I placed the suitcase on the weighing scales at the airport and smiled …. 16kg plus my hand luggage! The check-in assistant glanced up and noted my expression. I confirmed that the suitcase she was about to check in for my homeward journey had just a few clothes and another empty suitcase inside it.
“What happened to everything you brought out?” she asked. Well there’s a story!
On the way out I’d had 58kg of luggage allowance …. and I’d used it all – right down to the last kg! Six other people had done the exact same thing and now we were all returning with much less than we’d come out with – much less materialistically that is – emotionally we could probably have been charged for excess baggage!
Ten days previously, all the Irish Team Hope volunteers, Carol, Ruth, Charlie, Harry, Zoe, Hannah and myself had packed in preparation for a children’s camp that was going to be the holiday of a lifetime for 34 children, some of whom had never left their villages before or been on a coach, let alone knew what a holiday was. We’d brought everything out with us … sports equipment, craft activities, musical instruments, gifts for the children and a few clothes to keep us going (I managed to squeeze in an extra pair of shoes “just in case”!) The children who were coming would be from some of the poorest parts of the city and surrounding villages of Cluj; a region in Romania where our in-country partners Ecce Homo work. We were going out to make a difference – but not only did we change the lives of these children for a week – we changed too.
We arrived in Cluj, Romania on Friday evening and were met by our partners from Ecce Homo at the airport. We were staying in their offices for two nights and heading to the camp site on Sunday morning. The flights from Dublin only go out twice a week so Saturday was spent finalising the programme and doing some sightseeing of the city. It was lovely to be able to watch Romanian life – we witnessed the open air registry office where couples were getting married under a leafy bandstand in the park, visited landmark monuments and tried to acclimatise to the scorching 28 degree heat that our Irish skin was suddenly being exposed to! We certainly got our 10,000-plus steps in that day!
Sunday started with a light breakfast and then we travelled for a couple of hours into the mountains, where, despite the rise in altitude, the heat followed us but we were excited and wanted to get everything ready in time for the children’s arrival. We travelled in convoy with some of the Romanian leaders who were going to be our translators and group leaders for the week and the two most important people on the team – the cooks who had their own van loaded to the brim with enough food for the week! The remaining members of the team were bringing the children on a coach to the site later that day.
We had been apprehensive about the camp location – we hadn’t used it before and didn’t know what to expect but we were so excited as we looked around. It had been built by a team of volunteers from churches in Northern Ireland and was a relatively new construction. There were two buildings; the main one had a large meeting area, side kitchen and two floors of dormitory rooms. A second building housed the kitchen and dining area and another floor of bedrooms. The grounds comprised of veranda areas, a large enclosed football pitch, swings and slide and an obstacle course including a climbing wall. Across the road there was another huge area of land where we found a small swimming pool, volleyball court, bonfire area and a covered picnic area that we decided would be perfect for us to do all our craft activities in. WOW – we felt like we had hit the jackpot – the children were going to love it! Of course we had to try out all the slides and the climbing wall “for safety reasons” before the children arrived!
The children arrived around 4pm that afternoon and were allocated their rooms – the boys (21 of them) in the main building, the girls (13) in the smaller house. Everyone was really excited – some of them told us they had never had their own bed before – this was amazing. The children were split into three teams and allocated their Romanian leaders – two to each team.
That evening after we had all introduced ourselves we handed out wash bags to each child. They now had a bar of soap, toothpaste and a toothbrush, a face cloth and a comb. We then introduced them to one other person – the main person of the week – Jesus. We explained that he was our “Superhero” (the theme of the week) and we would be learning all about him during our “Jesus Discovery Time” (JDT) every day. We told them about the songs we would be singing, crafts we would be doing and the fun we would be having with our activities every day and then we went outside for team building games – the start of six days of fun and laughter.
The days flew by. Every morning we would start the day at 7.45am with a team meeting. Sometimes the children were still sleeping – other times they watched as we prayed into the day and agreed what would happen when. Then everyone had fun with an aerobics session with songs to get the heart pumping – “Jesus is our Superhero” and “Macarena” were popular songs every morning – and we think we were a bit fitter by the end of the week!
Breakfast was followed by Jesus Discovery Time. We sang songs in English and Romanian, acted out bible stories and “interviewed” a member of the Irish team. The children were then split into their teams and rotated through the morning programme – a crafting session, talking about what they had learnt during JDT and a music group lesson in preparation for the end of week talent show and outdoor activities including football, volleyball etc – 45 minutes for each activity followed by lunch at 1.30pm!
One morning during the activities the children came out from JDT to find a bouncy castle in the garden area – oh the screams of delight! It had kindly been donated by a businessman in Cluj who had heard about the camp and wanted to do something to help. The children loved it – what a generous gift – and so much fun.
The afternoons were set aside for longer activities – swimming in the pool and river (where some of the boys showed off their strength by building a dam out of the large stones), a water fight (well we had to use the 700-odd water balloons that we had brought out with us didn’t we!) and zip line adventures.
On the Thursday afternoon we loaded up our rucksacks and took a “gentle walk” up the nearby mountain. In hindsight we probably should have started those aerobic sessions before arriving in Romania. The children were so agile, climbing the steep grassy slopes with no trouble at all. As for collecting wood for the bonfire that night – let’s just say some of the “sticks” were bigger than they were!
After dinner in the evenings there was another JDT session with more singing and then one of our favourite times of the day where we gave out gifts and a card to 8 children each evening who had made a positive impression on everyone that day. The card, written in both English and Romanian praised the child and affirmed what they had done and thanked them for being part of the camp. The children were so proud of themselves – it was possibly the first time they had ever been given a gift like this.
After JDT, evening activities rounded off the day. We had mini Olympics, the newspaper game, a bonfire and, of course, an Irish night!
There were times during the week when we realised how lucky we were to have the privileged life we do.
On the first night it took the team 45 minutes to coax one of the girls into the shower – she hadn’t seen running water from a tap before
– never mind knew how a shower worked. At the end of the week we had a different problem – it took us 10 minutes to get her out of the cubicle – she knew it would probably be the last time for a while to experience hot water on her back!
On the Friday when everyone was going home the hugs from the children were tight and we were all very emotional. The team already knew a lot about the individual children’s home lives
– how they were heads of household with responsibilities that even as adults we would be scared to take on, worked in the fields during the day and/or after school, looked after sheep, sleeping outside in all weathers and many didn’t know where their next meal was coming from.
That realisation was further strengthened on the Saturday. We surprised some of the children by visiting them in their own homes. Some of the team had been in this situation before, for others it was the first time to see the children in their own environments. Each visit was tough on everyone. One of the boys had come home to find that his grandmother had been in hospital having suffered a heart attack. She was home now looking after his sister and he was running out of the door when we arrived to get a single tablet of medicine for her – it was all they could afford. Their home was one room where they all slept, cooked and ate – a communal toilet in the compound for over 40 people to use and the threat of the government coming in every day to evict them all. In the villages we found the children still wearing the t-shirts they had been colouring in on the Thursday – they were so proud to have them and the medals from the mini Olympics hanging round their necks. The children had only just returned home the night before and two of the children had already been up since 6am helping clear the local cemetery in the blistering midday heat – their reward was food at the church later that day. As we waited for them to return we saw their home – a converted cargo container in the middle of a field, with a few rugs on the ground and some pieces of dilapidated furniture – five people slept there, with two puppies and the horse outside. A generator pumped water to them from the local stream. In another home, the father proudly showed us his pigs, thanked us for giving his son a wonderful experience and presented us with flowers from his garden. They had so little and yet wanted to give us so much. We were truly humbled by the whole day.
We’ve all started planning for next year already!