In October 1990, an American couple, Bruce and Sandie Tanner, watched a television programme called ‘The Shame of a Nation’, depicting the plight of many hundreds of orphaned or abandoned children who were living in terrible conditions in Romanian institutions. They had already felt called to full-time volunteer work overseas, now it became their goal to find a way to make a contribution in Romania. After an initial visit to a village called Nicoresti, they returned to America to sell their home and cars, to quit their jobs and make their goodbyes. They moved to Romania in September 1991.
Sandie and Bruce worked for nearly three years in the ‘Spital’, a government institution in Nicoresti—feeding, bathing and caring for about 200 intellectually and physically disabled children. Though the conditions were appalling and overcrowded, Sandie found a room on the ground floor where she started a kindergarten, and cooking and sewing classes. In the classrooms the children were calm, kind and hungry to learn. In the rest of the institution, in contrast, it was ‘survival of the fittest’, with a lot of aggressive and abusive behaviour. The Tanners realised that the only way to change the lives of the children was to take them out of that environment and into family-type homes. In 1993 a farmhouse was purchased and they set about gradually relocating as many children as they could. Now, ten years later they have five homes, caring for 33 children and young people.
An organisation called ‘Health Action Overseas’ was also working in the Spital, providing as many as thirty volunteers at a time to assist with the children. Much excellent work was done through the volunteers, but the goal remained to close down the institution with its intolerable conditions. Many Irish volunteers went over the years. I became involved when my friend Pauline Walsh asked me to help fund-raise for her three-month volunteer duty. Five years later Pauline is still in Romania! There was great celebration when Health Action achieved their goal and the children were transferred to smaller more suitable buildings in the nearby city of Galati. But because ten of the children were over eighteen by then, they were left behind. Pauline stayed on to care for them with the cooperative support of the Tanners.
But instead of closing the Spital, the Romanian authorities re-designated it as an institution for eighty adults. With filthy and unsanitary conditions already a problem, this prospect was devastating and shocking to the Tanners who had hoped to concentrate on the children already in their care and others they were negotiating to receive.
The Tanners and Pauline continued to support the people in the Spital with time, money, care and protection. I visited there for two weeks in December 2000, to help Pauline provide a good Christmas for everyone. It was shocking, but also wonderful in a sense, that Christmas was celebrated and enjoyed although the conditions were so bad. There was lots fun and laughter, the simplest efforts seemed to lift spirits and make the residents’ lives less desolate.
I stayed in one of the Tanners’ group homes, where the contrast was startling. It was full of light and life, safety and security. As I looked at the children there, it was hard to believe that they had once ‘lived’ in the Spital. The change in their lives was dramatic. I decided to try to return if the opportunity arose, and I gave a definite commitment to help in any way that I could to support the work.
I was back at work in Sunbeam House Services after Christmas, and I was asked to give a presentation to the annual staff seminar about my trip to Nicoresti. That raised a great deal of interest and many staff members arranged to make a donation from their salary each month to the work of the mission. Later, Sunbeam House Services generously offered the Tanner mission a 16-seater bus that had been retired from their transport fleet. Following a mechanical overhaul, new tyres and a respray, the bus was presented to the Foundation’s Irish director, Turlough Sheehan, by our chairman George Knaggs. Turlough drove the bus to Nicoresti, where it was greeted with great excitement. Not only could the clients now travel together, but it had a lift for the two boys who use wheelchairs. Previously the mission car could only carry one wheelchair-
By 2001, four group homes were in operation. A fifth home specially-designed for eight children with severe and profound disabilities was built (in six weeks!) with donated Irish materials and the volunteer labour and skills of Irish builders, carpenters, plumbers and electricians. This was a whole new undertaking for the Tanners. These children would require care twenty-four hours a day. One of our Directors, Mary Cronin from the Early Services in St Catherine’s Special School in Newcastle, and physiotherapist Ann Sherwin, travelled to provide their expertise and insights over four very intensive days, to assess sixteen children, eight of whom would become residents in the new house at the Tanner mission.
With no home responsibilities that could not be put on hold, I decided to volunteer for a longer period. Sunbeam House Services generously gave me time off, and I returned to Nicoresti in October of 2002 for three months. This was a very different experience for me. I lived with five other volunteers who were much younger than myself, a challenge in itself! My forte is administration and organisation, and as I had never worked with children with disabilities, I felt quite inadequate for the task. However, I eventually realised that, apart from occupational therapist Caroline Murphy who had arrived two weeks before me, no one else had qualifications to work with special needs children either. The Romanian housemother, Mirela, was indeed ‘a mother’ who used her instincts and common sense to care for the children. The other Romanian staff varied in their care and commitment to the children, but overall there was an atmosphere of love and routine, in the right measure. All the children except one had cerebral palsy. Before Caroline arrived, they had never been seated. At first this huge change for staff and children was greeted with resistance—staff felt that the children were suffering and unhappy. But as the weeks went by, they began to blossom and to interact with each other, to play and observe in ways never possible before when they had always been in a lying down position. It was an exciting time of growth and development for all the children. Interestingly, it was the staff who needed to be taught how to play; it seemed instinctive for the children. Love was what was needed and they were the most loveable group of children I have ever encountered.
There isn’t space in this article to give examples of the many ways in which the children and young people have benefited from being ‘rescued’ by the Tanners. They have a strong Christian faith, as I do, and they believe that they have been called to do what they can to bring relief and hope to the children in a tiny poor Romanian village. What they have done, with no formal training in caring for the disabled, is outstanding. What Pauline has done, in protecting a vulnerable group of young women, is priceless. What Caroline has done, in her belief that one year of her time and training can give eight children an opportunity to begin to reach their potential, is immeasurable. I gave my three months—not much! But if only we would all do a little, what a difference it would make.
Perhaps the Tanners’ work may seem ‘a drop in the ocean’—in twelve years, five group homes have helped 33 individuals out of hundreds who are in need. But I always return to the ‘Starfish Story’. An old man spotted a boy down at the beach, throwing stranded starfish back into the sea, one by one. The man told him he was wasting his time—there were hundreds of starfish that he wouldn’t make any real difference. The boy bent down, picked up a starfish, flung it into the water and said: ‘It makes a difference to that one!’