Giving back has been an essential part of Biggs’ vision since the beginning, and many of us exemplify that in our commitment to volunteer efforts in our own lives. Our CEO Greg went on a trip to Romania this summer to serve at the Camp of the Good Shepherd – he sat down with our team member Zoe to tell us more.
Z: Can you tell me a bit about the purpose of the trip?
G: There’s an organization called Heart of Hope Ministries International – a Vancouver-based nonprofit started by Debbie Marshall and her father after she went over to adopt a child in Romania back in the ‘90s. She saw the plight of all these other orphans that weren’t getting adopted and it broke her heart. So they started this foundation and ended up building a private orphanage that housed about sixty kids – a better alternative to state facilities. Ultimately though, for a variety of reasons including the EU’s preference for foster care, Heart of Hope no longer has that orphanage, but in its place they developed a couple other programs. They facilitate American volunteer dental, pediatric therapy and optometry teams, as well as a Christmas and Easter program. They also have a transition home for young women 18 and over leaving the orphanage system and young women from impoverished communities. One special program is a summer camp, Camp of the Good Shepherd. It’s located outside of Sibiu, Romania, up in the hills; camp takes place over about 12 weeks in the Summer, where they bring about 50 kids a week from the different state placement centers. It’s a Christian-based camp so there’s bible teaching, and there’s lots of food and games and crafts, and free time – soccer out on the field – and there’s a small river that goes by that we try (with mixed success) to keep them out of.
I was with a team of Americans – there’s a volunteer team from the US that goes, and then we’re paired up with a volunteer team from Romania. The Romanian team translates for us; they’re in charge of teaching during the day, and we’re in charge of the crafts and games and we have a set time in the evening when we’ll present testimonies and do some singing and things like that. So you have two groups of volunteers; we had six people on our team and then the Romanian team numbers varied but it was between seven or eight. Mostly 17- to 24-year-old Romanian young ladies, except for one week they were joined by a gentleman who was probably around 30.
Z: And you’ve been out there before, is that right?
G: It was my fifth year at camp and my son Connor went with me for the first time – my daughter Emily has been with me a couple times and my wife Karen has been once, and my entire family (minus Connor because he wasn’t with us yet) went over in the year 2000 to Heart of Hope’s original private orphanage, and we worked there for two weeks which allowed the staff to have some time off. These days, for camp, we work with special-needs orphanages (or, more aptly, placement centers – more on that later) so these were kids that had some challenges, but none were severely disabled. But behaviorally a very challengin g group of kids in both cases, and the second week was especially tough since we had twice as many.
So: they’re not really orphanages, because all of the children are not orphans, technically. You have families who were encouraged to have all these kids but then couldn’t financially provide for them, and so they would put them in these centers; then in the summertime some might come and get them and work them in the fields, and in the fall they’d bring them back. And when these kids hit age 18, 19, 20 – boom, they’re out, and that’s it. Now if they’re seriously handicapped they might go into a hospital’s care, but most of these kids are pretty functional and they often times wind up on the street.
Z: Dovetailing on that a little, what can people here in Vancouver do to raise awareness about this population or to help out the organization that makes it all possible?
G: Heart of Hope holds a benefit dinner and silent auction event every fall (this year’s is on October 20th at the World Forestry Center in Portland) where they often bring someone over from Romania to speak. Attendance is free and everyone is invited and can register online at www.heartofhope.org. Contributions to the silent auction are always appreciated, and people can contact Debbie at email@example.com to donate. Debbie, who as I mentioned is the group’s founder, is really the best resource for what kind of help is most pressingly needed; she’s over in Romania four to five months out of the year – she’s at summer camp every day – and all the foundation’s programs need continuous funding as they’re always facing new challenges. When Romania joined the EU, for instance, suddenly you had all these regulations that hadn’t existed before – places like the Camp had to have a formal commercial kitchen… well, Debbie had to raise money for that. Then she had to put in certain kinds of bunk beds, had to limit it to only four per cabin, had to put in a commercial dishwasher – she has a constant financial need. People here locally can donate money ($65 sends one child from a placement center to camp for a week), or you can also volunteer to be a part of a team that goes over. Or you can just spread the word – you can visit their website at the link above and they also have a Facebook page.
Z: What were one or two moments that really demonstrated to you that you were making a difference?
G: For one, I had been with this same group of kids about five years ago, so it was great to reunite with some of them. I spent time with the boys and would sometimes play soccer with them – but thanks to raising four teenage daughters, I tend to also easily form bonds with some of the teen ladies. There were a couple girls that I remembered spending time and chatting with during my first visit. So when I arrived at camp that first day, one of those young ladies was there and she looked up and saw me and – well, it was a really nice surprise and a great moment… and we just kind of reconnected. By the end of the second week, I had three or four primarily older teen girls that were hanging around just wanting hugs and being nutty like teen kids can be.
What you find is, if you go a couple times, the kids start to then trust that you truly care. You’re not just showing up to check a box – you actually do care, you’re back again. But you never want to promise you’re coming back. If you say “I’ll be back next year!” but then life gets in the way and you don’t show up, it’s a big disappointment. Thinking back over all my return trips, in a couple cases it took three years before some of the older boys would drop their guard and share with you. So the really special times, for me, have been when you can see a recognition that you’re invested in them.
And the other thing is that the kids are accompanied by staff from the care facilities and these are people that are with them all the time, which can be exhausting. We oftentimes have as much impact on the hearts of the staff as we do on the kids! For instance, this year, an older gentleman was there – he was maybe around 70 – and he started out pretty stone-faced but at the end of the week he was like “Oh, you guys are great, you really love these kids.” He was just totally blown away by that. It was very touching to see, and oftentimes I think it helps the staff to recognize that others care about these kids so they can remember to do the same.
Z: Yeah, because social worker burnout is a totally real thing whether you’re here or elsewhere…
G: Right, exactly. You can imagine working in a facility like that – they’re tough kids and they’re pushing you all the time, but seeing them in a different context and watching them build relationships with other people is a breath of fresh air for their caretakers.
Z: What was your favorite piece of architecture, or public art, or park – anything scenic that comes to mind?
G: Well, you know the Dracula legend comes out of the Transylvania region of Romania where Sibiu is located, and there was a count who resided in the area by the name of Vlad Dracul; kind of the prototypical Dracula, but he was a real guy, and he was a good guy from a Romanian standpoint – he actually battled their enemies and was a fairly benevolent ruler. So you can go and see his castle; it’s about 100 miles northeast of Sibiu. We also spent a day at an outdoor museum with models of historic Romanian homes and farms, and the Sibiu town square is really beautiful and a great place to grab a bite and people-watch.
Z: Any local delicacies you enjoyed while there?
G: This part of Romania has a heavy German influence – in fact most of the cities in the area have German names as well as Romanian names, so Sibiu is also called Hermannstadt, and I didn’t know that when I first went over there, but the cultures are highly connected and a lot of people speak both languages. So schnitzel… we had a lot of schnitzel. We also get really good food at the camp; that’s one of the highlights for the kids, because they don’t get such good food at their center – and they get a lot of it, and we don’t hold ‘em back!
Z: You did some just-for-fun travel after Romania; give me some highlights from that.
G: After camp was over, Connor and I flew to Edinburgh, where we spent three nights; highlights from that visit include going up to Loch Ness – we went out on a boat and scouted for
Nessie… we didn’t find her but we gave it a shot. That was pretty cool because I’d never been in the Highlands area. Another highlight was that my niece and her husband and their young son had been living in Edinburgh for a couple years, so we got to have dinner with them. Sort of an ongoing highlight was that Connor was able to legally drink beer there, so we were able to share a few beers on the trip. After Edinburgh we went to London and stayed near the Paddington Station area; we walked along the Thames one morning and visited the H.M.S Belfast, which is a WWII-era cruiser and we got to go inside – we both really enjoyed that, being guys.
Z: Anything else you’d like to add?
G: Just that my heart aches for these kids because I know for a fact that camp tends to be the highlight of their year, and I also know for a fact that for some kids, it’s the highlight of their life. And when they hit eighteen and get kicked out of the system, they don’t have a lot of prospects… there’s a phrase in scripture called “the least of these,” where Jesus says that at the end of times, whatever you did for the least of these, “you did unto me.” That’s how I describe these kids. Many have Gypsy heritage, which already makes you a second-class citizen in Romania… then on top of that they’re often disabled in some way, which demotes you even further to a third-class citizen… so they’re the bottom of the bottom.
That’s the part that gets to me, is that as much as I think we’re giving them a great experience and showing them that they’re loved and trying to tell them about Jesus, they’ve just got a tough lot in life. It pains me knowing that in some cases, they just have no hope and no chances. One example I can give you is that Debbie had a young girl in the transition home who was quite dark-skinned, so she obviously had Gypsy lineage, and she got a job in a local market. She was harassed every day, she was called names every day, she was treated badly every day, and she just kept her head down and kept her mouth shut because this was an opportunity for her and she wasn’t gonna blow it. She worked there for a number of years and then she got a job at a local manufacturing plant; now she’s moved into her own apartment, but she was discriminated against every step of the way. And that’s the best these kids can hope for, is to be treated like that, so it’s difficult. It was a good experience for Connor, though… and the fact that there were young ladies there his own age didn’t hurt.