Thursday, January 22, 2009

Hope is plenty, but life is hard in modern day Romania


A week-long trip into poverty stricken, post-communist Romania made it hard for Ripley's Livian Gould to look at Canadian society the same way when she came home.

Gould returned from an eye-opening pre-Christmas experience just over a month ago, after spending Nov. 21 to 28 touring the Transylvania region of the eastern European nation.

What she saw at three orphanages, a school for special needs, two nursing homes and a psychiatric hospital gave her a glimpse of hope after decades of darkness and strife under the communist Iron Curtain.

"One becomes judgmental of our materialistic society when one is exposed to such poverty," said Gould in the e-mail interview. "I see light... it's a small glowing light, not too powerful yet. But it's my sincere hope that the light will grow ever brighter."

She grew up in Tiverton and now works out of Kincardine as a Behaviour Therapist with the Behaviour Institute of Hamilton, contracted out to Grey-Bruce. Her job sees her conduct Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) therapy for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

The Romania Project out of Elmira was a new challenge for her. She volunteered alongside a team of 10 from Kitchener-Waterloo and the Greater Toronto Area, paying her own way overseas.

Once arriving in Romania, she worked out of the Cluj and Beclean areas and didn't take time for sight-seeing with the small window of opportunity before them.

"Our primary focus was to show as much love as possible to those we met," she said, adding they were also there to teach and share guidance and hope with seniors, orphans and people with special needs.

What she saw part-way through her trip compelled her to tell others of her journey.

Years of dictatorship under tyrants like Nicolae Ceausescu saw birth control and abortion outlawed, leaving thousands of children with parents who wouldn't or couldn't afford to support them and sent them to orphanages.

After public trial and execution of Ceausescu in 1989 following the Romanian Revolution, stories of the state-run orphanages involving abuse and bullying in the appalling conditions started to garner media attention, with 11 "extermination" hospitals found for children with special needs in the 1990s, the last found as recently as 2006.

With 80,000 orphans in a country of 23 million, these institutions exist to aid children of convicts, children with special needs, those touched by tuberculosis and those who were abandoned at or after birth.

"But now things seem better," said Gould, adding the world has its eye on Romania as it's on probation to join the European Union. "I was encouraged to see that for children with autism they are finding out about ABA, the type of therapy that I do. I was even able to share some of my knowledge and some basic principals."

Her most inspiring story involved her translator, a 20-year-old orphan named 'Kanya' who lived in one of the many orphanages. Gould said she chose to change her name in the story to protect her identity.

Spending nearly every day with her, Gould learned much about growing up in the facilities with poor food and fears of having to spend the night sleeping in a urine-soiled bed with the other children.

"Each night she would pray that no one would wet the bed; otherwise she would have to remain in the soiled sheets until morning," said Gould.

Gould said she was initially concerned that this "smug, self-satisfied" and even "brash" girl was volunteering to help in the special needs wing of the orphanage and helping them as a translator.

"Attachment disorder or failure to thrive syndrome? Or was it a facade of toughness learned as a protective shell?" she said, and it continued to trouble her.

But these reservations vanished the evening she visited a respite for senior citizens. Kanya translated and sang songs for the seniors in both Romanian and English.

"I watched her transform from a swaggering girl into a charming, beautiful woman with a pure and tender heart," Gould said.

In the final room they visited, Kanya was shocked to see one of her former teachers, who was once a model, now lay in bed with a deformed face, shaved head and a body collapsed and buckled with age, she said.

The woman drooled as she struggled to eat one of the bananas they brought with them, as fresh fruit is unavailable or too expensive most of the time. Gould said Kanya then sat on the bed beside the lady and began to affectionately stroke her head, crooning words of love to the woman, telling her how exquisite she was.

"Isn't she beautiful? Isn't she pretty?" she said. "Kanya sat for half an hour reassuring this malformed woman that she was still all together lovely. In Kanya's eyes she was."

As she left, she thought back to her worries of Kanya without a mother to hold her or tell her she's beautiful and special.

"All of Kanya's arrogance transformed to delightful wisdom. The caterpillar was truly a butterfly beneath the cocoon of stiffness," said Gould, who prays she finds herself and can one day let her guard down. "I weep for the child that she was, but I admire the beautiful woman she has become."

Kanya is one of the reasons for Gould's hope for the future and is also an example of the group's mandate: "to mentor and encourage" the older orphans to work with the younger children, "so history does not repeat itself."

The positive impact it had on her added even more value to life and showed her "the power of love, family and what is truly important."

She encourages those who want to make a difference to look into volunteering overseas and keep open eyes and open minds.

"Because we're not truly living if we don't take the pain and suffering along with the happiness and joy that life offers," said Gould. "To place ourselves in the lives of people who have suffered so greatly gives us the opportunity to see how blessed we are."

After teaching two summers in rural Russia, Gould said the tremendous poverty she witnessed is very similar and made her appreciate her roots in Canada.

"It's like unless you have tasted the sourness of a lemon, you can't truly appreciate the sweetness of a strawberry," said Gould.

She's a strong believer in 'knowledge is power' and the 'ability to make change' and not live a sheltered existence. By volunteering, donating and just "being aware of what other people experience outside of North America", it can make a difference to many.

"Be thankful for all the blessings you have," she said. "Instead of complaining about our families, let us be grateful we have them. Instead of longing for a bigger house, let us be happy we have a bed to sleep in."

If the opportunity knocked again, she would go back, but hopefully in a capacity to work specifically with autistic children and educate their teachers in ABA principals.

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-Includes excerpts from Livian Gould's 'Romanian Christmas 2008' notes.

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