In early 2010 I was in my junior year of college and wanted to do something different during the summer break. I love volunteer work and had never been out of the United States, so I decided to put the two together and started researching organizations. I found United Planet and decided to go to Romania! I knew nothing about the country; I was not even sure where in Europe it is located. I did some research and found out about the country's communistic past and what led to there being so many children without homes or parents now.
I left in mid-June and expected to arrive at an orphanage. I did- sort of. Pro Vita does have orphans, but they do not turn anyone away. Women escaping abusive relationships with their children, children who have families that can not support them, a group of girls who were rescued from the streets of Bucharest in the 1990s, disabled individuals, and the elderly all live in Valea Screzii.
Volunteers to Pro Vita live in a house together. A typical day started with a breakfast of whatever we had (usually cereal and crackers with jam). This was sometimes followed by spending the morning and afternoon playing with the kids on the playground. Other days we did manual labor such as hauling wood to be used in the winter or cleaning out one of the many half-built houses. The volunteers always ate lunch and dinner together, and each day we took turns cleaning up afterwards. A few times we worked during the week to plan activities for the Children on Saturdays. My favorite was when we put on a carnival, complete with face painting and games. The kids loved it! Our nights consisted of sitting on the always noisy front porch playing with the many stray animals or playing card games inside. For anyone considering volunteering at Pro Vita, do not expect to be told what to do every single day. Sometimes you are, but other times you may have to find work on your own! It is not hard though, as there is always something to be done, whether it is pulling weeds or helping one of the mothers with laundry.
There were, of course, things that I encountered on my trip that I did not expect. I did not think that any of the Romanians would speak English, but some of the teenagers speak well enough to converse with. Another thing was the difference in food. I knew it would not be what I was used to in the United States, but I did not really know what to expect. There is very little meat eaten at Pro Vita at any given time, but I also arrived when they were in the midst of a weeks long fast from it. They also fast from meat (and I believe dairy) two days a week. Soup was served at lunch and dinner every day, along with fresh bread and other dishes (they varied between potatoes, polenta, a spaghetti-like dish, and a few other things). I would suggest that a picky eater like myself bring snacks or Ramen noodles with them, although there is a small store up the road where you can buy snacks and drinks.
I felt very safe while there, much more than I anticipated. On the weekends the volunteers would sometimes take a bus to Valenii, a town about thirty minutes away, to shop. It should be noted that Romania has an extremely large amount of stray dogs, so expect to see them wherever you go. There are many at Pro Vita and I lost count of how many puppies and kittens were dumped there during my stay.
There are a few things that all volunteers should know before they go. It rains a lot and gets very muddy. Bring tennis shoes that you do not mind getting ruined. A nice outfit or dress is needed in case Father Tanase (the priest who started Pro Vita) invites you to an event. When I was there we had the opportunity to attend a wedding. If you get motion sickness, bring medicine! The roads are curvy and Romanians are not know for their driving abilities.
I felt very welcome at Pro Vita, by both the other volunteers, individuals who live there, and the staff. There is always a child ready to give you a hug or climb up on your lap! I hope that I made a difference during my time there, even if it was small. For myself, it was life changing. How many times have I complained about not having anything to eat (when really I had a lot of food, just not anything I wanted at the moment)? Pro Vita runs entirely on donations and sometimes they do not have much food. As I write this review, I look around my room at all the the things I have-purses, picture frames, a TV, perfume-none of which are necessary. At Pro Vita, most of those children do not even have parents. Yet while they live there, they take care of each other. There is a mother with three children there who agreed to take in eight others. Eleven children! My time at Pro Vita opened my eyes and made me realize how selfish I am and how often I take things for granted. I am so blessed to have been able to share six weeks of my life with the amazing people at Pro Vita in Valea Screzii.
Going to Valea Screzii is like going back in time. While the children and teenagers love Western music and some even have Facebook, you also still see horse-drawn carts on a regular basis. I got to see shepherds who live on a mountain not far from Pro Vita. They spend six days a week there, taking care of the sheep and goats and making cheese. My experiences were immensely better than any I could have imagined. Would I go back? Absolutely. I have wanted to go back since the day I left, and I have been given the opportunity to spend five weeks there this summer! I can not wait to see what progress has been made in the last two years and how much the kids have grown!