Here is today's opinion column as it appears in Small Town Newspaper:
I burned my breakfast bacon the other morning, and for a brief moment I considered shoving it down the disposal and cooking another batch. But then I remembered one of the lessons I learned while spending two weeks at an orphanage in rural Romania. Waste nothing because everything is a valuable gift, and it may not be available tomorrow.
I learned this while at Pro Vita, which is not an orphanage as much as it is a refuge for anyone in need. It is a commune providing food, clothing, medical care and shelter for any and all: for mothers with children who have left abusive husbands, for the homeless who are eager to work, for the elderly and disabled adults who have been neglected, for children whose parents cannot support them and for adults who are permanently scarred from having been raised in state-run orphanages during communist rule.
No one is turned away, and with more than 100 souls to care for, plus aid given to a network of foster parents, resources can sometimes be spread thin. In such a setting, one that relies on the prudent management of donations, you learn very quickly to value every spoonful of food that is put before you. You are grateful for the meal that has been prepared in the communal kitchen, even if it’s nothing more than potatoes and bean soup yet again. Take only what you need, and scrape the last drop from your plate into the slop bucket because the pigs will cherish your leftovers.
That same lesson applies to running water, gas for the stove and electricity—when they are available, you use them sparingly. When they aren’t, as sometimes happens, you make do. For the most part, shoes and clothing are donated, and laundry is a chore with clotheslines strung around every house, so you think twice before changing your shirt simply because you’ve found a smudge on one sleeve or because you wore that same shirt the day before.
While at Pro Vita, I also learned that what I understand as the ideal home environment does not necessarily apply to everyone. Before leaving for Romania, several people suggested I’d be tempted to bring one of the orphaned children home with me. They need families and rescuing, after all. But what I found as I observed the dozens and dozens of children throughout the day is that they have already been rescued, and they are already part of one big family that will be theirs for as long as they choose. This loving family will see they are disciplined, learn responsibility, receive an education and even go onto a university. It will see them marry and start their own families, and it will help them with the building of their first home, just as any other family would.
I began this experience of volunteering abroad with little understanding of the Romanian culture, but I quickly learned this would not be a case of someone in the Have category offering time and energy to someone who appears to be a Have Not. We were all involved in the process of daily life together. We ate food cooked in the same large kettles over open flames, hauled wood together, spread manure together, pushed children on swing sets together and made crafts with the same paper and glue.
Resident children made bracelets for us with their own scraps of yarn, the priest shared bread with us, the shepherds fed us cheese from their meager table, and it all seemed a bounty. In such a communal environment, I learned that what I possess or don’t possess has no bearing on who I am as an individual, but how I share what I have and how I receive even simple gifts from others defines me.
Pro Vita. For life. A life at any stage and in any state of need—bruised, dented, worn down or just eager for a fair start without judgment—is valuable. And that life and the resources needed to sustain it cannot be wasted. These are the lessons I learned on my summer adventure volunteering at a communal orphanage in Romania.