Touching the untouchables

Sharon Walker performs infant massage on 10-month-old Alene. The boy is one of about 100 children at the Leagon Placement Center in Sibiu, Romania — an ancient Romanian city of about 35,000 people northwest of Bucharest. - Photo courtesy of Sharon Walker
Sharon Walker performs infant massage on 10-month-old Alene. The boy is one of about 100 children at the Leagon Placement Center in Sibiu, Romania — an ancient Romanian city of about 35,000 people northwest of Bucharest.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Sharon Walker

For two weeks in April, massage therapist Sharon Walker reached out to Romania’s untouchables.

Although the abandoned children she helped ranged in age from about a year to four years old, all the children wore diapers, couldn’t feed themselves and hungered for attention.

Walker and a team of medical professionals worked in government-run child “placement centers” in Sibiu, a city about five hours northwest of Bucharest. They are members of Northwest Medical Teams, a non-profit humanitarian aid organization working to reduce suffering around the world and in the Pacific Northwest.

“I believe in the Lord’s leading and felt I’ve needed to go on these trips I’ve been on,” Walker said Thursday at her East Bremerton home.

This is Walker’s third trip to Romania’s orphanages. She visited for the first time in 1998, and went again in 2000.

For the first week of this year’s trip Walker returned to the Leagon Placement Center, where she worked in 1998.

As evidenced by slides snapped on her trips, 1998’s orphanages were institutional, a disturbing result of Romania’s dictator Nicolai Ceaucescu’s directive for big families. If parents were unable to support their children, the government would raise the nation’s future workforce for them. Birth control was against the law and the more children, the better.

In 1989, Ceaucescu’s Communist regime crumbled and so did the walls of secrecy surrounding the country’s orphanages. Even nine years after the plight of the Romanian children came to light, conditions in the now named “placement centers” were bleak.

She saw infants with diapers so huge they could not sit up or roll over. The babies were changed twice a day and fed every four hours. She captured on film, 3- and 4-year-olds who had not learned to walk and whose limbs were deformed from doing little else, other than lying in their chainlink cribs.

Despite the clinical conditions the children live in, Walker said she is encouraged by changes made at this orphanage in the past five years.

“The difference I saw between 1998 and now is amazing,” Walker said. The facility was cleaner and had fewer children than before.

The children had more toys, more things to do but still receive minimal interaction from the caregivers, Walker said.

This year’s photos offer hope. The children, all with closely cropped hair are more active. The camera captured their curious looks, although Walker isn’t sure if they are a she or he.

Still her stories are more bitter than sweet.

On the second week of the trip the team worked at the Hegel Street Placement Center with five, 4-year-old boys. The boys had been placed in isolation for 28 days because they had been moved from another placement center.

“All of them were in diapers, none of them talked, none of them fed themselves,” Walker said. Two of the boys were developmentally disabled and one was nearly blind.

Other than being changed and fed three times a day, the boys had not had contact with other people in weeks.

“Every time we took them back to the isolation room, it was like we were putting them back in jail,” Walker said.

The team performed physical and play therapy with the boys and near the end of the trip took three of the boys outside to play.

“It was like the first time they walked on dirt or grass,” she said. The motion of the swings and other children playing frightened the children at first.

After a while the children’s curiosity replaced the fear and they explored their surroundings.

The effects of Romania’s orphanages don’t just mar children, but also teens — particularly young women, Walker said.

Her team visited a girls orphanage for Easter. When the van they were in entered the grounds, the girls mobbed it.

“Most of these girls were born normal. They weren’t normal anymore, they were wild,” she said.

Many looked and acted like boys in order to protect themselves from the other girls. Sixteen and 18-year-old girls rocked back and forth the way the babies had at the other centers.

Despite the daunting task of humanizing a generation of children, Walker believes every trip helps, whether it is a drop in the bucket or in an ocean.

“I believe everyone has a heart for something in their lives,” she said.

“This seems to be what God has placed on my heart.”

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