Reflections on my First Trip to Romania

It was my first trip to Romania and nothing could have prepared me for the breath taking beauty and calm of the mountains and vast fields split into strips of planting like a striped jumper. Nestled into the bottom of a valley is Cacica a pretty town made up of wooden houses set in gardens full of apple trees. This was where we would be staying, we arrived in the dark but early the next morning I was woken by the sound of horses trotting up the road pulling the carts to the fields to harvest the maize.

This all sounds idyllic, but, the reality of a life lived hand to mouth on the land is a tough one. As we drove to visit the villages around the town Falticeni I noticed the factory chimneys are no longer smoking and the buildings are turning to rubble with broken windows and rusting containers sitting in empty yards. The industry had stopped when Communism left Romania and the people lost their jobs and security in this city too. Many people are struggling to find work and families are breaking down as parents travel further afield to find employment.

The FARA foundation has been helping families in the forgotten villages around the town over the last few years. Andreea is an extraordinarily committed project manager of the Tackling Poverty Through Education programmes, who came back early from her honeymoon to show myself and Raphe FARA’s Managing Director around. At Bahna Arini we arrived just as lunch was being delivered and the children were washing their hands and sitting up at their tidy desks waiting for their food. It is a tiny school crammed full of smiling children who seem happy to be there. On the walls are maps of the world and autumnal leaf pictures and on the cupboard there is a wonderful pig made from a cabbage. The children eat bowls of soup, sausages, polenta and green cabbage followed by a rosy red apple.

I spot Alexandra a little girl who has been on the project for almost a year and was found by Andreea in the street with her house key around her neck. She had been left to fend for herself while her grandmother and parents were away looking for work in the fields surrounding the village. I recognised the little girl from the photograph Andreea took when she found her and now she has a happy, healthy glow.

My trip to Romania really brought home to me how difficult life is for so many children and how a little care and attention gives a child the belief that they are worthy of a different life, a better life which can be achieved by getting an education and changing the cycle of poverty.

For myself and many living in the UK life can seem at times difficult with pressures of modern living piling up. But we usually have food on our tables, we have a benefits and support system to help those who need it. Sometimes I may have to tighten the belt to get to the end of the month, but it is not quite the same as trying to feed 5 mouths until the end of the month with the last few cabbages I harvested at the end of the summer.

FARA charity is A Family for those Without and following my visit to the projects run in Romania by dedicated, caring and loving staff, I can see how a family can be so much more than two parents and their children. A family is a system of care and kindness for all humanity without exclusion and FARA Romania is showing us how it can be done, and be a success. If you would like to be part of the FARA family and help the children in the villages then we would love you to become a child sponsor.

Follow the link to the Charity website and help grow our Family for those without:

Whistle-Stop Tour of FARA Romania
Raphe Phelan reflects on his recent trip to our programmes

Raphe Phelan became FARA Charity Shops Managing Director at the beginning of 2015. During the eight years he has been with FARA he has visited Romania many times. This is an account of his most recent trip.

"My alarm went off at 4:30am and four hours later I was at Luton Airport boarding a plane to Bucharest. My travelling companion was Kate from the FARA Charity Office. Three hours later, we landed and we were met by Cornelia the current Director of Operations in Romania and Ines her successor from 1st January. After a rather tortuous, eight hour car journey we arrived in Cacica cold and hungry at 11:00pm. It was wet and dark. On entering the accommodation we were met by lovely warmth and a fridge full of delicious food, a great end to a long journey on our first day in Romania.

On day two of the trip we visited St. Therese’s our centre for children with complex needs in Falticeni. It is managed by Andra and her team and operates out of three rooms made available by local Social Services. It provides various treatments for 47 children with physical and learning disabilities many of whom attend the centre several times a week. There is a long waiting list for the centre. As ever I am struck by the dedication and warmth of staff for the children in their care.

From St. Therese’s we travelled to St Mary’s and St. Joseph’s the homes which house ten and six young adults respectively. These young people have various disabilities most arising as a consequence of having spent time in State Institutions. St. Mary’s and St. Joseph’s will be their homes for the rest of their lives. With pride they showed us around, their work, their much loved pigs, hens and rabbits and we enjoyed the funny stories they told us.

From there we travelled to Baia one of the four Prevention Programmes which caters for 126 children and encourages Roma children to attend school. It is hoped that by regular attendance and improved education they can be lifted out of grinding poverty. A hot meal is provided which for many of them is their only meal of the day. The programmes are overseen ably by Andreea and her team. The welcoming smiles of the children were heart warming.

From Baia we travelled to Bahna Arina the village which is the focus of FARA’s 2015 fundraising Appeal. In evidence here is abject poverty. Many large families live in two room houses not fit for purpose, with little to eat. It is fantastic to see how funds raised have been put to good use with new rooms being added, existing walls and roofs repaired, electrics being sorted out and new stoves being added to provide warmth in the sub-zero winter temperatures. The families are very grateful that someone cares enough to want to help and were all smiles and chatted happily as we visited. There is still much to be done but the future for these families in much brighter.

Day 3 and 4 were dedicated to reviewing the 2016 budgets for the 17 programmes and two offices which operate in Romania. The time spent with the programme directors ensures that the funds being sent out are spent as wisely as possible.

Day 5 was another day of visits to FARA programmes. First stop the Emmanuel Centre, a centre for children with complex needs located in Suceava. It is very well run by Alexandra and her team and was formerly the St. Nicholas home. First impressions are of a clean, happy environment in which 80 children with physical and learning disabilities are treated professionally and with great care and warmth. There is again along waiting list for places and it is hoped to expand the service in time.

Our next destination was the St. Michaels centre and the OAT Farm. These are located side by side in Spateresti. The St. Michaels centre is empty at present and is awaiting refurbishment to become the home for the new Foyer in Suceava mirroring the highly successful programme currently operated by FARA in Satu Mare in North West Romania. The Foyer programme seeks to assist marginalised young adults into paid employment thus out of poverty.

The OAT Farm visit involved inspecting the eight poly tunnels to see the organic produce being grown. Sebastian is the farm manager and advised us that the farm work was beginning to slow down in anticipation of the harsh winter which can get down to 20 below.

Our final visit of the day was a visit to the new St. Nicholas to meet with the very impressive Carmen and her team. A visit to the Children’s homes is always the highlight of any visit to the FARA programmes and this was no exception. The children were very excited by our visit although the large bags of sweets we brought may also have had some influence and chatted happily with us as they would do in any family. Among others we talked to Laurentiu (formerly Bebe) who looks very well despite his heart problems and the need for another operation.

All too soon it was time for Cornelia to catch her train back to Bucharest and for us to travel to Bacau to catch our flight back to the UK. As always, on returning from Romania, I cannot help but conclude that FARA has fantastic people working for it both in Romania and the shops in the UK and how truly privileged I am to belong to the FARA family. "

Handouts not long term solutions?

Is there a role for handouts? That’s a question we’ve been asking ourselves in the FARA Charity office. This isn’t a theoretical discussion, it’s a real issue. Staff in Romania have located a ‘forgotten village’, ten miles away from the nearest proper road, hooked up to none of the services that even one of Europe’s poorest countries takes for granted. Sixty families share a single well. Houses are patched up with plastic. Sanitation barely exists and disease is rife. So what to do? Well, FARA has started to provide a hot meal each day for every child. We’ve also arranged for some of the children to have their first haircuts in months. And there’s so much more we could provide. But should we go on? Won’t all this free provision just encourage a ‘culture of dependency’? Shouldn’t we be focusing on long-term solutions? It’s a dilemma many charities face.

Actually all this is a bit like the ‘medication versus therapy’ debate. Here, as there, we need to get away from here ‘either-or’ thinking. Sometimes people just need a good pick-me-up while longer term issues are addressed. And this is exactly what we’re now planning. The meals will continue, but we’re now also working with local professionals to provide basic education – so some adults can get a driving licence for the first time in their lives, and find work in nearby towns. We’ll also look at pre-school education, to nip disadvantage in the bud. Then there’s a need for ‘starter packs’ of seeds so that families can start to grow their own food. The point is: deprivation is a vicious cycle. Lack of work creates family poverty which undermines education … which hinders employability. The challenge for FARA is to break the cycle. But while we’re at it, hot meals and haircuts are a great way of building up community morale!

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