Lessons Learned Through Care

One Volunteer's Experience Working with Orphans in Romania

August 29, 2013  |  By Brianna Shawhan, United States

Lessons Learned Through Care

My seven-year-old cousin was diagnosed with leukemia two years ago. That was my first experience taking care of disadvantaged children.

I didn’t think working at an orphanage in Romania would be much different. I mean, they’re just kids, right? Play games with them – hide and seek, tag, soccer, you name it – and they’ll be happy.

I kept this in my thoughts to soothe the butterflies seemingly having a party in my stomach on my first day of work. Focus on getting to the orphanage first before worrying about whether or not the kids will like me, I thought. That itself was quite the task all together. The orphanage is located in a poor town about 30 minutes outside of Brasov, Romania. Without a car to call our own, the other volunteer and I had to catch a city bus at 11:30, ride it for six stops, then wait for another bus to take us to the town, Budila.

The orphanage was a small walk from where the bus dropped us off. After seeing the conditions the people of Budila are living in, I was expecting worse. But the orphanage is far from bad.

Once we made it to the orphanage, my initial butterflies started partying again. It was time to meet the kids. They got into a line. There were nine altogether, and their ages ranged from five to eleven. The ladies who run the orphanage introduced them to us. All of the kids had brown skin, brown eyes and short black hair (even the girls). They were Romani – an minority group in Romania commonly referred to by the slur “gypsy” – which wasn’t surprising.

They stared up at us in wonder. They were adorable. Right then I knew they’d be teaching us a lot more than we’d be teaching them. The first lesson was learned on the very first day.

A Lesson In Privilege

In America, having white skin is a privilege. You don’t get followed around in stores or interrogated by cops just for being white. Living in white skin means living with power. I already knew this long before I stepped foot in Romania, but I never faced it quite like how I did at the orphanage.

The kids loved to touch our skin. At first, I didn’t understand it. Was it because they felt affection towards us? Or was it just soft? But then one of the children took the other volunteer’s hand and placed it next to his own. They were comparing our skin tones.

I started to take a closer look around the orphanage. All of their dolls and figurines were white. When the kids colored in a coloring book, they made the people white. One day, I colored with them. I colored the person’s skin brown. They looked at the photo, shocked. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, except for the word “maro,” which means “brown.” They were surprised that I colored someone with brown skin.

I’ve talked about racism with a lot of minorities. I’ve seen racism happen on the streets and in my schools. But it always involved people around my age or older. I had never seen how racism and privilege affect children. Now I was, and it made me sad.

I cursed the language barrier between the children and me. I wanted to explain to them that their brown skin is just as beautiful as my white skin. But all I could do was color more people with brown skin and tell them they’re “fermose,” meaning “pretty.” I hoped that was enough.

Growing Through Volunteering

To the average person looking in, there was nothing extraordinary about the days we spent at the orphanage. We played games, as most kids love to do. Most often it was coloring or throwing a ball. Sometimes it was something a little stranger – like the kids slinging a jump rope over their shoulders and having us hold it and pretend they’re a horse. They also loved to count in English. I was always amazed at how smart they were. Being orphaned Romani children, I doubt many people will believe that.

But to me, the children, the other volunteer, and even the ladies running the orphanage, these days were special. On our third day at the orphanage, the ladies started making us food for lunch. Our supervisor told us that no orphanage has ever done that for its volunteers. By the end of my three weeks, they told us that we did a really good job with the kids. They told us they trusted us.

This was important to learn. I realized those typical games we played with the kids were extraordinary because it made them happy. It made them feel loved. It made them feel like they mattered in a world where not having parents and being a minority makes you feel the opposite.

But it wasn’t just the children this experience helped. If you go into something like this thinking you’ll just be helping kids and not getting anything in return, you’re wrong. The kids taught me how lucky I am – for the family I’ve grown up with, the education I’ve received and the friends I spend time with. The obstacles I faced in the past and will face in the future won’t seem so difficult now because I have an experience I can take knowledge from and use that knowledge to grow.

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