by Sue Surma
I have many poignant memories of my international travel over two decades, but the ones I most frequently awaken with in the morning is of my volunteer service in Romania. There, I tended and nurtured about 30 infants and toddlers, ranging in age from five months to two years with Global Volunteers. They were three weeks that not only profoundly shaped my future, but sent me on the path to become a nurse just as I had settled into “middle age.” In fact, every major decision I’ve made about the next 50 years of my life can be traced back to this short, but profound experience with the babies of Romania.
I know this would not have happened without the insights I’ve gained through my Global Volunteers experiences.
Thankfully, memories aren’t always built on first impressions. As I and my teammates stepped into the small four-room house situated on the hospital grounds that served as a temporary “orphanage, ” we were immediately hit with the overpowering stench of urine. Babies of all sizes and ages were lying in their cribs – and all needed a diaper change! Upon inspection, we sadly discovered that not only did they have a diaper rash, but most suffered from a “full body rash” resulting from being changed only three times daily. We pledged to do what we could to soothe their tiny bodies along with their spirits.
The volunteer team of eight women ranged in age from mid-twenties to the seventies. We were all enthusiastic and nonplussed by the challenge we faced. We immediately got to work cleaning the kids and covering the soaking wet mattresses with large plastic bags. One of the volunteers had brought numerous sleepers and I had arrived with dozens of cloth diapers, rubber pants and a case of Desitin.
We learned that because the staff was so busy, the best they could do was to prop the babies with a bottle three times a day. There was no formula, so they were fed a thin gruel of crushed crackers and water. We worked with the overworked staff to fortify the meals to improve nutrition. Just holding the babies for feedings… once they were dry and comfortable… became a joy.
Over three weeks we tried to improve the cognitive, physical and psycho-social abilities of each child. (I write about these developmental concepts now with my “Psych” textbook starring at me, begging to be opened.) I feel that what we accomplished in those three short weeks was nothing short of miraculous. The babies began to turn over, the older ones to crawl, and all to experience a sense of love for the first time in their short lives.
But, please don’t conclude this was easy. Truth be told, we put in long days and often declined evening excursions for the opportunity to get to bed early and restore our energies for the next challenging day. Washing over 100 diapers by hand is not pretty… or easy! But to know they would caress the dear “bottoms” of “our babies” made every minute worth it.
Perhaps that’s why Romania stays in my mind… Because we witnessed the unmistakable improvement of our babies, and because we knew that as important as each one of us was, another team would be arriving in a week… and would take our place. This latter fact was comforting to those of us who experienced severe “separation anxiety” when it was time to return home. I knew our babies would continue to get the care, stimulation and love that each human being deserves. Even though the Romanian government ultimately closed the Codesti Hospital as a condition for entering the European Union a few years later, I take comfort knowing that our babies at least got a chance to reach toward their human potential with our help.
This particular program exemplifies what happens on a well-run volunteer team. The philosophy of Global Volunteers is to help a community with a project that they decide is necessary. Working side by side with a person from a different culture is not only a good way to learn about that culture but also to make a close relationship. I have never been on a team that expected me to do anything for which I was physically unable. I was, however, offered the chance to learn new stuff, like mixing cement with a shovel (Guatemala) and assembling a roof truss, complete with gussets (Mississippi). In the end, it is about making friendships and allowing the members of a given community the chance to get to know an “American.” I have been told personally by many local people that we Americans are nothing like they expected. And we have learned that people all around the globe have the same needs and wants as we do, and it does not matter what language they speak, they pretty much all have a great sense of humor.
I know I need my international volunteer “habit.” It’s what I do. And, fortunately, such “adventures in service” have introduced me to like-minded others who now have become friends and traveling companions. One of the things that Global Volunteers does not tell you in all of its material is that when you join a team you not only make friends with people in a given community, you make friends with the people on the team. I have made better friends working with a person as a team member in three weeks than I have working with someone for ten years. Holly and I met in Vietnam on a Global Volunteers team, and she joined me in Romania on the first program there. She has since served with me in the Cook Islands and Peru. Brazil or Ghana is our next volunteer adventure.
Global Volunteers has changed my life, and because of my worldwide service programs, I’ve collected great memories, enjoyed great adventures, found new friends, and maybe along the way, I did a little bit to advance world peace.