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Living Stones in Romania

Leading my first pilgrimage group to Romania – to see the famous painted monasteries, fortified churches and Dracula’s castles – I wanted to make sure we also met some “living stones”. Of course we had met lots of priests, nuns, singers and dancers, but what about people in need?

On our last morning in Bucharest, before flying home, we went to St Margaret’s Hospice, one of several institutions in Romania run by Copii in Dificultate (Children in Distress). I had been put in touch with this charity only days before our pilgrimage began. A 99-year-old parishioner wished me a good trip to Romania and started to tell me about a teenager there she had sponsored for years – and was there any chance of seeing him. The charity is run out of a small office in Glasgow; it had started in 1990 when it took lorry loads of supplies to Romania when the plight of disabled children abandoned in terrible state orphanages first hit the world’s headlines. Glasgow staff put me in touch with the wonderful Valentina Zaharia in Bucharest, who arranged to meet me on her day off at St Margaret’s.

We spent a couple of hours in this beautifully equipped home – mostly befriending very seriously disabled children – some in their cots, some in wheelchairs in their tiny play garden. We left them a mountain of toys we had carried from one hotel to the next for 10 days – I had sent all pilgrims an email days before we left asking them to bring toys – together with most of our remaining Romanian money and many hundreds of pounds in cheques and promises.

We never saw my parishioner’s teenager – he was in another home 40 miles off our route; he was there because of the success of St Margaret’s – in 1990 disabled babies abandoned in state orphanages were not expected to live beyond infancy; the work of Children in Distress has meant that many of them have grown up. We were all very moved by the plight of the children we met; even more moved by the wonderful care they were receiving; and impressed too with the charity’s mission statement or strapline: “To cure, sometimes; to help, often; to comfort, always.”

The most moving of all was when our guide, Chip, announced to us pilgrims that he would send St Margaret’s his family’s child allowance (20 Euros a month) in full for the rest of his son’s childhood.

by Geoffrey Marshall