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.
8am: Arrived at Stalina train station (pictured) having successfully managed to flag a taxi and give the right directions to the station. It turned out we were massively early for the train to Bucharest but this gave us time to buy snacks for the journey!
8.35am: The train to Bucharest arrives. Unaware of the sophisticated ticketing system in Romania we sit on the nearest group of 5 seats we could find (only to find out half way through our journey that we were sat in someone else’s seats!). Thankfully, the friendly train conductor came to our rescue and escorted us to where we should have been sitting (which turned out to be the seats directly behind!).
12:00pm: Arrived at Gara de Nord. After a confusing conversation in broken Romanian we eventually muddled our way to the Metro station only to realise we had no idea where in Bucharest we should be going. So in the true style of spontaneity we put a finger in the middle of the map and bought a ticket to the nearest metro stop which turned out to be Piața Romană. By this time we were starving so it was just our luck to find La Placinte Restaurant when we came out of the tube station. Although it was a chain the food and service was fabulous! We ordered traditional delights such as sauerkraut, potato croquettes, and Moldova pie. Finally, our mini break had begun!
1:00pm: After lunch we walked for what felt like an eternity down roads, through streets, across squares looking for somewhere stay: Using the Wi-Fi at lunch had told us that we needed to be in the Old Town as that’s where most of the hostels, not to mention the nightlife, were. ‘Vogue’ Hostel came to our rescue and at £10 each was an absolute bargain!
2:00pm: Leaving our stuff at the hostel we toured the city on foot visiting the magnificent Palace of the Parliament (pictured), randomly stumbling upon a Bike Festival in Izvor Park, and following the river down to Opera House Park where a wedding party were mid-photoshoot.
5:00pm: Before heading back to the hostel for a snooze we had a late lunch at Les Bourgeouis Restaurant on Strada Smârdan in the heart of the Old Town. I opted for pasta with beef, cheese and truffle oil and it was absolutely delicious. At first we were shocked by the sharp increase in price for food in comparison to Slatina, but then we worked out that a main meal was the equivalent of a reasonable £8 back home (and it was worth every penny!). After all the delicious food we headed back to the hostel, which was less than 2 minutes away, for some sleep and to get some energy for dancing later.
10:00pm: Maybe it was because our hostel was just off the main street in the Old Town, or maybe they do things differently in Bucharest, but when we woke from our power nap the party was in full swing. We could hear music, people and laughter. We managed to get ready pretty quickly and soon enough we were on our way out to dance the night away. After such an emotionally draining week it felt so good to be able to let our hair down, relax and have fun with each other.
10.30am: After the dancing of the previous night we were in need of a refuel. We headed back onto the main street in Old Town and stumbled upon Arcade Café which served a fabulous breakfast. I ordered the Blueberry and Banana pancakes that tasted every bit as good as they looked.
Once we had our energy back, and as if we didn’t do enough yesterday, we walked over 3 miles to the north of the city to Herăstrău Park.
1:00pm: We were hoping that when we got to the park that there would be restaurants and cafes as by this point breakfast was a distant memory. After searching all over the park the only thing we could find were a number of independent food stalls by the lake. At first we were disappointed but on closer inspection we were in luck as they were selling all sorts of snacks from pancakes to fried fish. I opted for a chargrilled corn on the cob and sat in the sunshine by the lake eating away and reading my book.
4:00pm: Our train journey was looming. We headed back to Gara de Nord and managed to squeeze in a quick Subway stop before boarding the train back to Slatina. What a fabulous weekend we had had: We had walked, eaten, danced and laughed. We had bonded in Bucharest and become closer as a team but more importantly we were refreshed and ready for our second week of volunteering.
Author: Ruth Broadfield, Oltenia volunteer in 2016.
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 report was written by a returning volunteer who’s 2nd trip was in summer 2014. Names of the children, adults or staff have been removed for data protection. If you have any questions about the Olt roject please email email@example.com
“This was my second trip to Romania, and I still love it. I love the fact the trip is so focused around the Charity, and you really feel like you’re helping and making a difference. Combine that with the fact that Slatina, although fairly small, is full of things to do and brilliant people, and you get a brilliant trip!
“I particularly enjoyed my time in the teenage flat, it was so nice to see how much happier [one child] had become, although our games were certainly exhausting. I was, however, somewhat upset to see how withdrawn [one child] had become due to the fact the carers have placed them in the seat in the corner and regularly check to see that they are behaving. It means interaction is limited, and I believe it could have a negative effect on new volunteers feeling able to initiate interaction with them. Despite this, when I did get to interact with [this child], they seemed very happy and it was lovely to see them change from being fairly subdued to being happy and giggling! I also really enjoyed my time at Cezieni this year, I was lucky enough to be there on the trip where we got to have BBQ and it was lovely to be allowed the opportunity to do something different with them. I also really enjoyed my interactions with the less able adults, I think that last year I wasn’t nearly as confident with them but this time I found it extremely rewarding. There’s some real characters there and it’s always fun to get the adults laughing and enjoying themselves!
“When not working, we went shopping in Slatina (I can seriously recommend the charity shops, they’re ridiculously cheap!!), went to lots of pubs and restaurants for meals our and visited both the beach and the pool. We were also lucky enough to be in Slatina for the first day of the beer festival, which turned out to be a lovely end to the trip on the final Friday night. We all got the opportunity to buy lots of traditional Romanian gifts, and were lucky enough to see Oana Radu live (which was a personal highlight for me, I love her!!).
“Overall I really enjoyed the trip. I didn’t enjoy the first week as much as the second, but that’s only because I preferred the flats I did the second week, specifically teenage flat. However, I was lucky enough to be involved in many of the special activities during my stay, and specifically enjoyed the trip to get icecream/to the park and [one child’s] birthday, all because I’m so fond of them and I loved getting the opportunity to take them out of the flat! I really can’t wait to go back next year, I’d spend the whole year in Romania if it were possible, but even getting to spend two weeks with such amazing children is an utter privilege which I hope to carry on into the future for many many years to come, so you’re not getting rid of me any time soon!!”
This trip report was written by a volunteer who went to the Olt project in 2015. All names have been removed for data protection.
“[The in-country co-ordinators] were both lovely and they do a marvellous job with the carers, the kids and the adults at Cezieni too. They made it easy to settle in to the trip and it was reassuring to know that there was someone Romanian with us if we needed to speak to the carers.
“Furthermore, I felt very happy in my team, everyone was equally involved in working with the kids and the adults. In the flats I was paired with someone with a lot of experience which was reassuring, especially in [the] flat which I found the most difficult. In the second week I worked with a returning volunteer which was equally as good as they had been [to the project] before and was very confident and engaging with the children.
“On the two Sundays we went to the pool and then the beach pool which was welcome as it was very hot! We also went out for meals a few times and went for drinks and to the cinema. I really enjoyed the social side to the trip as well, it exceeded my expectations as to how friendly everyone was and how much there was to do in Slatina. On the nights that we stayed in, we had a cooking rota and watched a couple of films on a laptop. We were also very lucky to have a delicious Romanian meal cooked for us by a volunteer.
“To be honest I’m not sure that I have highlights of the trip as such because the whole two weeks were amazing. If I had to pick one I would say the BBQ at Cezieni because it was so rewarding to take some of the less able out for a few hours and I was surprised at how good they were at waiting for food, sharing toys and joining in with the games. They looked like they were having a great time which was really satisfying for us as volunteers.
“Overall, I am really glad that I decided to volunteer for The LIFE Foundation on the Oltenia Project. The trip opened my eyes to the different healthcare opportunities in different countries and it has made me even more grateful for the health and social care system we have in the UK. Most of all, this trip has provided me with great experience of working with children with developmental disabilities and has confirmed for me that I want to work in a caring profession to help improve the lives of people with disabilities and mental health problems.”
If you have any questions about the Olt project please email firstname.lastname@example.org
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 email@example.com
This was written by a volunteer who went on an Oltenia trip in summer 2015:
We took some of the kids from the Family Type Homes and some of the Roma children to the zoo outside of Slatina. This was a great trip out and for a lot of the kids this was their first time going to a zoo. The boy I was sat with was even fascinated with the sights out of the coach window!
While at the zoo they were all fascinated with the animals and were running around making the animal noises, having a fun time. We also spent time in the play park there, and they all went wild running around and laughing. I was playing a game with the Roma kids which I am assuming is a version of tag but I wasn’t quite sure, whatever it was it involved a lot of running, screaming and excitement! There was also a big double sided swinging bench which we got a group of us on had a really good laugh going high so all in all everyone had a brilliant time!
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!
My trip was organised by The LIFE Foundation (LIFE), which has provided healthcare specific teams of UK health professionals to the area for the past 4 years. I was amazed at the passion, hard work and dedication that the LIFE volunteers gave the cause; many knew the children and adults by name, and some had volunteered annually over several years. With small teams of 3, I visited the children’s large foster homes, which held 6-8 children with a range of disabilities. The children were adorable, keen to interact and engage.
The main foot issues were deformity; as many children had disability affecting the lower limb and had difficulty walking. However, following feedback from the other adult group about the state of care and need for podiatric intervention in the institution, I volunteered as part of the adult healthcare team for the remainder of the trip.
Perhaps due to their bleak surroundings, many residents met us at the gates each day, where the minibus dropped us off. It was overwhelming how excited they were to see us – the volunteers usually walked around the complex with at least two residents holding their hands. Sometimes I had three or four residents holding hands or putting their arm around me at once! They were eager for your attention, loving and endearing.
The experiences of the residents vary starkly and are dependent upon their ability to mobilise independently. The more able residents participated in dance routines, art classes and other activities, whereas the less able residents were left in their bedrooms in winter months and the outside shelter in summer. Due to staffing restrictions the sensory room can only be used when LIFE Volunteers are present.
Going to Romania, meeting the people and experiencing the reality of social care available there, has been one of the most profound experiences of my life. The stark contrast between the unimaginable hardships some residents face, and the love shown by those in the system was incredible. This cause is so worthy of more input. From a podiatry perspective, the work is rewarding, educational and valuable. I highly recommend this placement to anyone seeking a professional and personal challenge.