Having just completed my Psychology degree, I was feeling rather mentally drained and, if I’m honest, hadn’t had much time to think about coming out to Romania. It seemed like a lifetime ago I’d had my interview and travelled to Warrington for the training day. When I arrived in Romania this lost and disorganised feeling still lingered, however, within a couple of days I can honestly say I settled so well into our new routine, the apartment and Slatina. I knew very quickly that the next two weeks would involve me falling in love with Romania, the work The Life Foundation do and many of the wonderful personalities I encountered along this beautiful journey.
The first child I was introduced to was a beautiful princess with hydrocephalus. When she was first placed her in my arms, nerves began to bubble as I held such a fragile and precious child. We visited this home every morning and throughout the two weeks I grew confident with supporting her needs and realised there was no need to be nervous. Once I’d overcome this, I was able to learn what she liked and disliked. Although she is not very able, she is definitely very bossy and will soon tell you when she’s getting fed up. Equally, when she finds something she enjoys, such as the foil blanket or your ponytail, you just can’t help but giggle along with her!
The other days were spent at the adult institution. These days will stay etched on my heart forever. At the end of each day my cheeks hurt from smiling and laughing so much. They all have massive personalities and are so full of love and enthusiasm. I loved being able to get them out of the institution for the day and into the forest for a BBQ. Being able to connect with nature, picking mushrooms and berries and making flower crowns was so refreshing for both the adults, carers and volunteers. We did lots of dancing and eating and it was lovely to see everyone so involved.
The two weeks went by so fast and I didn’t want to leave. I can’t believe how much I learnt and developed during this time. It’s an experience that has changed the way I think and act and I honestly cannot wait to return and continue being involved in the amazing work the life foundation do.
Caitlin volunteered with us in 2017 and has shared a special day from her trip:
My team were lucky enough to be in Slatina when Norica (the amazing in-country coordinator) had arranged for some of the children from the flats to have a day out together at Plaja Olt – a lovely man-made beach and pool area set on the banks of the river Olt.
Summer time in Oltenia can occasionally see thunderous storms causing a substantial downpour, but on this particular Tuesday the sun shone brightly down on us. We arrived at the beach before the kids and carers did, so we had a chance to blow up all of the rings, toys and paddling pools we had brought with us. We were extremely excited about the day out ourselves so had purchased lots of buckets, spades and water toys to make the day as special as possible for the children – we knew that for some of them this would be one of the only days out they would get during the year.
Soon all of the children and carers had arrived, totalling around 20 children with enough volunteers and carers for 1-1 support. The children came from a number of different flats that The LIFE Foundation visits – this was particularly nice for some of the children to play with others that they rarely spend time with or hadn’t seen before. We had a wide range of ages from about 3 – 17 years too, but Plaja Olt has a baby pool and an older pool as well as a lot of sun loungers, sand and umbrellas to provide shade, so there was something for everyone to enjoy!
The morning passed in a happy blur of smiles and giggles, with some very lovely moments where some of the younger children really enjoyed the new sensations of sand under their feet and splashing the others. As volunteers we were of course in the pool too and received our fair share of being splashed! One of my favourite memories is of playing with a little child who so thoroughly enjoyed their time playing in the water they had a constant beaming smile which was infectious to all of the volunteers.
By lunchtime the sun was getting hotter, and it was time to leave the beach. But not before we all had a final treat of pizza and juice! It was a delicious way to end a very special morning.
Stepping off the bus in Cezieni, you will always be greeted by two or three residents. They are so excited to see you, and to see what you’ve bought to play with. They’ll take your hand, they’ll make it clear what they want, they’ll know you’re there for them.
But what about the residents that don’t? The residents that keep to themselves, that don’t realise they deserve this attention too, that don’t know how to ask for it? This is the story of how I met one special resident, who proved that the little things like a smile or hug really matter, and can make such a difference to one person’s day.
On our first day in Cezieni I spotted this particular resident at lunchtime. He was trying to eat, but both his hands were shaking, and he didn’t have the confidence to sit down with the other residents. So, I gave him a hand. I think what struck me about him was how surprised he looked: he kept looking at me, then lowering his eyes, then looking back when he thought I wasn’t looking. It was such a stark contrast to the residents that had bounded up to us when we first got off the bus.
Later, I saw him wandering around the grounds. Someone saw me looking over, and told me that he never comes over to the volunteers. On a whim, I decided that if he wasn’t going to come to us, I was going to go to him! Over that day and the next, I went over to him every time he walked past our group. I would take his hands, make faces, smile. Slowly, he started to smile back, he started coming over more and more. At the end of the second day, he gave me a hug. I had lots of hugs in Slatina, but that was the most amazing, rewarding moment of my trip.
Cut to day three, and he is following me around, the biggest grin on his face. The carers start to notice, and they’re shocked: they’ve never seen him interacting like this. On day four, he met us off the bus. The man that I went over to meet because he didn’t usually interact with the other residents, joined us all for a game of pass the parcel.
This particular resident isn’t the only person that doesn’t approach the group of volunteers, so if you see someone in Cezieni that is keeping to themselves, don’t be afraid to go over. And if you see the resident this post is about, or even someone in a similar position to him, do what I did and give him a chance. You don’t know how much of a difference your quick smile and “buna” could make.
* The name in this blog has been changed in order to protect the identity of the adult we support.
Yes, your eyes do not deceive you – Lucy Swinton, one of our fantastic trustees, is shaving her head to raise money for The LIFE Foundation and another charity, The Mustard Tree, who support homeless people in Manchester. She will also be donating her hair to the Little Princess Trust, who make wigs for children suffering with hair loss.
So what has possessed her to commit to such a drastic fundraiser, you may ask? Lucy has been considering shaving her head since her very first trip to Olt 9 years ago, and has finally set a date. People have asked her lots of questions when she has mentioned her plans in the past, so she’s come up with some ‘FAQs’ to answer the big question ‘why?’
To donate to Lucy’s cause and make this all worth it, click here.
FAQs I’ve had when talking to people about it…
1. Why shave your head?! You have such long/nice hair and you’ll look weird…
The impact the donations will have is more important to me than having long hair 🙂 My hair is pretty important to me but I’ve come to terms with it going soon and will be the same person after… And it’ll grow back! I wanted to do something sort of drastic to raise as much as possible, and being able to donate hair to The Little Princess Trust is an extra incentive.
2. What does your boyfriend / do your family think?
They support me of course! I think Mum and Niko will miss my long hair for a bit but I’ve talked about it for years so they’ve had plenty warning 🙂
3. Who’s cutting your hair?
My good friend Derek, who also happens to be a hairdresser and has looked after my locks for the last 2 years!
4. How short are you going?
I think a number 2!
5. How will you have it when it’s short?
Not sure, will just see what it’s like! I have hats to buffer the September weather!
6. When are you doing it?
Sunday 24th September. There will be an event at Whitworth Park Halls if you would like to come along and support / watch the cut! For more details about the event, click here.
Back in July The LIFE Foundation’s voluntary leadership committee of Trustees, Project Coordinators and Fundraising/Recruitment Team took on the Yorkshire Three Peaks as a fundraiser for the children and adults we support out in Romania and India. It was a both gruelling and wonderful experience – we finished with soggy feet and swollen hands, but with smiles plastered over our (tired and droopy) faces.
A pic after each peak (the strain beginning to show by the last one…)
On the day I dragged myself up at 4am with four hours sleep, having done absolutely zero training (not big or clever) and about to embark on a 25 mile walk up three big hills. As we approached the beginning point it became clear we were driving further and further into a huge and ominous-looking rain cloud… We were soaked through before we even started (the leggings and trackies we were wearing were definitely meant for brighter days.)
Peak 1: complete
We battled the elements all day; wind, rain, hail, fog – we had it all. Apparently there are lovely views throughout the route, but for most of it we couldn’t see much further than an arm’s length in front of us. But, despite only being able to see foggy greyness around us, reaching each peak was glorious.
Peak 2: reached!
Peak 3: YAY!
After reaching the final peak, the end point seemed to be getting further and further away and we were becoming delirious, with talk turning to how it felt like we were walking on the moon(!) When we finally arrived (eleven and a half hours later and exhausted) back to the village that we started in, we were filled with pride and relief and very much looking forward to curling up cat-like in a duvet for the night.
And we’re back, completing the 25 mile circular route!
What made it all worth it was the incredible generosity of our friends and family, whose sponsorship in the end raised £1,202 for The LIFE Foundation. This amount went so far beyond our expectations, making hobbling up the stairs for the week after the walk seem a small price to pay.
The money will be used for vital things such as healthcare, providing specialist equipment for children and adults with additional physical needs and purchasing supplies needed in order to run our educational projects. It will also be used to pay for trips out for children and adults who otherwise do not have the opportunity to leave their homes.
We want to say a massive thanks to every lovely person who donated to us – it means so much and allows us to offer support to so many people.
This is part of a trip report we received from a volunteer who had been to Oltenia. All names have been removed/changed for data protection reasons. Stories from previous volunteers are crucial in helping to prepare potential applicants and new volunteers for what to expect. There are challenging and difficult aspoects to the trip which must be considered, but so many rewarding and positive parts that most volunteers feel outweigh the hard bits!
“I thoroughly enjoyed the trip to Olt, whilst it was very tough to see first-hand the children and adults and how they live compared to how they would live if they got all necessary care possible, it was good to know that [The LIFE Foundation] are helping to improve their quality of life, and hopefully through time it will continue to improve. I enjoyed working with all the children, it was particularly nice when by the end of the two weeks [one child] started to link arms with me and loved for me to sit next to them and engage in activities such as blowing bubbles. We also, with permission, took [one child] to the local supermarket to buy some food which was nice for them to be out of the flat and great to see them enjoy being a bit more independent.
“At Cezieni it was really enjoyable to see [one resident] so enthusiastic for learning English. Also, one of the women was very clingy to me and for the first couple of trips she would yell or hit the other adults if they tried to interact with me. However, with persistence it was nice when she allowed me to interact with the other adults more and then with me after without any abuse towards the other adults.
“I felt comfortable within the team, we all helped each other through the experience, and I didn’t feel over or under confident/experienced when working with the children and adults in comparison to the team as a whole. In our spare time, we went to the cinema and watched an English film, we also went to the artificial beach which was really relaxing! We also went to a few bars/pubs and often went to Raefaello’s! The highlights of the trip for me was mainly going to the park with [one] flat as it was amazing to see them all out of the flat and enjoying the park with other Romanian children. Also, generally living and bonding with the whole team was great, and we’ve kept in contact since coming home.
“I didn’t enjoy certain aspects of Cezieni, such as seeing how poor in particular the less abled live was heart-breaking. Furthermore, the bullying which can often be seen between certain adults there was very upsetting. I struggled with having to pack away all the toys at the end of each visit to the flat / Cezieni as you could see the look of sadness on their faces. I don’t think much could have been improved on the trip, I found it really tough, but very enjoyable at trying to help the situation.
“To summarise the trip to Olt was very rewarding and whilst it was emotional, I met some great people and I’m so happy to have helped, no matter how small, to help improve the lives of the children and the adults in Cezeini. It didn’t always feel like we were helping lots, but I’m sure with all the volunteers helping over the summer as well as the coordinators there all the time, the Foundation really will be helping them, which is great to know.”
If you have any questions about the Oltenia project please contact our Olt Project Co-ordinator on firstname.lastname@example.org
I first heard of The LIFE Foundation about 3 years ago whilst I was at University, studying Physiotherapy. In the summer of my final year, recruitment adverts were popping up on Facebook and at Uni and I was super keen. A friend of mine had been on a similar trip to rural China the year before and spent her summer there working in a state run home, so I instantly thought that it was something I wanted to do to. I have always been interested in working with children with special needs in a therapeutic way – combining physiotherapy with play therapy – and LIFE was the chance I’d been waiting for.
It took me another 3 years to get on that plane! I finally went on the Olt Specialist paediatric trip in June 2016, and I can honestly say it’s changed my life. I struggle with anxiety and am in recovery from an eating disorder – and I thought that this would be a barrier to me going on the trip. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The LIFE team were amazing and I had the best support imaginable. I spoke regularly with one of the trustees of the charity and she made me feel like it was possible for me to go. The training LIFE provided prior to the trip was brilliant. There was open and honest discussion of the difficulties and emotional challenges I might be faced with, and plenty of opportunity to discuss concerns and worries. The team were welcoming and friendly and at the training I was hooked learning about the children I would see.
A week or so later and I was on that plane, beyond nervous but SO excited! Romania is a beautiful place and the team I went out with were amazing – such a lovely group of people. The day after I arrived I met some of the children for the first time. It was emotional – and yes I was upset and felt sad, but also felt privileged to be allowed to help in some way.
The following week was one of the most intense of my life! We spent all day assessing and setting up treatment programmes for children in state run care homes in Slatina. The translators were fab, friendly, and so so welcoming and helpful. The idea was that we would design care plans to be followed through by volunteers over the summer.
On the third day I visited one of the children in hospital and that was the point were the emotion really hit me. I wanted to help these children, I wanted to be invested and involved in their futures. It changed me – I wasn’t thinking about how anxious I was, I was thinking about how much I wanted to see the children the next day. It gave me perspective and insight, and cemented how much I wanted to work in this area – but more than that, how beneficial these trips could be for the children. One of my most memorable moments from the trip was making a knee brace for one of the children out of whatever we could find – we cut out some old foam positioning equipment, and that night, we sat up as a group laughing and being daft – hysterical on emotion – as it was sewed together.
During the week I spent with the children, we also delivered a training session for the carers in the Family Type Homes. I was touched at how many of them made the effort to turn up. The focus of our intervention had been about feeding and making it safer for the children. I spent some time talking to the carers about positioning the children, and chest physiotherapy and its uses. I was overwhelmed with how much the staff in the homes wanted to learn, and felt more useful there than I often feel at work in the UK. This trip was about wanting to be involved with, and helping the children – but it also gave me a new confidence in my own skills. And I can’t wait to go back!
Part of the reason I wanted to write this was to urge anyone that felt it might be too difficult – to go for it! To talk to the team about anxieties and concerns, or health conditions that you think might be barriers. I felt so supported in going, through the whole process. And now I feel so proud to be a member of the committee!