Towards the end of my first year of university, and after participating in various volunteering projects both inside and outside of the university, I made the decision that I would like to volunteer abroad. At first I was not sure about where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do; but after researching several projects and speaking to relatives, I decided that I would like to follow in the footsteps of a family member and volunteer in Moldova.
When researching the real gap company (recommended by a family member and subsequently the company that I travelled with) I found a wealth of different projects to choose from. However, as I am training to be a primary school teacher with a focus on Special Educational Needs and Disability, I concluded that volunteering in a children’s orphanage was just the sort of project I was looking for.
The project involved travelling to Moldova via Frankfurt and Vienna to work in an orphanage for children aged from birth – 7 years. Each day (Monday – Friday) I would travel with other volunteers from the volunteer flat in downtown Chisinau (the capital of Moldova) to an orphanage in central Chisinau, to work with a child on a one-to-one basis. Each day I was required to work from 10am until 12 noon and from 4pm until 6pm, however some days I stayed longer or arrived at the orphanage earlier. In each two hour time slot each volunteer would be given one child to look after. During this time I would often ‘pair up’ with other volunteers so that there were other children for the child I was looking after to play with.
There was however, a stark difference of culture in Moldova compared to in Britain. Most remarkably I noticed, on my bus journeys to and from the orphanage, that no matter how full the ‘troleibuz’ (trolley bus) became (and it was frequently fuller than the London Underground at peak times) other travellers would enthusiastically jump out of their seats ready to give them up for older / disabled / pregnant others. However, that seems one of the only positive differences that I can find with the culture as unfortunately Moldova is only a newly established country and many sights are shocking. For example: many of the children who attend the orphanage are not orphans – they actually have parents – but their parents cannot afford to care for them as there is a great deal of poverty in Moldova. Furthermore, the living conditions throughout Moldova vary greatly, there are a few more modern buildings, but the majority of people live in badly maintained flats, made from crumbling concrete that is plastered with graffiti. On every street corner, market sellers set up their stalls to sell home-grown fruit and vegetables at a pittance of what their produce is worth: I purchased a large carrot, ¼ of a pound of potatoes, a large onion and a bell pepper for 7 lei which is the equivalent of about 25p. It really was shocking to see how people struggled, but how polite and happy they still were when trying to talk to you in English.
Moreover, the conditions were worse still at the orphanage. The children were designated just two nappies each per day, and had few clothes. All donations were shared, and the children had nothing of their own – it was a regular occurrence to see a child in a set of clothes that another child had been wearing just a day or so before. The orphanage workers themselves however were lovely. They were warm and welcoming despite not being able to speak a word of English. They seemed pleased that I had learnt a small amount of Romanian, and seemed to care deeply for the children.
Throughout my time at the orphanage I thoroughly enjoyed working with gruppe 11 (group 11). The group of children I was placed with all had disabilities ranging from cerebral palsy to downs syndrome. The children ranged in their abilities to communicate; whilst some were fluent in Romanian and could also speak basic English, (most likely learnt from previous volunteers) others communicated through their actions and facial expressions. Working with the children was very fulfilling – it was great fun teaching one little boy to sing the song “Old mac Donald had a farm”, and even more rewarding when he came to me the next day singing it and wanting to learn other English words and songs.
Whilst I was in Moldova I was also given the opportunity to visit a second orphanage called “Orhei orphanage”. It is situated about an hours’ drive from our volunteer flat and is home to boys and men aged from 7 +. As the state does not provide for adults or young people who have disabilities, many with disabilities such as muscular dystrophy live out their lives in places such as Orhei orphanage. Though I only spent several hours within Orhei orphanage, my experience there was great. I was deeply touched by the living conditions there (to conserve electricity no lights are put on inside the orphanage during the day), the building consists of lots of long, narrow corridors with few windows, so the building is in near darkness.
The boys at Orhei however were very pleased to see us. It is customary for visitors to bring gifts for the orphanage and another volunteer and I took 6 kg of fresh peaches, 1kg of chocolate bombon sweets, 2 packets of balloons and 12 cartons of bubbles as a small offering to the boys. Whilst our in country leader showed us around the orphanage we greeted the boys (in our best Romanian) and gave them each some peaches / chocolates etc. Later we went into the art room (where the less severely disabled young men are encouraged to express themselves) and we were shown a variety of work that the men had produced, ranging from small embroideries, to bracelets to scarfs. Visitors are encouraged to support the orphanage by purchasing something from the room – to help raise funds for more art materials. I purchased a small embroider butterfly that I will cherish for years to come.
Overall, I think that my experience has changed me on a personal level. I have always been aware that others are less fortunate than I, however before visiting Moldova, my awareness sort of acknowledged that fact but didn’t fully permeate into the way I lived my life. Now however, when I moan that I have a short deadline for an assignment or that I have to go to work at the Co-op as a part time job to help fund myself at university, I think to myself ‘but at least I have a job, I have prospects, I am on my way to gaining a career’; because the children and young adults I saw and worked with in Moldova don’t have that, they don’t even have their own belongings like I do. It has definitely taught me to be more grateful for what I do have, and to complain less about what I do not have.
I would also like to personally thank the creators of the Eleanor Peel Fund, as without it I would have struggled to have this experience. Being a student, every penny counts, and I spent the majority of my allowance from the fund on the numerous vaccinations that I needed before travelling abroad. I hope that others will continue to benefit from the fund as I have in years to come. Once again, a BIG thank you.
(Currently studying BA Hons Primary Education with Special Educational Needs and Inclusion with QTS, at the Lancaster Campus)