Wednesday, September 12, 2007

My Heart Remains in Romania

Sue Surma Volunteering I volunteered with eight other Global Volunteers at a clinic in the small rural hamlet of Codaesti, about a 45-minute drive outside the cultural center of Iasti in northern Romania six years ago. For three weeks we cared for about 30 infants and toddlers, ranging in age from five months to two years. I have many poignant memories from 20 years of international travel, but those three weeks profoundly changed my life.

I’ve been a volunteer in Brazil, the Cook Islands, Ghana, Peru and Vietnam and other countries. Nineteen programs in all. On another Global Volunteers program I mixed cement in Guatemala and built roof trusses in Mississippi. But those three weeks working with this infants and toddlers in Codaesti introduced me to a new career.

In my adult years, I worked several part-time jobs (bartender, waitress, tour guide) but I knew I need a steady job to support my international volunteer habit. At the age of 52, I went back to school to become a licensed practical nurse, and now I'm studying to become a registered nurse. I know this would not have happened without my Global Volunteers experience. In fact, every major decision I've made about the next 50 years of my life can be traced back to this short, but profound experience with the babies of Romania.

Thankfully, memories aren't always built on first impressions. When we stepped into the small four-room house–a temporary orphanage–on the grounds of the Codaesti hospital, we were hit with the overpowering stench of urine. Babies of all sizes and ages were crying in their cribs, most of them suffering from a full body rash. The overworked staff could only change diapers three times a day and propped them for their feedings.

We were nonplussed by the challenge we faced but enthusiastic to soothe their tiny bodies and spirits. We cleaned the infants and covered the soaking wet mattresses with large plastic bags. We had brought with us lots of sleepers, dozens of cloth diapers, rubber pants and a case of Desitin.

There was no formula, so the staff had been feeding them a thin gruel of crushed crackers and water. We worked to fortify the meals to improve nutrition and to hold each of them as we fed them. Just holding and comforting dry babies became a joy.

As I write, I am staring at my psychology textbooks and thinking about the cognitive, physical and psychosocial abilities of each of those small children. I think in three short weeks what we performed was nothing short of miraculous. The babies began to turn over, the older ones began to crawl, and they all experienced a sense of love, probably for the first time in their short lives.

But, please don't conclude this was easy. Truth be told, we put in long days and passed up brief opportunities to be tourists in order to get the rest we needed for the next day’s challenges. Washing over 100 diapers by hand is not pretty or easy. But to know they those clean dry diapers would caress the dear bottoms of our babies made it worth every minute.

Perhaps that's why Romania stays in my mind. We witnessed unmistakable improvement of our babies, and we knew that another team would be arriving in a week to take our places. It eased separation anxiety some of us felt when we left.

While the service program in Codaesti ended when the hospital closed several years ago (a casualty of changes brought about by membership in the European Union), my experience exemplifies what happens on a well-run volunteer team. Global Volunteers has sustained a long-term development partnership with Dr. Dehlia at Tutova Hospital in Romania to care for similar needy babies at the Tutova Failure to Thrive ward outside Barlad. The philosophy of Global Volunteers is to help a community with a project that the community decides is necessary. Working side by side with a person from a different culture is not only a good way to learn about that culture but also to make a close relationship. I have never been on a team that expected me to do anything for which I was physically unable. I was, however, offered the chance to learn new stuff. But in the end, it is about making friendships and letting others get to know an American. Many people I have met tell me I am no the American they expected. And I have learned that people all around the globe have the same needs and wants as we do, laughter comes in all languages.

Susan Surma, nurse and indefatigable international volunteer

Thursday, September 06, 2007


Thoughts of a Grandmother:
Most parents want their children to be happy and successful throughout their lives. Unfortunately, the mainstream culture in western society has defined happiness and success by the amount of material goods an individual possesses, or is capable of purchasing. Parents’ buy the latest video games, I-Pods, and cell phones to create happiness for their children. Families take vacations and buy family passes to theme parks to be happy. Successful movie and rock stars show our children the glamour of hedonism by indulging in designer clothing, alcohol and drugs. While these material possessions and experiences may create temporary or artificial happiness, solely teaching our children to be self indulgent is not the answer to developing our children into successful and honorable leaders.

Although I am only one person, there are steps that I can take to make the world a better place, one footprint at a time. I can teach my grandchildren to appreciate the gift of being born in the United States with parents who can provide them the luxury of plentiful food, clothing and education; I can teach them that most children in the world live in families struggling to find enough to eat and clean water to drink; I can bring them to meet those who are poor, disabled, and sick so they will know the real identities of the less fortunate children whose faces they see in photographs, and I can develop my grandchildren’s compassion so that throughout their lives they will reach out to those who need them. Global Volunteers has provided one avenue for me to accomplish these goals.

Kathryn Kuehnle - Clinical Child Psychologist and volunteer

Thoughts of a Grandson

Starting when I was 12 years old, my grandmother and I developed a tradition of giving presents to homeless children for Christmas. Each year we gather a Christmas wish list from the children living in one of our community’s homeless shelters. We purchase the items and then take the presents to the shelter before Christmas Eve. I find our tradition very rewarding because my grandmother and I are sharing something special, and I know that the children in this particular homeless shelter will wake up to find presents under their Christmas tree. When we started this tradition I didn’t actually comprehend the plight of the children because I had never experienced these children as unwashed and sleeping in cardboard boxes or living in their cars. The shelter we visited had clean rooms, beds, running water, and electricity. I didn’t think about what their life would be like if the shelter did not exist.

My understanding of homelessness and the plight of the poor changed when I started feeding breakfast to the homeless in my community. It was through this experience that I saw the living conditions of the almost “invisible” portion of our society. Sleeping under bridges or in parks, with no access to facilities to clean their bodies or their clothes, they were often unkempt and dirty. Without adequate food and medical attention, these people suffered from a range of untreated physical and mental illnesses. I found the experience of getting to know this group of people even more rewarding than giving Christmas presents to homeless children. I found myself looking for more opportunities to volunteer.

Three years ago my grandmother and I started volunteering through Global Volunteers. Since I have been 14 years old, we have spent our summers in foreign countries helping people who live in impoverished communities. In Ecuador we taught and played with physically and mentally handicapped children and adults. In Australia, we helped an Aborigine community establish a tourist industry for their artifacts. In Africa, I worked at the village medical clinic, and when I returned home I began the task of raising money for medical supplies for the clinic.

During my volunteer work, I have seen children whose only meal is served at their school, which means they feel hunger every day. I have seen a 5 year old girl die because there was no money to buy the medicine to treat her and no transportation to take her to a hospital. I have met people who are mentally ill and living in cardboard boxes under freeways in the greatest country in the world. I have learned that the basic necessities that I take for granted may be rare luxuries for the poor.

All too often in our society we are encouraged to place value in consumerism and material worth. We find ourselves taking things for granted and develop a false sense of entitlement. We tend to ignore the portion of our society who is poor. We also blame the poor for their fate, and egotistically assume that we, the fortunate, have done something to earn our privileged placement on this earth. My grandmother has taught me the joy of giving to others. My volunteer work has raised my awareness of global economic and living conditions, and helped put a name and face to those individuals who struggle to survive.

We've decided to help raise money for the Pommern Medical Clininc, and you can view our web site and make a donation here:

Chris Evans, high school senior