Taking the Shoeboxes to Romania, January 2013

In early January 2013 a team, mostly from Cumbria, distributed shoeboxes from South Cumbria to children in Roma communities in north west Romania.  Each day we loaded up the trailer with shoebox cartons from the warehouse, and they were towed behind our minibus to villages about an hour away in all directions from the city of Oradea. Tarmac roads became tracks, tracks became muddy swamps.Romania Distribution 710  Houses became huts, brick huts became huts built of compacted mud and straw, held up with wooden slats and bits of plastic sheeting in an attempt to weatherproof them.


As we approached, children appeared from nowhere, running towards us.  They crowded round and waited excitedly while the list of names was read and the shoeboxes given out.Romania Distribution 071 Some had made a special effort to wear best clothes, others had no best clothes, just an assortment of ill fitting garments, often inadequate for the winter weather.  Parents and grandparents showed their gratitude with hugs, smiles and handshakes.

Boxes under their arms, the children took us by the hand and led us to their homes. The level of poverty was shocking.  An outer porch, then a door leading into just one room, often furnished with just a large couch, covered with an assortment of blankets.  This picture says it allSometimes, but not always, there was a rickety old cupboard or two. Some families took pride in their colourful pictures and wall hangings, and a bit of old lino on the floor, but many had earth floors.  No running water, no kitchen, no bathroom, maybe a plastic washing up bowl to wash, make bread and wash pots and clothes in.  Few cookery utensils, just a large soup or stew pot, and maybe a frying pan.  Overhead cables brought a simple electric light to each property.  One good thing was that most of the homes were warmed by a wood burning stove, with a flat top for cooking.

The welcome, warmth and hospitality we received from these desperately poor people was overwhelming.  Their eyes shone with delight at the shoebox gifts.  The children just couldn’t take in the generosity within their boxes – having looked at the contents they carefully repacked them, too much to take in all at once.  Many of the simplest gifts meant little to them – they had never seen anything like it. Romania Distribution 583 Our cameras were a mystery, but they loved to have their photos taken, and their faces lit up to see themselves.  Some children had obviously never had a mirror, so they didn’t understand the photos at first.

In other villages, the shoebox distribution took place in the church.  As we went in, we met with a sea of excited, smiling faces, and will always Romania Distribution 800remember how moving (as well as deafening!) it was to hear the children singing their hearts out to us and reciting the Lord’s Prayer at the tops of their voices, all from memory, even children as young as about three.

Two villages seemed particularly desperate.  We bought huge quantities of potatoes, rice, pasta, bread, beans, oil, margarine, salami, flour and sugar, bagged it up and returned to every family in one village.  For the other village we made up bags of donated clothing from the warehouse. Romania Distribution 299 It was here where, as I picked up a small boy, there was a clunk on the ground as his shoes fell off.  They were mismatched ladies’ boots, 2 right feet. That is how it is in these forgotten places.

At one distribution was a young girl waiting patiently for her box. She wore an assortment of thin cast-offs.  We took her hand and went to her home at the far end of the village.  Earth floor, nothing but a bed covered in filthy rags.  Father and 2 other chldren, no sign of mother.  Mortality rates are very high, so there probably wasn’t one.

We thought this was the most desperate we had seen – until the following day when we found a young woman and her baby in a mud hut with holes in the walls.  The woman was trembling with cold, the baby was crying.Romania Distribution 764  She gave her a bottle, but it was empty.  Only a straw mattress covered with rags.   No heating.  She couldn’t afford wood. We gave her blankets, clothes and food, and as we left, the 5 month old, tiny baby was sucking desperately on a banana.  They were expecting temperatures of -15 degrees.

So ……….the shoeboxes are fantastic for these children, and bring a lot of joy.  Yes, they make a difference.  But could we do a bit more?  We hope so, with  our own charity, Boxes of Hope, Cumbria, and an excellent link with People2People, a Christian charity run by an amazing Romanian couple, Nicu and Miha Gal.  Food and clothing … and shoeboxes …. help, but are not a solution.   This will take generations, but education is the start.  Few Roma children go to school. Much work has already been done with foreign aid in building a pre-school in a village called Alparea.  Romania Distribution 870It is a super place, giving children of up to 17 years of age their first opportunity to learn how to read and write.  There need to be more places like this.  If a school is requested, the Government says it is not needed.  If it is then built by a charity, and run for 4 years, the Government has to accept that it is needed, and they take over the funding.

If you are interested in helping, please contact us on info@boxesofhopecumbria.co.uk