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Return To Romania A Breath Of Warmth From Spokane Reached Orphans In Winter

Sun., Feb. 9, 1997

Special Report

The orphanage at Suta Dragodana stands like a North Dakota farmhouse in February, frozen to white stillness. Rows of clothing slap stiffly on metal fences, freeze-dried in the cold.

In the cantina, watery mashed beans and thin soup cool quickly in stainless steel bowls. The only things colder are the bright red fingertips reaching for them. In the unheated dining hall, first- to eighth-grade girls eat hunched in layers of faded clothes, ragged coats and covered heads. No one has mittens.

The heating system at the orphanage is broken. Classrooms and two lounges are warmed by electric heaters - and cost overruns now guarantee the power will be shut off by spring. Hallways, dorm rooms and bathrooms are bone chilling. Windows blow open over dripping, icy faucets.

For six days, the 250 girls and 50 kindergartners eat bread and sugar water.

Into this, comes some warmth.

On Jan. 15, a 707-sized Washington Air National Guard cargo plane arrives in Bucharest, packed to the ceiling with relief for Suta Dragodana and four other Romanian orphanages. The flight is arranged by Spokane members of Northwest Medical Teams, a worldwide humanitarian relief organization.

Volunteers commit $30,000 toward a new heating system at Suta. They buy food, clothes dryers and new mattresses. They deliver 413 boxes filled with clothing, medicine and part of the remarkable yield of the Inland Northwest - its generosity.

Inside one box, gloves from the Schmidt brothers of Spokane. The three St. Thomas More students, ages 14, 13 and 10, are among the hundreds of Northwest residents who contributed.

“I knew I was helping people who had nothing,” says Jeremy Schmidt, 14, who helped fill 18 boxes. “It’s terrible how they have to live.”

In Coeur d’Alene, Camp Fire Boys and Girls collected diapers and shampoo. In Republic, 50 junior high students filled a dozen boxes with coats, sweaters and a handmade quilt. If someone in the community was making a run to Costco in Spokane, they picked up bags of Smarties and Tootsie Roll candy. “They’ve got to have Smarties,” says teacher Karen Grimsley.

Spokane’s Cassidy family sent containers of honey hand-collected on Glenrose Prairie. A seamstress sewing under the label “Moonlight Designs” sent five sky-blue snowsuits and matching jackets, lovingly appliqued.

At Mullan Road School, sixth-grade girls rolled and sold enough beeswax candles to donate $3,400 cash. “It was a great experience,” says Valorie Darling, who organized the drive with Arielle Ring.

“I feel more involved than someone just sitting around reading the paper saying ‘I can’t do anything, I can’t make a difference.’ You really can.”

Donations surged in after news coverage in October of Spokane volunteers’ efforts in Romania. Northwest Medical Teams has sent 500 relief teams worldwide, but has never seen a response quite like it.

“Spokane is incredible. If I had one in every state, ‘Look out world,’ ” says Dave Farquhar, vice president of Northwest Medical Teams’ program development.

“I am very happy,” says director Daniela Petrescu as snowsuits, sweaters and boots are hauled into the kindergarten orphanage at Suta Dragodana. “This is enough clothing for two years.”

ELENA STANDS BEFORE A ROW OF TABLES,ignoring the chatty laughter around her, looking hard and thinking fast.

At a nod from an adult, the 13-year-old orphan strides down the line, reaching for each item quickly and only once: a ski jacket, puffy white with purple and blue. Then a hand-crocheted lavender hat - she grabs the matching scarf. On to leather ankle boots, butterscotch buffed and new. They fit. They fit!

Next: gloves, a sweater and blue jeans. She frowns. The sizes are huge, twice the width of her narrow hips, but she finds a smaller pair in the pile and slips them on right then, forcing them over boots and thin pink nylon pants. Pulling, tucking, perfect.

At Suta, 50 miles north of Bucharest, Elena has just gone to the mall.

LIKE THE DONATIONS, the plane, pilots and crew transporting the goods come from Spokane.

During the bitterest European winter in more than a decade, the 141st Air Refueling Wing of the Washington Air National Guard gets permission to make its first trip to Romania - on a humanitarian mission.

The plan grows as most things do in the Guard, out of long relationships and even longer careers. When donations from the Inland Northwest began flowing in last October, Guardsmen Brian Scott and Steve Bland approached their wing commander asking how the Guard could help.

As chief pilot for Washington Water Power, Scott routinely flies Anni Ryan Meyer’s husband, a Spokane attorney. Ryan Meyer led the volunteer team to Romania in August. Bland’s mother, Marge, and his sister, Kristie Smith, were on the team.

“The Guard is like a big family,” Scott says. “You get to know everyone very well.”

The Guard already has orders to fly to Europe on Jan. 14 to bring Army National Guard members back to Missouri. In a flurry of faxes, the wing gets permission to transport the Romanian donations on the first leg of the trip when the plane would have otherwise been empty.

A week before departure, Guard members help sort, pack and load boxes of clothes, toys, medicine and one artificial Christmas tree, lights included.

“We were pleased to be able to help the community,” says Col. Walter Hodgen, wing commander. “But we’d never done anything like this. The whole trip was an opportunity to get in trouble and goof up.”

On top of the sheer distance from Spokane, the number of international borders to cross and an unfamiliar airport, the Guard faces the Romanian winter. On Jan. 15, Bucharest lies like Spokane so often does, blanketed by an inversion. Freezing fog closes in like a fist.

Circling above the city, the 10-member crew has less than an hour before they will have to scrap the mission and return to Germany. Romanian trucks and workers hired to transport the boxes standby on the ground, their fees mounting.

Just when it looks dimmest, the fog lifts and the tanker descends perfectly - the first plane to land in two days.

“Somebody wanted this to happen who had more control than I did,” says co-pilot Scott.

As the plane rolls to a stop, Romanian customs officials, U.S. Embassy representatives and Northwest Medical Teams Romanian staff line up. A chain of Guardsmen tosses boxes onto a conveyer belt, leading directly to a waiting semitruck.

Within two hours, the boxes are headed to a warehouse and the Guard, to Germany. The delays and difficulties that Spokane volunteers feared drop away.

“It went amazingly smooth,” says Lt. Col. Landry Smallfoot, flight navigator. “From our standpoint the hard work is over. Now the hard work is making sure this stuff goes where it’s supposed to go.”

ON THE SURFACE, THE MISSION seems a success. But two problems thwart volunteers: the difficulty of doing volunteer work overseas and the corruption of the Romanian system.

The Spokane volunteers divide their time between opening boxes and visiting orphanages. In a frigid Bucharest warehouse, Ryan Meyer, Tom Norris and Kristie Smith must count nearly every item in the 413 boxes.

Mindful that 10 to 50 percent of all donations might be stolen by orphanage staff, Northwest Medical Teams Romanian staff insist on tight inventories.

Just a week earlier, two hot water heaters were stolen by an orphanage worker at Suta Dragodana. A Northwest Medical Teams’ coordinator threatened to stop all work there unless the heaters were returned. They were - that day - but the worker was not fired.

Under the Romanian system, a director cannot fire a staff member, only recommend his dismissal to the government. If a staff member steals, a director can force the thief to pay for the items but the money collected goes to the government - not the orphanage.

“The whole system is corrupt, not the people, the processes,” says Vicentiu Mocanu, a Northwest Medical Teams coordinator in Romania.

The system is also broke. The new government of Emile Constantinescu promises to double spending for each of the country’s estimated 100,000 orphans. Few Romanians believe the government has the money to do it.

Eighty percent of the hospitals desperately need repairs. In a matter of weeks, prices for gas, hotel rooms and food double.

A week before the relief flight, desperate directors at Suta called Northwest Medical Teams when the government allotment failed to arrive. The agency wired $2,000 for rice, beans and other staples - money raised in Spokane.

Just two months earlier, when stories about the appalling conditions inside Suta Dragodana were reported by The Spokesman-Review and reprinted in Spanish newspapers, infuriated government officials threatened to ban Northwest Medical Teams from the orphanage entirely. They banned all foreigners with cameras and threatened to fire the directors.

Now the volunteers are welcome again. With the government unable to fix the orphanage heating system, pay the grocery bills or spend more than 50 cents a day per child, officials have little other choice.

The ever-changing rules and the rising number of orphans prompts Northwest Medical Teams to overhaul its entire Romanian program and locate an American director in Bucharest.

On Feb. 15, L.J. LaBrie, an international disaster specialist fluent in several languages, will begin a new five-year plan of attack. Instead of working in 20 orphanages, staff will concentrate on five in an attempt to create models of how to raise, house and stimulate the children, and train them for productive lives.

Northwest Medical Teams has six orphanage repair teams and three dental teams already scheduled to visit Romanian orphanages this year.

But humanitarian work in Romania feels like a “Jeopardy” game: Just when one problem is solved, another more difficult one pops up.

Last August, Ryan Meyer, Norris and Smith were among 13 Spokane volunteers who replaced plumbing and more than 300 windows at Suta Dragodana. When they return in January with a truckload of boxes, the response is gracious - but not grateful.

Orphanage staff thought the plane would be bigger, that the shipment would include building materials such as insulated windows, and that the Spokane volunteers had raised more than $50,000 three months ago. Where, the Romanians ask, is the money? The money will not arrive until February and the Romanians are suspicious about the delay.

What happened is that Ryan Meyer put off sending nearly $35,000 in donations to Northwest Medical Teams until Christmas, saying she wanted to ensure how the money would be spent. Northwest Medical Teams insisted it is bound by law to spend the Spokane-raised money in Romanian orphanages. Wrangling over who would decide exactly what to buy lasted several weeks.

The internal debate means nothing to the orphanage staff, who are skeptical and accusing.

As the tension grows, Smith, from New Life Community Church in Rathdrum, and Norris, pastor at Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church in Spokane, quickly offer to buy four new clothes dryers and more than 60 mattresses from money their churches have collected.

The accusatory attitude is off-putting to the Spokane volunteers who invested so much of their energy, time and money into the missions.

Volunteers escape into the orphanage classrooms to deliver necklaces made and donated by seventh-graders at St. Thomas More. They hang beaded crosses on leather thongs around the necks of seventhgrade science students, who giggle and blush.

“It took being back at the school to be reminded that that’s what it’s all about: the kids, not the politics,” says Norris.

ALL TOLD, 85 PERCENT of the Spokane-area donations arrive at the orphanages in January. A small amount of prescription medicine and summer clothing is left in the warehouse for later distribution. Some clothing is actually given to a dozen girls at Suta while the Spokane volunteers are there.

Revisiting the kindergarten where they found naked emaciated children in August, the volunteers find the children dressed and the smell of bleach where urine once overpowered. A Romanian senator stands in the hallway for the first time, promising additional money. Some orphans are thriving - one boy, Marton, 6, has been claimed by his mother.

But other children seem thinner and sicker than ever, with even less hope for adoption, recovery from their emotional or physical wounds or the chance of a better orphanage ahead. The volunteers visit four other orphanages where conditions seem different, but not better.

The Schmidt brothers’ high-top sneakers go to the boys’ orphanage in Targoviste, the Republic Smarties to the boys’ orphanage in Bughea. The Cassidy honey goes to orphanage directors as a gift. The Christmas tree, requested by an orphan teenager, goes to all the girls at a technical school at Campulung.

The hats that Mary Evans crochets each week, double stitches pulled through four-ply yarn, go everywhere.

For the last five years the Spokane woman has crocheted warm, soft hats for Spokane Child Abuse and Neglect. Two years ago, she organized a network of 11 women from Florida to New Jersey to crochet and knit hats for SCAN and Crosswalk. This year, they have created more than 300 hats for Romania. Pink, soft lavender and mint green, “little girl colors,” the hats are counted and given to girls - like Elena.

“That gives me the chills,” says Evans, 54.

The smallest hats, though, go to the babies at an infant orphanage that once was an animal hospital in Campulung.

With no milk and little chance to romp, the babies have stick-like arms and legs and fat middles. The worker caring for them wears only plastic summer sandals on a snowy day. In this district, with eight orphanages already, including the infant center and technical school, a ninth home just opened for 85 children.

There are not enough hats.

“The system is shot. But it’s because the system is shot that I keep going,” says one Northwest Medical Team member. “If it was better, we’d move on.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 11 photos (8 color)

MEMO: To contact Northwest Medical Teams, call 1-800-959-HEAL.

This sidebar appeared with the story: THE ORIGINAL REPORT “Into the Heart of Darkness,” The Spokesman-Review’s original special section on the plight of Romanian orphans, ran Oct. 20, 1996. Photos and stories from the section are available on Virtually Northwest. Point your browser at: and follow the link to “Heart of Darkness.”

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Story by Julie Sullivan Photos by Colin Mulvany

To contact Northwest Medical Teams, call 1-800-959-HEAL.

This sidebar appeared with the story: THE ORIGINAL REPORT “Into the Heart of Darkness,” The Spokesman-Review’s original special section on the plight of Romanian orphans, ran Oct. 20, 1996. Photos and stories from the section are available on Virtually Northwest. Point your browser at: and follow the link to “Heart of Darkness.”

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Story by Julie Sullivan Photos by Colin Mulvany


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