Everyone deserves a fair shot at life. Sadly, in our world of perpetual inequality and unavoidable prejudice, this is not the case. This is why it is imperative that we help those who are less fortunate in society. This simple logic underpins all the fantastic work that takes place at The Raphael Foundation, based in the town of Codlea. They may not have a lavish array of equipment to call upon, yet the tireless staff and volunteers give everything to ensure that the project’s 72 clients have the happiest experience possible.
Happiness was certainly the focus during the morning, with the centre offering much needed respite for a group of local children. Of the seven children present that day, five were orphans, and these were “the lucky ones” according to fellow volunteer Anissa, who divulged that “it has taken three years to get the orphans to this centre”. Anissa then described the conditions of the local orphanage with fervent passion, and told tales of treatment that fall far short of acceptability or of basic humanity, disclosing that “the children are not touched often in the orphanages”, and going so far as to state that “if they hadn’t been neglected in the orphanage, some would probably be perfectly able”. Accounts of children without the use of their legs sat in their cribs all day, with almost no chance for physical exercise, stimulation or human contact; or stories where the solution to a child throwing their mattress out of their crib is to take the mattress away highlight the struggles the children must go through before they can even talk. Raphael can give these children a fair and just childhood for a brief time each week, as they are shown devotion and affection that is otherwise absent from their lives, allowing cognitive development and joy to flower.
Taking part in this morning session, it was blatantly obvious how much the centre means to the children. After an initial hesitance to get involved during the morning’s singing, I threw myself headfirst into playing with the children, and the results were spectacular. The children absolutely adored human contact, and playing with them gave them some much needed social interaction, putting glowing smiles onto the children’s faces. The ecstasy was infectious, and seeing the children enjoy their right to have fun filled me with radiance, and gave me a deeper understanding of why the staff and volunteers devote their time to such a noble cause. The jubilance was bittersweet however, upon the realisation that the joy for the orphans would be so short, and that in the afternoon they would return to the orphanage. The children will then be left to wait until the Raphael Foundation offers them an escape route at the same time next week.
“They are people just like us, we are the same” was a touching and righteous statement by young volunteer Ruben, an ambitious and articulate individual striving to be teacher. Ruben brought to my attention the severity of social discrimination that disabled individuals still face in Romania, remarking that “A lot of people treat them like animals, when they are just like us”. These animal comparisons are astute, when one considers that the forty disabled children in the Codlea orphanage are changed only twice a day, and washed only twice a week. Therefore, it is vital that the Raphael foundation provides an outlet for the children, as volunteer Lacramiora says: “they have nothing, there are lots of children with money and parents but these kids don’t, they come here to have fun”. Lacramiora sacrifices her free time to help at Rafael when she is not at school, and this selflessness is incredibly admirable. She revealed that her mother works at the orphanage, and that “there are maybe three or four staff to forty special needs children”, which illustrates the need for investment in Romanian orphanages to provide a satisfactory environment for the children.
As the children returned to the orphanage, there was no time to rue their situation, as the adult programme got underway with a circle discussion to encourage social interaction; a taken-for-granted benefit for the majority of people, but one that is a precious commodity for those with disabilities. Andrea, a social worker at the Foundation, echoed this idea, understanding the importance of their role: “otherwise they would just sit at home and watch TV, they don’t get to play or talk to people”. She also remarked that while the job “can be stressful, they have a lot of fun”, this was certainly evident when I was there, with one of the individuals’ birthdays calling for a celebration. Amidst all the dancing, the friendliness and amity crackled through the air, a heart-warming sight that proved disabilities cannot and should not stop anyone from being happy.
To overcome the physical barriers of disability, physiotherapy is a necessity; however, the existing attitudes to the disabled coupled with the scarcity of equipment in Romania, means that therapy is a luxury. Physiotherapy is a fundamental part of what the Rafaela foundation do, allowing each client’s needs to be addressed. Despite the pressing need for physical therapy, Gratiela, the physiotherapist at Rafaela, reveals the reality of life at Raphael: “sometimes it is hard, we don’t have all the things we need”. This underlines again, the need for more investment in the disabled, as does the fact that it is difficult to fund everything themselves. She explains that physiotherapy “is important because they have to be independent”, inferring that the lack of available resources for the disabled removes independence from the lives of their clientele, meaning they are increasingly reliant upon the work of noble volunteers and centres like Rafael. Alongside the self-explanatory physical advantages of physiotherapy, Gratiela sees the mental benefits of “a self-esteem boost”, as well as the “social network” offered by the foundation, a concept also articulated by Andrea. To continue her outstanding work, Gratiela would like to see future development of the project with “a bigger room, better equipment and more specialized beds”; and with the rapid growth of Rafael since 2007, I sincerely hope they can grow even further to continue their invaluable work in Codlea.
Estera, a long time worker and volunteer and Rafael, seeps determination when discussing her ideal future for the project. Her masters centred on community projects and social work, and she is keen to apply this to Rafael, which, as a Codlea native, carries a heavy personal weight for her. She envisions a “respite care centre”, and whilst this dogged aspiration is heartwarming, significant financial investment is required, as she estimates the development would cost “€750,000, and it is hard to get sponsors”. It is therefore essential that Rafael continues to grow and gets sufficient investment, as it provides a service of unparalleled importance: bringing enjoyment to the disabled. The fact that the project does this through the local community means that they play a pivotal role in changing the stigmatisms that still exist around the disabled in Romania. The Raphael Foundation is not a wealthy project, they may not have enough equipment, and they may only get limited access to the local orphans; however, they show how lives can be changed in spite of these deficiencies, via generosity, humility, hard work, and hope.
Feel free to donate here or get involved with the Raphael Foundation here.