Romania: a Transformational Mission

The following is a write-up    of my week-long service trip in Romania earlier this summer. I went on this  missions trip with my church youth group and worked through an organization called RCE.  Enjoy!

Days 1 and 2- Friday and Saturday

My first adventure outside the states commenced with an impossibly long, mind-twisting day of travel, starting on July 20 and ending late the next day. After meeting up with the other 12 members of my youth group and passing all the checkpoints, I left Dulles International Airport at around 11 PM. But for Romania, it was already 6 AM on Saturday, so none of us could figure out whether to sleep on our six-hour flight to London. I decided to take advantage of the plane’s free movies and saw Game Night, then napped for a couple hours. We spend another couple hours in London’s Heathrow Airport, then boarded a two-hour flight headed to Budapest, Hungary. This time, I slept through the entire flight. We touched down in Hungary around 7 PM their time, around noon back in DC.

Though I had already been on a couple flights before, I was awestruck at the experience of transatlantic travel. Looking out the plane window at the European countries that I had heard about and tracking the plane’s path on a monitor was oddly interesting to me, as was the plane’s movie and food amenities. But after eight hours of flying, another five in the airport, and a three-hour car ride to the Sunshine School in Romania (all on four hours sleep), I was feeling the effects.

Day 3- Sunday

Sunday morning was the most relaxed day of the trip, spent doing fun activities, tourism and resting. In the morning, we joined the kids from the Sunshine School and the staff of Romanian Christian Enterprises (RCE) for a Sunday School service. The kids in the Sunshine School were about two dozen children who had disabilities and/or came from turbulent family situations and were under the care of RCE. A portion of these children were non-verbal. During the service, we sang songs in English and some in Romanian, as well as listened to a Bible story and a testimony of one of the Sunshine School children and another of an RCE intern. The story of the young boy, around nine years old, was powerful. He came from a large family and his father often came home drunk. The father physically abused the mother and children, and when the boy tried to stand up against his father, he was beaten.  He was taken in by RCE, which gave him a home and an education. 

Following the service, lunch and a couple hours of free time, our leader and RCE director Ovi drove us into Arad to see the city. We walked around the heart of the city as Ovi provided insights into some of the magnificent structures, including the picturesque town hall and the astounding Basilican church. He also bought us soft pretzels and McDonald’s which had opened over 10 years before and was immensely popular with the locals.

In the evening, we played sports along with the kids from the Sunshine School. First I joined in on a six-on-six volleyball game, with teams made up of my youth group friends, RCE staffers and Sunshine School friends. Next I moved onto 3-on-3 soccer. I knew soccer was tremendously popular in Romania but had not played since elementary school. Though my skills were rusty, my many World Cup viewings and basic knowledge of the game were enough to enjoy playing with the kids.

Spending time with other youth group members was also enjoyable. We held a Connect-Four tournament that lasted for all of Sunday. I didn’t know about this tournament until I was forcefully awakened from a nap to play in the opening round. I won the first game, only to learn that it was best-of-three and then proceed to lose the next two games. Mealtime and periods of downtime were other prime times to bond as a group.

 

 

Day 4- Monday

Monday marked the start of the real work, Friendship Camp. Before our morning departure for camp, I ran into Arad for a ten-mile run. I felt absolutely amazing and enjoyed running through the bustle of the city and then along a bike path next to the Mures river. After eating breakfast, we loaded up our belongings into a bus and were out of the quiet, WiFi-enhanced confines of the Sunshine School on off to camp.

Aside from a short stop at a sunflower field for pictures, the trip to camp was scenic and short. The camp was designed to give kids from low-income families a week of fun activities and teach them life skills, all at no cost to the families. Our first order of business was a meeting with the whole camp to introduce staffers and explain the rules. Ovi gave instructions in Romanian, which were subsequently translated into English, and then we brought our belongings into our tents. Friendship Camp was styled like the American Wild West, with boys sleeping in teepee tents and girls in covered wagons. I teamed up with my friend Sam White as leaders for the Crow cabin, which had six campers ranging between 9-12 years old.

Communicating with campers was an interesting and oftentimes challenging experience. Some campers, including two in my tent (Rasvi and Matei), could speak English. But a majority of the campers could not, especially the younger campers. We learned quickly to communicate through thumbs up, high-fives, fist bumps, and sometimes translators. Over time, we learned some basic expressions (“ce este” for “what is this”) and cognates (fotbol) that made crossing the language barrier less troublesome. Learning names also helped bridge the gap.

Most of the afternoon was spent on the sports fields of the camp, which was about the size of a park. I played a bit of Frisbee and soccer and horsed around on an obstacle course, but mainly taught the campers a bit of basketball and had a great time testing out different dribbling maneuvers on them. The hoops were low enough that I could dunk on them, which made the two-on-two games and shootarounds kid-friendly and fun. By dinnertime at seven, I was already exhausted, and we still had another four hours until bedtime.

Service time in the mornings and afternoons was another important aspect of camp. RCE staffers led the children in a couple of Romanian songs and then let us “Americanos” lead three or four songs in English. To my surprise, the Romanian campers sang along with us (even if they did not understand) and us “Americanos” tried their songs. Mixed in were Bible passages, testimonies, skits and games.

Along with the new sights and sounds, There were plenty of new tastes at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Liver paste was one memorable addition to the menu, while different soups, teas, and meats expanded my culinary horizons. Occasional treats and bread loaves were definitely my favorites. I was also thankful that my mom had advised me to bring snacks, though it was difficult to restrain from eating all of the crackers and gummies stored in my backpack at once.

 

 

 

Day 5- Tuesday

The second day of camp started off early and in memorable fashion. I planned to run into the nearby town Sistarovat a mile away and woke up at 5:40 in the morning. One of the other guys from my youth group, Mark, begged me to let him join me and I begrudgingly allowed him to tag along. So we set off, unaware of the adventure that awaited us.

The first signs of trouble were the mounds of thick mud that served as the road leading out of the camp. My Brooks running shoes were quickly submerged in muck, and Mark wanted to turn around. We persisted and made it a mile down the path into the town.

Once we made it into the town, the run was very nice. Roosters crowed and chickens walked about in the peaceful village. The houses were small and a bit rundown, and I could tell that this was no U.S. town. Still, I enjoyed running on the paved street as the sun came up, music blaring from my phone. Mark, on the other hand, was starting to tire out.

My original plan was to run three miles out and three more back. Mark stopped at 2.5 miles and I ran a bit extra to give him a break while still adding on some mileage. We regrouped after that, and suddenly we heard a loud barking and saw a dog in the distance cutting through a field after us. Partly in fear and partly to motivate Mark to speed up, I broke into a sprint and yelled at Mark that the dog would bite him. He sped up but was so tired that he gave up and slowed back to a walk, but thankfully a rare passing car gave us an opportunity to put distance between us and the canine. But the biggest storm clouds loomed ahead.

 

We arrived back in town at 6:20 with plenty of time to get back in camp for our 7:00 meeting. Mark slowed down to almost a walk and said that he couldn’t run anymore. I knew that I should’ve run solo, but I had to work with what I had. I made sure to stick with him so that I wouldn’t lose him. The trouble was, we couldn’t quite remember the way that we came. There were dozens of paths leading back into the mountains, and those paths divided into more paths.

Battling exhaustion, we tried any possible avenue, each ending in frustration when we realized that it didn’t look quite right. We were in a foreign village, with no directions and no one who spoke English. I said “engleza” to anyone that happened to be awake and outside, but they looked at me like I was from another planet. Time ticked by and I watched helplessly as 7:00 came and passed. I could only imagine what the staff and my youth group friends were thinking. My GPS watch shut off after six miles, and my phone had no service or internet. To say the least, we were in a pickle.

I ran back into town at around 7:20, Mark moaning and trudging along behind me. A couple adults were sitting outside a store and I gestured for a phone. Thankfully, the owners knew some English, and even better, they knew one of the RCE staffers and got me in contact with him. The RCE guy told me to follow the power lines up the mountain trail, and once I told Mark, I set off for the uphill climb. My lips were parched and my legs were wasted, but I took solace in knowing that I was going in the right direction. Ten minutes later, I was back at camp, utterly drained and completely grateful to be back.

In comparison, the rest of the day was a breeze. In a US-Romania exhibition soccer game, we won 2-1 in front of the younger campers and the RCE staff. Since my shoes were unrecognizable under all of the mud, I came in barefoot and was relegated to goalie. The Romanians scored on me 20 seconds into the game, but after that strike our stout defense prevented any more balls from coming close to the goal.

A bonfire at night was a great time to relax from the day’s excitement. Once it got dark outside around 9:00, we gathered by a fire and campers sang songs in front of the group. I was particularly impressed by a boy played the accordion with his siblings, and also by the courage of all of the kids to stand up and sing before the group. Some campers sang hymns, even ones in English that we taught them in services. After the fires, it was at last time to go to bed.

Bedtime was one part of the schedule that I looked forward to every day, and for more reasons than just to rest. On Tuesday night, Sam and I told the campers to be extra quiet as the RCE staff passed by. Then, we snuck four of the other youth group guys into our tent and watched episodes of the TV show The Office that were downloaded onto Sam’s phone. We had a few scares when we heard the footsteps of RCE staffers, prompting us to hide the other guys under the bunk beds until the threats abated. The episodes were riotously funny, but even more than that I loved spending the late nights with the guys.

 

Day 6- Wednesday

My Wednesday run (a five-miler) was much smoother than the disaster of the previous day, though some stray animals made it interesting. The most popular events of the day were the trip into town and a water gun fight. The campers used spending money at one of the shops in the town (which happened to be the one that saved me on Tuesday) and we ate our treats at a nice playground. A water slide and ensuing US-Romania water war served as the main activities for the afternoon and left me totally muddy and damp.

As we got to know campers better, I drew interesting and unexpected comparisons between the US and Romanian cultures. For example, I had the largest family (being the oldest of five) of any of the youth group guys, but it was common for the campers to come from families of more than ten kids. One girls tent had four siblings itself. Another one was that many of teh children wore clothes with English on them and I had no idea what they meant, such as the four Yankees hats I saw and a ton of Lightning McQueen apparel. I noticed that every kid seemed to know soccer players such as Messi and Ronaldo, but virtually nobody had heard of a “LeBron James.”

The campers seemed to pick up some things from us Americanos as well. We couldn’t tell if the kids were using any Romanian profanities, but they didn’t shy away from English words that would be censored on TV. They called our youth group leader Stefan “John Cena,” after the WWE wrestler who was apparently more widely known than one LeBron James. The campers also teased us leaders about love interests and gestured hearts to indicate that they thought a couple was in love, and the rumors about prospective American couples that spread amongst the Romanians made us chuckle.

Among all of the aspects of Romanian culture that I experienced, my favorite was the games. After a campwide stretching session prior to breakfast, Ovi told me that in Romania, many of the kids learned more to be active and general games than specializing in one sport. Of course, soccer was their favorite. I learned a game that was the soccer equivalent to basketball’s knockout and I loved it. In the game, one camper would be the goalie defending against penalty kicks. The other players stood in a line a bunch of meters away and took turns attempting their kicks. If a player scored a goal, the next player needed to score or they would be eliminated. Early on, I couldn’t squeeze any kicks past the goalie, who was half my size. But as the line shortened, I knocked a couple in with my bare right foot. At the end, I was pitted against one of the kids named Manu who was from my tent. Whenever I made a shot, Manu answered, and we kept making shots until Manu finally missed after four straight makes. I was impressed with the campers and eager to bring the game back to the States.

 

Day 7- Thursday

Thursday’s US-Romania soccer game was a match we’d talked about for weeks. The atmosphere was as crazy as advertised with screaming Romanian children and 90 minutes of exciting soccer. Before the game, each side sang their national anthem and was decked out in their country’s colors. Both teams had a competitive mentality, with the Romanians aiming to defend their home turf and the Americans looking to win over the crowd. We scored some support from the home crowd when we threw USA hats, sunglasses, and poms to the kids and led “USA” chants. With perfect weather and a freshly-cut field, the USA-Romania game looked to be a classic.

Most of our positions stayed the same from the US-Romania exhibition, though I moved up to defender and my buddy Austin Smith switched to goalie. In the opening minutes the two teams were locked at zero, but Romania ended the drought with an excellent goal from the left side. Even as the Romanians cheered, we had confidence in our ability. Nathan Vendt, the hero of the last game, knocked in a goal to answer Romania and the halftime score was one-apiece.

In the second half, tensions flared and the offenses heated up. A “USA, go away” chant started in the crowd and drew laughs. On the field, our youth group leader Stefan hotly debated calls with referee Ovi, in addition to screaming out commands across the field and encouraging good plays. I moved up to forward and blasted a couple solid crosses, though my soccer inexperience was on full display. Nevertheless, USA pulled away with two more goals and secured a 3-1 victory. The Romanians were great sports in defeat, shaking our hands and gifting us with a Romanian flag to hang in our church.

But the greatest thrill of the day, and perhaps of the already exciting week, was an excursion for the youth group to visit the ruins of a centuries-old Romanian castle. It sat at the top of a steep hill and was more in ruin than in condition. The enthusiastic Ovi explained its history to us as we snapped pictures on our phones. Though much of its original infrastructure was in ruins, there was a lot that resembled an actual castle. Then, to our great surprise, Ovi encouraged us to climb it.

We were shocked, maybe even more so when Stefan and high school director Taylor Davis led the charge instead of holding us back. The pathways on the walls were narrow, there were large drops and moving rocks, and the walls rose a good 50 feet above the ground. But most of us embraced the challenge and took full advantage of the breathtaking views.

The toughest part was at the end, a massive wall with a narrow width. We needed to walk or crawl across the wall and then descend down a rock wall backwards, all over a drop that would lead to serious injury and without any type of protection. We were scared and rightly so, and Ovi’s assurance of “I’ll catch you” did little to help the situation.

There was no turning back once we got to the wall, and to get to safety we needed to have faith. I was clinging to the rock but still acknowledged that it was a deft metaphor for our mission trip and our faith. From saying prayers to taking directions from Ovi, we couldn’t rely on only ourselves. We couldn’t trust parts of the ground either, which tumbled down under our weight. Instead, we trusted and safely reached the ground. The rush of adrenaline replaced our panic and we now had a fantastic feat to boast about.

Both events went smoother than my morning run, which was foiled by a barricade of stray dogs at the town’s border and by my own fatigue. Consequently, I decided to wait until I was back in the states to run. Camp had taken its toll on my body, with physical and mental exhaustion, animal bites, and sores all posing challenges. There were multiple points in the week when I just wanted to be home, only to realize that I was a literal world away. But as Stefan told us in our morning meeting on Thursday, we needed to finish the proverbial race strong and give all that we could in our final days together. Most importantly, we needed to have faith that God would provide.

At first glance, the kids seemed just like kids that I’d find at an American summer camp (language difference aside). They were happy, playful and always seeking attention or someone to push them on the swing. But as the week progressed, I could tell differences as well. The way the kids worked hard and without complaint on tasks such as pulling luggage and cleaning tents was a positive example, but the difference in income also showed. Many kids wore the same outfit every day, and when we offered them free prizes for campfire participation, the items that were taken first were the RCE t-shirts (even if they were way too big). Through testimonies, I learned that many of the kids received help in the form of school supplies, meals and renovations from RCE. In a more extreme case, one boy cried when he flushed the toilet because he had never used a toilet before and was startled by the sound. According to Ovi, he lived an an abandoned house with no electricity with his parents and brother. Though he was a shy kid at first, he seemed to enjoy camp as the week went on and flashed his mischievous smile often. I struggled to wrap my head around how these lives were so much different than mine. It gave me a greater appreciation for my blessings, but more for the work that RCE had been doing in the area for decades. Knowing that we could help these kids through God’s power motivated us in spite of our fatigue and gave us purpose.

Day 8- Friday

Our final day at camp only lasted until noon and gave us one last chance to play with the children. Ovi warned us that some kids tended to misbehave on the last day because they did not want to go home, though in my experience the kids were their buoyant selves. For most of the morning I played the penalty kick soccer game and pushed younger campers on the swings. When our youth group boarded the bus to leave, we breathed a collective sigh of relief but came away impacted and with many memories.

Our relaxing morning was followed by our most physically taxing afternoon of the week. After dropping off a few campers, we were divided into groups and sent to one of two job sites. At mine, we transported sand and cement in wheelbarrows across the yard of one of the RCE homes to help prepare for the construction of a gazebo. Along with eight other guys and girls, I got started right away at 2 PM.

The work was more challenging than expected. I gravitated toward the sand transportation, where we took turns either shoveling the sand into the wheelbarrow or pushing the wheelbarrow across the yard to the foundation of the gazebo. The lifting was difficult, especially going up the ramp to the gazebo base, and each person would do a couple runs and then rotate.

As the hours passed, the sand pile on the driveway looked like it had barely been dented. We did not know when we would be stopping, and we expected to hear some instruction after a couple hours. Fighting exhaustion, we persisted. We knew that the work would reap rewards for the RCE residents, and after the work was complete, we would be able to rest. Four o’clock passed, then 4:30, then five, yet there was no indication we could stop. Sweat turned my shirt a whole new shade of pink. I kept telling myself “just one more” and then pushed the wheelbarrow with all of my might.

By six, I was past exhaustion and now punch-drunk from all the wheelbarrow runs. I struggled to even tip the wheelbarrow over at the gazebo foundation, and on one run I lost control going uphill. I recovered, but I had to pull the wheelbarrow backwards to save it from destroying the wet cement. 6:30, supposedly dinnertime, passed and the guys and I locked in on finishing off the pile of sand. On the final wheelbarrow push, I used all of my physical and mental strength and maneuvered the wheelbarrow across a narrow and half-broken plank and up the hill. Then, Austin and I made a ceremonial final tipping of the sand onto the gazebo foundation. I felt exhausted, relieved, accomplished, and in disbelief that the pile which one seemed massive was now completed. Like running or lifting, those four and a half hours provided me with a test of my abilities, all while aiding the RCE community.

Returning to the refuge of the Sunshine School and its Wi-Fi felt like Christmas morning. We packed our belongings and bought some food at a local gas station for the trip, but other than that we just decompressed before our 16 hours of travel the next day.

 

Day 9- Saturday

We left the Sunshine School at 2:30 AM and I tried to nap as best as possible in the ensuing car and plane rides. Most of the travel was smooth, but our layover in London gave us one final adventure for our trip that, much like the climb on the Romanian castle, ended well but gave us a scare.

The first issue arose from our late arrival at London’s Heathrow Airport, giving us even less time for our already brief margin between flights. Stefan, pushing the wheelchair of one of the RCE interns who was also coming back to the states, told us to run ahead as fast as we could to catch our plane and to tell them to hold while he wheeled the girl over. It was when we reached security that I realized that me my boarding pass, so I had to wait for him before I could pass through. Another girl had the same problem and we waited anxiously together. Once we had the passes, we rushed across the airport to our terminal. Stefan told us to hold the flight, adding to our urgency.

When we reached the boarding station, I found that the fun wasn’t over yet. A security officer pulled me aside as passengers boarded the plane and told me that I had been selected by homeland security for additional testing. Thankfully, it didn’t last too long, and I boarded the plane soon after. Everyone got on the plane before it took off, and enjoyed a peaceful and movie-filled eight-hour flight back to the States.

Stepping foot on American soil (or at least in an American airport) gave us a feeling that defies words. Even better was once we reunited with our parents in the Dulles airport. We were happy to be back, but even happier to have been on such a transformational trip.

 

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