Monday, August 20, 2012

Until We Meet Again, Moldova

          Well, the project may be over, but I think the effects of this project will last for a while. None of this could have been possible without the help with our volunteers. We couldn’t have asked for anyone else better than them.

          Cornelia and I hung out with a many of the volunteers a few times after the camp ended. They couldn’t help but start talking about the kids. Some said that when they close their eyes, they see the kids, and they miss them. Others began to scheme how and when they could see the kids again. This filled me with joy.

         There have been several ideas thrown out to be with the kids and also help them out financially. First, the volunteers plan on having a reunion with the kids in the beginning of September. They all would meet back at the center and do some of the activities together again. I don’t think that this will be the last time they will reunite. I think they will go back there many more times. They also talked about bringing gifts to the kids. It was fun hearing them plan this, because they thought of every kids and what type of gift they would like.
Another idea was to bring the kids to the cinema in Chișinău . For this they would need funds, and we are working at finding some funds for that. I like this idea a lot. Not only can they all hang out together, but it is another testimony that people with special needs are a part of the community as well, and they don’t have to be confined to a center.

          The volunteers also want to try to raise funds for these kids. They sound pretty serious about it, which is great. One idea that was thrown out is to have a bake sale in
Chișinău. I think that a bake sale in the capital would be very successful, probably more successful than any bake sale that I have participated in. I, then, had an idea on how to raise funds for these kids and the center. I thought it would be neat to have some sort of a fundraiser in the States. It would be one way to “bring the world together,” and also it would raise awareness to Americans that people outside of our country need help as well. 

          As I have overly stressed already, this has been an amazing project, and it was far more successful than Cornelia and I ever dreamed. However, this wouldn’t be possible without the help and support of many people.
          First, thank you, Cornelia, for choosing me to do this service learning project with you. I think we make a great team. We both have our strengths and weaknesses, but somehow they fit together perfectly. Thanks for your hard work, and getting everything put together. You’re an amazing person, and I’m honored to have done this project with you.

           Second, a huge thanks to IREX! Cornelia and I feel so privileged to have been one of four projects chosen and given a grant in the region. Specific thanks to Jessica, Natalia, and Iurii. They were always there to answer questions when we needed. And we are thrilled to announce to them, IREX, and the world that our project was a success.

          Third, thank you to Cornelia’s parents for hosting me! You were very warm and welcoming to me in this country where I did not understand much of what was going on. They brought me to a fancy birthday party, so that I could experience some of their culture. They also fed me and gave me a bed to sleep on. You are wonderful people and I hope that we can meet again someday. Thank you so much for your hospitality!
          Fourth, I would like to thank Mrs. Anastasia. She is the head of the center, and she did so much so that we can do this for the kids. The center was closed for the summer, but she was very willing to open it for us. Without her, we couldn’t have done any of this. I would like to thank our cook as well. Our food was wonderful, and I know everyone appreciated you as well.
          Last but CERTAINLY not least, thank you to our volunteers!!! You are all very loving people, and that was quite evident. It was you that had the biggest impact on the kids. You put far more time into this project than we ever expected. I’m thrilled that you are still trying to connect with the kids. Your genuine interest in them is a memory that will last a lifetime for the kids. 

          If anything else happens with this project, I will be sure to inform all of you. I know in my heart that this is not the end. And who knows what life may bring, maybe I will be back someday. So, until we meet again, Moldova…until we meet again…

Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Bittersweet Day

The last day of the camp was phenomenal. Everyone was so excited to go to the zoo. We met the kids in Străşeni. It was a glorious moment, watching the volunteers greet them: hugs, kisses, and smiles all around. It almost made me cry. We then took minibuses to Chișinău. Finally, we made it to the zoo, the long awaited event of the week! We were lucky enough to have more than one wheelchair (we only had one the previous few days) to take on our trip. So some volunteers pushed wheelchairs, as some held kids hands, and others walked with their arms around each other. 


The kids seemed to like the animals. I didn’t know what they were saying, but from what I hear, it was all good things about the zoo. However, the thing that I noticed most was not that the kids loved looking at the animals, but they loved being with the volunteers, with people. Smiles of love filled the air this day. I think that the kids really appreciated that they could be in public with people who aren’t ashamed to be with them, and will have a good time with them. 

At the end of the morning, everyone was exhausted. We needed to find energy from somewhere. So what better place than Andy’s Pizza! We brought the kids to the patio, to a huge table set with pizzas. I was not pleased, though, with the reaction of other people sitting on the patio. One table glared at us, I’m sure wondering, “Why are they here?! They don’t belong here.” At this point, I was thankful that I didn’t speak Romanian, because I would have gone over there and scolded them. I was livid. Throughout our meal, they continued to glare over at us, but I chose to ignore them and just focus on the kids. Maybe they could learn from us, that it is fun to be with those kids, and that they are people just like everyone else. 

            It was a great time at the pizza place. Some people made a huge straw out of smaller straws so they could steal juice from other people’s glasses. It was quite funny, and the kids loved it! I was sitting by one of the older kids, and randomly he asked me, “How are you?” in English! I was so surprised. And later he said, “Do you like the pizza?” It was so neat to feel like I could communicate verbally with one of the kids.
At the end of lunch, we were given little stuffed bunny keychain. If you press its stomach, it says “I love you” in Russian. It was the perfect gift. I think that it sums up part of what we accomplished: that the kids feel loved and accepted. 

            The next thing we knew, we were on our way back to Străşeni. It was a long day, and almost everyone in the bus fell asleep. But quickly, the time came for us to say goodbye to the kids. It was such a bittersweet moment. Everyone knew that it was a magical week, that wonderful things happened, and so much love was spread around. However, it was VERY hard to say goodbye to each other. A few kids asked, “You’re coming back tomorrow, right?” It was hard for the volunteers to say no. I had tears in my eyes, and I know that other people did too. Once the kids left, we thanked the volunteers and, of course, tears started falling again. Everyone knew that this was something special. It definitely had an impact on the volunteers and the kids. However, it’s not goodbye for many of them; it’s “until we meet again.” Many of the volunteers plan on meeting the kids again in September. It’s quite exciting to hear some of the plans that they have with the kids. But that’s not until next post. So until next time…peace and blessing to all.  

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Big News

            So much has happened since the last post! I’m sorry I haven’t been keeping up with the days. As wonderful and fun as this project is, it is still exhausting, and all I want to do in my free time is sleep. 

            So let me start with day two of the project…
            I was overly pleased with how day two went. I didn’t think that it could get much better than day one, but I was wrong. This day blew day one out of the water. We did a lot of similar activities as the previous day (arts & crafts, played games, sang songs), but the connections that were made between the children and the volunteers were strengthened immensely, and it was very evident. 

            During much of the day Cornelia was busy planning for the next day. She was contacting media stations, planning a banquet for people who would visit the center the next day, and working out so many other details. She did a wonderful job, and we are all so blessed to have her. 

            Even though the day was much like the previous day, we still had some exciting new activities. In the morning, the children and the volunteers did a service project. We wanted to do this for several reasons. First, to show that these people can be an active, helpful part of the community; that their disabilities don’t mean they’re a vegetable that cannot help others. And second, to allow the children to have an opportunity to give back to the center. For our service project, we picked up trash around the center. It looked a lot better when we were done! I was a little hesitant at 
first to do a service project. I was worried that the children wouldn’t like it and would complain. But from what I could tell, the children and the volunteers had a great time with the project! They were very helpful and willing to participate. 

            We also played another Olympic game, bocce! The kids really liked throwing or rolling the balls to hit or get close to the target. It was a great competition between the US and Moldovan teams.

  At the end of the day, we introduced tie dyeing to the kids. The volunteers were a great help in assisting the children with the process. It was a new experience for them as well, and I feel like everyone liked the outcome of this arts & crafts session. It was fun to introduce a little bit of my American experiences with Moldova!


             Day two at the center was a success, but there was still work to be done when we got home, because day three would be a BIG day for us. 

   After hours of work and organizing things, we were able to get about 3 hours of sleep. We woke up early so that we could get to Chişinău, because we were going to be on Buna Dimineata, the Moldovan equivalent of Good Morning America. From what I understood, I felt that it went really well. Unfortunately, time flies so fast while on air, so we didn’t get to say everything we wanted to, but that is ok. The point is that word got out about our project, and that word got out about the need to help and accept people with special needs. We were fortunate enough to have Mihaela, one of our volunteers, join us on Buna Dimineata. She is a wonderful advocate of our project, and did a great job!

            When we got back to the center, the volunteers were already there with the kids. They were dancing around and having a blast. It’s a great feeling to walk into the place and see that we can trust our volunteers with the kids, and know that everyone is safe and having fun. Soon after we arrived, it was time for my American presentation with the kids. It went really well. I showed them some pictures of popular spots in America: NYC, the Grand Canyon, the mountains, the plains, Disney World, etc. I showed them videos of Disney World, and also bull riding. And in the end, of course we did some traditional American wedding dances. It was a great success and the kids loved it. After the dance, we gave the children and volunteers diplomas of participation in the program. 

            Next, it was time to switch gears really fast, as a few important men were coming to the center. We had a meeting with them about the center and their need for help, but also the need to improve the integration and acceptance of people with special needs in Moldova. Unfortunately, most of this meeting was in Romanian, so I did not understand much of it. But here is what I gathered in the end. In Moldova, people with disabilities are viewed as vegetables and a burden. There are a few centers in which parents drop their children with disabilities off and leave them there for weeks on end, because they do not want to deal with them. Or there are other cases in which the parents of children with disabilities won’t even be in pictures with their kids. When Cornelia told me this, I couldn’t believe that this is happening here, and my heart broke. Unfortunately, nothing can be done fast in a country that is not extremely wealthy. Our best chance is to get the word out to the Moldovan people that people with disabilities are people too, and that is exactly what we are doing. Maybe then they would be more willing to help them out. However, on a better note, one of the men at this meeting was generous enough to donate some money to the center. We don’t know the amount yet, but every penny (or lue) counts, right?! 

            During this meeting, a man from a local TV station was filming the meeting and the kids as well. So, this was another opportunity for us to get the word out to Moldova. The story should air soon, so I’m excited to see it!

            In the afternoon, we went outside to play games, sing songs, and have smores. Unfortunately, the smores did not turn out. But it was fun for some of the kids to roast the marshmallow-like (but tastes completely different) treat and eat it. It was far too sweet for me!
           During this time, another news station came to do a story on us! This is the big station in Moldova, which is WONDERFUL! They interviewed me and Cornelia and got footage of the kids singing songs, and roasting mallows. The story should air tomorrow. I just hope that this actually makes a difference to at least a few people of Moldova. 

            It was a long, packed day. As soon as we got home (around 6 pm), I was going to take a quick nap. But the next thing I knew, it was 6 in the morning! A 12 hour sleep was very welcomed, and very needed to be energized for the zoo the next day.

            I realize that this post is long, and I apologize. So I will give you a little bit of a break from reading, and write about the trip to the zoo in the next post. Hopefully it will be up soon!!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Day One -- Success!

What a day! Today was the first day of our project. Cornelia and I were filled with both nerves and excitement. A camp like this has never been done in Moldova before, so there are definitely people watching to see how it will go. Furthermore, neither Cornelia nor I have led a camp, let alone one for people with special needs. But we are happy to say that the first day went very well! 
One of the roads in the villages

            I’m going to start at the end of the day to bring the story into perspective. After the volunteers left, Cornelia and I rode the bus to bring the children home. My heart broke for these children and for the people of the villages. There is a huge gap between people who live in the city, Chişinău, and those who live in the villages. The villagers are quite poor, whereas people in the city have nice cars and can afford a lot more. When we drove into the villages, it was rather surreal to me, and I realized how much I take for granted in America. The roads were terrible, children were running around without shoes or clothes (which could be by choice, as well), animals roamed freely throughout the village, and grandmothers were hunched over walking up the hill with a cane in one hand and vegetables in the other. 
The center in  Tătăreşti

            The people in the district are very thankful for the center for people with disabilities in Tătăreşti.  However, I’m sure they wish that there were more centers. The center in Tătăreşti is the only one in the district, so some kids have to ride the bus for 2 hours to get to the center. This center started 8 years ago simply for the people with disabilities in Tătăreşti. But because the need for a center such as this is great, and there is hardly any funding, children from surrounding villages began to attend the center as well. The center is an NGO, meaning it’s a not for profit organization. So, if they can find money, the center can be open. However, if they don’t have any money, they cannot afford to stay open. Unfortunately, there has been no incoming money lately, so the center had to shut down for the summer. With that, Cornelia and I are very grateful to have this chance to give to the kids and this grant from IREX to be able to give this opportunity to the kids this summer.

Team Moldova!
So on to the camp! Despite the nerves of all of us, today went well. When the children arrived, they ate breakfast and played together with some balls and other toys. One boy really liked music, so he turned on the radio and danced. It was so fun to watch him be free and express himself! We then had our opening Olympic celebrations! We were worried that this would go poorly, but the kids loved it! We separated into two teams: Moldova and the USA. We paraded in with our flags and Olympic torches, and sang the national anthems. After a name game, which the kids just ate up, we did arts and crafts. What better thing to make than a musical instrument! Today we made tambourines out of paper plates and rice. They were very into decorating them with colored pencils, glitter glue, and ribbon. It was fun to see the kids carry them around the rest of the day and show everyone what they made. 
Tambourine Making
Team USA!

            Since it was unbearably hot, we changed things up so that the kids could lie down for a while. We played one of my favorite games at camp, Sleeping Cow. How this game works is that one person is it, and everyone else lies down. The person who is it tries to make the others smile or laugh. If they smile or laugh, they are it with that other person. I think that the kids really liked the game. It was fun for me to play the game with them, because it is a little harder for me to connect with them, since I don’t speak their language, and this was a great way to interact with them. Next was lunch. We have a wonderful woman who is helping us and preparing lunch for us. We couldn’t have done it without her!

After lunch we had a picture scavenger hunt. We took pictures of random things around the center, and the kids had to find it. Some kids were really into it, but some were not at all. It was getting to the point in the day where the kids were starting to get tired. It’s a long day for them, especially in the heat. We went outside to play some of our Olympic games, but we soon realized that most of the kids did not want to play at this point; they were antsy, tired, and struggled listening. So we got out some yarn and bandanas and made bracelets, as others played a casual game of soccer.  The next thing we knew, the bus was there to bring the kids home! It was a successful day, Cornelia and I felt, filled with learning, love, compassion, tears, joy, and so much more.

I know this post is getting long. I have so much more I want to say, but you will have to wait for the next post! BUT, I want to give praise to all of the volunteers that are helping us. I don’t think we could have found any other people more perfect for the task! Not only are they giving up 4 days of their summer, but they are genuinely into it. In my experience with volunteers, it is hard to find people who REALLY care about the project. They do so well with the kids, and their love and compassion is expressed in so many ways. Thank you!
A few of the WONDERFUL volunteers!

            Cornelia and I are very happy that one of our goals for the project is already being reached--that the volunteers are impacted and begin to see the world in a different way. Not only are we trying to bring the world together in the sense that we are making Moldova and the USA more aware, but we are bringing two different cultures together as well: the people with special needs, and those who are more abled.

I would like to leave you with a few quotes from the volunteers (my apologies for the bad translation from google translate):
“Thank you so much Cornelia, Megan (and all who were involved .. and will involve further) for the opportunity to participate in such a project, I was safe, but now I am absolutely convinced that they are very special children, are an example for the entire society, deserve our respect and support :)” -- Doina Cosolan

             “It was the greatest day in my last half of year! I'm excited, happy, overwhelmed, flattered and , in the same time,so proud that I am a part of this project. These kids are amazing. I'm missing them now. I wish people saw how good they are, even better than those who have everything to feel happ!... PS: It has passed only a day , but anyway I feel how my life is going to be changed...”   -- Mihaela Tataru

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Get Ready!

In January, this smiley, passionate girl moved into my house. At first, I had no idea who she was, or what to expect. The only information I had about her was that her name was Cornelia, and she was from Moldova. I had never even heard about Moldova before, for all I knew, it could be a country in South America! However, little did I know that I would be in Moldova in several months. 

           Cornelia came to study at Augustana College through a program called IREX. Part of this program allowed her to select an American student to travel to Moldova and do a service learning project with her. I was honored and excited that Cornelia chose me. While we tried to decide what our service learning project should be, we thought of a significant evening in the semester that we shared together. Cornelia and I helped at a dance for people with special needs. It was a very eye-opening experience, and it had a great impact on our lives. Because of this, we knew we had to do something with people with special needs. Furthermore, for those who know me, I have been a camp counselor for the past four summers. We thought it would be fun to incorporate part of my life into this service learning project, so we decided to do a day camp for people with special needs.

We named our project “Bringing the World Together – One Ability at a Time”. Even though this day camp is for people who have disabilities, we do not want their disabilities to define them. Rather, we want to show the world the abilities that they have. We believe that they have a lot to teach our world. Through this project we will be able to show the people of Moldova that these people are people who are contributors to society and long to be loved and accepted just like any other person. We are privileged enough to have wonderful volunteers help us, as well as the Moldovan media come and do a story on us!! So thank you in advance for all of you who will help get the word out and make this possible!

           Likewise, it is also our goal to spread the word to Americans. As we all know, people with special needs don’t just live in Moldova. There are people with disabilities all over the world, and even in our communities. Time after time, I see people stare at and judge others with disabilities, and I don’t want to continue seeing that. I want people to accept them for who they are, talk with them, and be their friend. Upon returning to the US, I will have several presentations sharing my experiences and new-found knowledge. It is also my desire to become more involved with the communities of people with special needs in Sioux Falls, and encourage others to get involved as well. 

           So what will the day camp look like? It will be a 4 day program from 10am to 3pm in which the campers (people with special needs) will come and participate in different activities. The activities include games, arts & crafts, songs, a service project, a scavenger hunt, a presentation about America, a dance, etc. In honor of the 2012 London Olympics this summer, the day camp will be Olympic themed. So we will have our own Olympic games! The last day of the program we will take the campers to Chisinau, the capital. There, we will visit the zoo and a museum so that the campers can experience something that they may have never experienced before. It should be a good time for everyone: the campers, the volunteers, Cornelia, and me.

Now here I am sitting in the Chicago airport with so many thoughts and emotions. I’m nervous, excited, scared, and filled with a sense of love and warmth for these people that I haven’t even met yet! As I sit here with hours to think, these thoughts run through my head, “Will I be able to express myself in a country that speaks Russian and Romanian (two languages that I don’t know)? Will the program run smoothly? Will the campers like the activities that are planned? Will we make an impact in the community?” Unfortunately, only time can answer these questions.

           However, I feel very blessed and thankful for this amazing opportunity that I have been given. Thank you, IREX! I hope that you all will continue to read my blog. There will be a lot more exciting things to come! Get excited for some pictures and videos!! Don’t hesitate to send any questions, comments, or ideas my way! They are all gladly welcomed.

Until next time,