Like many 19-year-olds, Cody Lewis is planning to head to university within the next year or two intending to study theology.
But unlike many Canadian teens, Cody Lewis also chose to spend nearly four weeks in May, 2012, in the nation of Romania, volunteering at four state-run orphanages.
Cody volunteered to travel overseas with International Teams, the Canadian branch. International Teams currently has 102 volunteer teams, made up of people from over 24 countries, serving world-wide. Cody went specifically with ‘Impact Romania’ and its Pas Cu Pas program (Step by Step in Romanian).
The Impact Romania program focuses on institutionalized Romanian orphans and young adults in northwest Romania.
“I first got involved with this group through Muskoka Woods, a Christian Youth Camp near Parry Sound. We saw a video of a previous team’s work in Romania, and I soon felt I had to go. After interviews and a screening process, I was pleased, and nervous and excited to find out I had been accepted.”
At Toronto training sessions, Lewis learned that his purpose would be to meet the orphans, to work with them, play with them and share with them. He would live in the orphanages during his stay, sharing the children’s lives.
On April 29 he flew from Toronto to Paris and then to Budapest. After a nine hour bus ride, he reached the Romanian town of Cluj, a hopeful city with growing universities.
En route to the orphanage, “I saw how beautiful the countryside was,” Lewis said. “Buildings are hundreds of years old with many Medieval churches.”
In the small city of Beclean, he lived in the town orphanage.
“The town itself is mostly run down. The orphanage is gated and guarded: children can’t leave and people can’t get in. The yard is big, but it is mostly paved over. The pavement is covered in broken glass that no one cleans up, and there is a kind of dump/garbage site on the property. I never saw anyone pick up the garbage while I was there.”
Many orphanages in Romania are the legacy of the manic policies of her former totalitarian president, Nicolae Ceausescu. His behaviour bordered on madness, “degrading social and moral life in his country” Romanians say.
Although Ceausescu was executed by his countrymen following an uprising in 1989, child abandonment had already become commonplace among desperately poor families. At one point (early 1990’s), Cody was told, there may have been more than 80,000 orphans in Romania.
“Orphanages have toddlers and kids up to age 18. Sometimes the children have physical or mental issues, but sometimes,” Cody explained, “little kids are simply dropped off when a new baby arrives. Parents are so poor, they can’t feed both children.
These abandoned kids are almost never reclaimed, even though they know they have families out there. They can be angry and frustrated. Some of the older kids become very aggressive in the orphanages, bullying the younger ones. Few trained counsellors or psychologists are available. We often sat and talked to these kids, trying to show them there are other ways to act.”
At Christmas, one of the mission trips from Impact Romania holds a special feast in each of the orphanages presenting some small gifts. “But birthdays and other holidays tend not to be celebrated,” Cody said quietly.
Teachers are dedicated and do what they can. The classrooms are organized not by age, but by levels of education. “You can have a five year old and a 10-year-old in the same class because they both have limited education. We talked to them about Canada, but I still think they don’t really know where it is,” he said. “We handed out maple syrup, and the kids licked the cups clean. It was a rare special treat.”
Cody played games with children, helped with English lessons, gave piggy-back rides, smiled and laughed with them.
“While I was there, a five-year-old was dropped off. I can’t imagine what it felt like, to be left like this, confronted by strangers, even ones trying to be friendly. It breaks your heart.”
Cody lost his own heart to many of the children. “I wish I had gotten involved sooner. I wish I could have stayed longer to work with Andre, a troubled 15-year-old. I wish it had been possible to adopt Ana, a child from the Princhindel Orphanage, who clung to my hand everyday and smiled at me. I cried when I had to leave her; she kept calling my name. I want, I hope, to go back next year because it will matter to these kids to recognize that someone came back to them, not just the one time.”
“This was a life-changing experience,” said Cody Lewis. “You come face to face with the reality of people’s lives, dealing with hard situations. The lessons I learned in Romania, I hope to apply even here in Canada.”