On Improving the Lives of Romanian Orphans

After the fall of communism in Romania, more than 100,000 orphans were found in decrepit, state-run institutions. They were the result of Ceausescu's initiatives to increase population size. Other children were abandoned later in childhood, due to a breakdown in the family unit. What happened to these children along the way, when the media attention died down, when the adoptions disappeared? And how did I, an American citizen of almost three decades, long removed from the hardships of that part of the world, get swept up in all this? What possessed me to go beyond my very comfortable life in West Hollywood and get so deeply involved in these children's lives?

In 1983, at the age of fifteen, I emigrated from Romania to the United States with my parents and older sister. We came here legally, at a time when the Eastern-European countries were still under Communist rule. As émigrés, our home was confiscated by the government and, even worse, our citizenship was revoked. Our journey became a one way ticket, a passage with no return. We arrived in Salt Lake City with $500 and four suitcases. After generations of hard work, we were starting from scratch, gambling on the idyllic notions of freedom and opportunity. What followed was ten years of hard work for pure survival and a great deal of effort to obtain a college education. These years taught me not only the fundamental importance of education but humility- that there were things in life beyond material comfort and status.

By the fall of 2002, I was educated, married, blessed with two healthy children and possessed a social and financial platform I was happy to put to use. With my heart in my throat before a roomful of people in our home in Los Angeles, I launched the Blue Heron Foundation. We wanted to make a difference in the lives of Romanian orphans through education and so, throughout the years, our program has awarded college scholarships that covered college tuition for the students we have taken under our wing, paid for educational-professional courses and awarded monthly stipends to cover their essentials.

Besides the financial support, the program has a personal transformation component in an effort to strengthen the quality of self-empowerment, cultivate life skills, but most importantly, help open and strengthen their hearts. We've strived to accomplish this with the help of psychologists who are part of our team, through carefully chosen mentors -all fluent in Romanian, living all over the world-, individuals who have served as role models and guides, who were there for each one of them with advice, with encouragement or as nonjudgmental listeners. Our students have written monthly journals about their challenges and wins, their fears and the things they are grateful for. They have also completed hundreds of hours of required volunteer work in an effort to learn about the value of giving back as well as gain experience in the area of their studies. Every year we have about 90 students under our wing, of which about a tenth attend medical school. The toddlers who were once tied to the crib, the same ones who had a line next to their mother's and father's names in their birth certificate, the children who once society was ready to discard, somehow, through some miracle or chance, crossed paths with us and are now graduating as medical doctors, as accountants, lawyers or social workers. To date, about 250 students graduated from our program, the majority of them with masters degrees.

I do not consider myself a social activist. I, along with a talented team and many generous supporters, have simply decided, over more than a dozen years and with very little fanfare, to carry on the torch for those who, as victims of political or family circumstances, are too young and vulnerable to do it on their own.

Since 2002, we've raised and invested over $1,300,000 to better the lives of 2,900 children, attracted over 830 donors (mostly Angelenos) and almost 400 volunteers, who donated more than 13,000 hours of their time. We are one of the very few organizations who gives 100% of the money received directly to the students we help, because the founders cover all administrative expenses. We've also been able to make small amounts of money go a really long way, thanks to the work of our many mentors and volunteers.

For those who are called to make a quiet, but profound and long-term difference in the world, Blue Heron has given them the opportunity to be part of such a community. Let's get others excited about uplifting humanity, in no matter how small or quiet a way, but always with sincerity and joy in our hearts.