problems. Remus came here before he turned two years old. “He was crying all the time,” Father Justin remembers. Today Andrew, a kid born in England and abandoned by his parents here, has moved from the pre-school children house to the primary school children house. His new colleagues welcome him and show him around. All his belongings are gathered in a cardboard box. He has three toys: a tank, racing car, and dinosaur. Andrew has an older sister in the orphanage. It have been years since their mother has paid them a visit. But his family is here now.
Watching the children, Sister Catherine is smiling. “I am their friend, sister, mother … not really a psychologist. We have a special room but we go there only when we want to talk very privately. But I am everywhere. I do not sit at a desk holding a pen. I try to anticipate. And I have to anticipate because otherwise we cannot help them. And I anticipate everything… ”
The pride of the orphangage is House of Activities. Here there are computer rooms, workshops rooms, and an exhibition of paintings. For several years the orphanage has been doing color therapy. A teacher works here a few days per month and helps the children uncover the mysteries of painting. And the results are astounding.
Larisa has been here from the beginning. She won several international painting awards, and her paintings sell for big money. She does not know her father; her mother is away in Italy. She talked to her last time seven years ago.
Vasilica has only now reached the fourth grade because her parents kept her away from school. “I have not known much of them during the last seven years. I’m not sorry because I met a new family here. My father came to see me and I got so scared when I saw him that I ran into the house. After that his brother came, but I did not want to talk to him; I do not know why I did that but I am not sorry for it,” Vasilica said.
The main concern here is the mind and soul. First, the staff is working on building trust, and on repairing some souls that have been deeply shaken. Here, there are dramas that go beyond any imagination.
“This little boy witnessed a crime when he was six years old. His father killed another man with an axe. And we have difficult cases where we need to repair the souls of these children, “says Father Justin. And yet the legislation does not always help. The government often takes the children from the orphanage to return them to their families, where they are beaten, abused, and forced to beg. The orphanage of Radauti is the first institution of its kind that has sued the government to recover a child from a family. And it succeeded.”
“To cover their primary needs is not very difficult. These children require very little; they are happy with a slice of bread and a blanket to sleep on. They are very adaptable, but in order to understand that they can have a normal meal, that the holidays are crowned with meals, that they can sleep on clean sheets,” says Sister Catherine, “they must be prepared for living part of a family because they did not have models, and did not have parents. Their children should not end up in a place like this one. They must bestow affection. Some of them even do not know how to do it. I had children who, when I was telling them about family, they did not understand the concept. They have no model, and this makes it very hard. I try to mold children who at some point will have to turn into a father or mother to their children. And if we fail to make them good citizens, good Christians, then our work is in vain.”
So far 7 children from here went to college; 3 have found full time employment—showing to the other children that it is possible.
It is evening now. Gathered in the church, the children are singing a carol about Christmas. In house number 7, Andrew is already accommodated with his new family. I find him later visiting one of the girls’ houses. Everyone is joyful. Here also is Alex and Matthew, his younger brother, kind of a mascot of the place.
At night, in a corner of the place, the works is just about to start. The bakers make bread for children and for several stores. The money they make is returned here. For this place to work, it needs support every moment. In House 2 the girls are praying for their parents even though many of them have not seen it. “Lord, how good it is when my mother is near me. Lord, how bad it is not to see my father. Mother and Father love me and they care for me … ”
The day is over. The girls go to bed now. This is how a day at the orphanage of Radauti ends. By looking at these kids you realize what Father Justin managed to create a corner of a lively Romania that works on its future. So far the project from Radauti, where the government cooperates with the Church, remains a novelty for Romania. The government, the church, all of us has a lot to learn from here. This model should be multiplied and spread across the country in order to help those children who are in need and the future of this country.