I first volunteered in Romania during my third year as a mental health nursing student in 2017. It was one of the best experiences of my life, as a nursing student it taught me a lot about myself and also to appreciate the resources we have available, both living and working in the UK. Meeting the children was great, and it was great to see the children were happy and all of this was thanks to the Life Foundation. For me though being able to experience the adult institution and being able to work with the adults was a real experience and one that will stay with me forever. When I first visited the adults in my first year, I found it quite overwhelming. However, seeing the impact us volunteers had on the residents gave me a great feeling about the work we were doing and also a sense of pride.
Following my first experience, I signed up to volunteer again for two weeks in 2018. This time myself and a friend were allowed to join the adult trip, which meant the first week was spent visiting the children and the second week was spent at the adult institution. As we were there every day, we were able to really interact with the adults using lots of positive interaction and play.
Whilst you are out in Romania you stay in a beautiful place called Slatina, in a flat which is very central. You will have a local guide called Norica who is amazing and really supportive and also other locals who will accompany you to the children’s homes and adult institution and act as an interpreter so that you are always supported.
The good thing about this organisation is that it is open to anyone who is willing to go out and give everything they have to ensure they have the best two-week experience and work hard. Not only are you doing something positive for others, but for anyone looking to pursue a career in any caring capacity, this will give you lots of experience.
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.
We recently had a chat with Joanna, one of our volunteers who has just returned from her first trip to Olt this summer. She has graduated from The University of Manchester this July with a Psychology degree, and is soon off to Oxford to complete her masters. Whilst at university, Joanna volunteered as a project leader with a ‘Student Action Volunteering’ project, where she would organise and supervise a weekly activity club for adults with disabilities. She had also volunteered with The Stroke Association and in a local residential care home; all experiences she said helped her to feel prepared for her trip. Here’s what she shared with us…
Q: Why did you apply to volunteer with The LIFE Foundation?
A: I had heard really positive things from a friend who had volunteered with them previously, it sounded like an incredible programme that was doing fantastic work. Whilst I had done lots of volunteering in the UK, I had never been overseas to do so; many charities seem to be run mostly to give volunteers an ‘experience’ with little to no actual impact. The LIFE foundation seemed different and that giving my time would have real benefit, and it seemed really sustainable, which appealed to me.
Q: Was it what you expected when you arrived?
A: At our training day it was stressed how small the flat is, so I was actually pleasantly surprised! It is definitely small, but in the communal room there is a sizable dining table (no eating on laps unless you want to!) and some comfy chairs which overlook a view which gives one of the most picturesque sunsets I’ve ever seen. The kitchen and toilet are basic but completely serviceable, and it was all impeccably clean.
Q: What is a typical day for a LIFE volunteer?
A: It depends, although it always involves leaving at 8.30am!
On three days a week we worked solely with the children in small groups. As there were eight of us on our trip, this meant three groups, each accompanied by a translator. In the morning we’d work with one or two houses, before returning home for lunch, and heading back out to do a further house in the afternoon. A typical day could include helping with physiotherapy, brushing teeth and hair, doing some gentle massage, intensive interaction, sensory play, and general active play! In some houses you may be able to go outside, others you’ll be inside; but no two visits to the same house are the same!
On two days a week we went to the adult institution. When you arrive, the excitement from the adults is evident and you may well be adopted by one or two who particularly want to spend time with you. This could be colouring, painting nails, throwing a Frisbee or even dancing (I was taught some traditional Romanian dancing by one of the adults on my first trip to the institution!) It was also possible to spend time in the sensory room giving massage and using sensory items with some of the adults. At lunch, we went and fed those who needed some assistance, and it was also possible to go and spend time with the less able adults if you wanted to.
Q: How would you describe your experience with the children and adults?
A: I had an incredible time with both the children and the adults. The kindness and love many of the children and adults showed will stay with me forever; there were so many hugs, cuddles and fond memories!
Q: What about Slatina, where you stayed – did you do much in your spare time?
A: Slatina was bigger than I expected; there are quite a few restaurants and a beautiful park right by the flat. I had been worried about how I was going to eat (I’m lactose intolerant and vegetarian!) but I found that most places had something I could eat. The local supermarket also had a huge variety of food, so cooking in the flat was really easy and was a great way to save money. Most evenings we went and played cards and had ice cream at the local bars/cafes, and there’s also an artificial beach and a hotel with a pool; there’s plenty to do! Some of the group also went to Bucharest at the weekend and had a fantastic time!
Q: Do you have a favourite memory from your trip?
A: Although I loved all of it, my favourite memory is of working with a young boy with autism in one of the houses. He usually wanted to watch TV most of the time and didn’t have any interest in toys or games, becoming distressed if the TV was turned off. During my first visit I found a simple stacking game he showed slight interest in, and by the end of the two weeks he was completing the entire set, only watching TV for a minute or two in between goes. It was a huge moment, and there was a massive grin on both of our faces!
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.