Lenuta (right) makes sure her son Darius' cup is full of milk, but she and her family are proud to also share their milk with other children in need.
Lenuta (right) makes sure her son Darius' cup is full of milk, but she and her family are proud to also share their milk with other children in need.

By Katya Cengel, World Ark contributor
Photos by Geoff Oliver Bugbee

MARCESTI, ROMANIA — Lenuta Rocas was 25 when she heard her first words. They were those of her six-year-old daughter, Natalia.

“Mommy, do you hear me?”

Rocas has been hearing impaired since infancy and only last year received a hearing aid. She still marvels at the beauty of sound, smiling at the jingle of an animal’s locating bell in Marcesti, a Transylvanian village about an hour-and- a-half drive outside the northwestern Romanian metropolis of Cluj-Napoca. “I am happy to hear everything, even this little bell,” she said.

It was a chilly winter day and Natalia and her two-year-old brother, Darius, were wrapped in so many layers they looked as if they might tumble down the hill like snowballs. Their father, Adrian, not yet 30 and handsome, stood atop a haystack. In summer he earns about $10 a day as a farmhand. Lenuta makes $40 a month sewing tablecloths. It took them two years to save for her $400 hearing aid.

They survive on what they grow—potatoes and vegetables. Protein came only after they received a cow from Heifer Romania in March 2012, and then another in early 2013. Now Darius’ bottle is always filled with milk. But they don’t drink all their milk. And they don’t sell it either. They give a portion away to orphans.

The milk donation is a key component of the Heifer Milk for Orphans project through which they received their cows. The program builds on an earlier project, Farmers Feed the Children, which required that Heifer cow recipients provide either milk or meat to child-care institutions such as hospitals and orphanages. It is one of several dual beneficiary programs, including a water buffalo revitalization project linking a Hungarian and Romanian village, that Heifer hopes will teach communities how to rely on each other instead of the government.

Romania may be a member of the European Union, but it remains separated from the West, especially in the rural areas that make up half the country, said Heifer Romania Country Director Ovidiu Spinu.

Ruled by the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu from 1965 to 1989, Romania was the only Eastern-bloc country to violently overthrow its government and execute its leader. The deplorable conditions in Romania’s orphanages were a media focus following the collapse of the Soviet system. The majority of the country’s Roma people, who account for about 10 percent of the population, live in extreme poverty. For more than 40 years Romania was linked to the East and is still grappling with the legacy of communism under which people expected the state to solve their problems.

“During Communist times the motivation (to improve our communities) was not existing,” said Spinu. “We were always waiting for someone to tell us what to do.” The answer is there in the community, he said. Heifer is just helping people to find it.

Anna, 11, relishes the yogurt break the children get each day at her orphanage in Cluj-Napoca, Romania.
Anna, 11, relishes the yogurt break the children get each day at her orphanage in Cluj-Napoca, Romania.

The Romanian orphan problem is another legacy of communism and Ceausescu. In an effort to increase the birth rate, Ceausescu prohibited abortion in a country where other forms of birth control were largely unavailable. With few other options, those who could not afford to care for their children abandoned them. State orphanages were ill-equipped to handle the influx. Even after the fall of communism, both the abandonment of children and inadequate funding of orphanages remained issues.

When Heifer Romania began the Farmers Feed the Children program in 2001, orphanages served tea instead of milk, Spinu said. Dairy coming from Heifer’s Milk for Orphans program, which expands on the earlier Farmers Feed the Children model, is still often the only protein the children receive. At a government institution for 47 youth with mental disabilities in north Cluj-Napoca, the state provides the equivalent of $3 a day per child. At 90 cents a carton, yogurt is not in the budget, said director Jucan Gianina. Before Heifer began providing the institution with dairy products in 2001, the children ate rice, potatoes and polenta. Now they have milk with breakfast and dinner and yogurt in the afternoon.

“In past we had some children being malnourished, and their improvement was visible after the protein from the milk,” Gianina said.

Like many of the young people in the institution, Elena Lavinia Motrocean is Romani. Although she is 25, she is curious like a small child. Quite a few of the youth at the center are officially adults, but their mental and physical disabilities make them dependent on care. With few alternatives, they remain in the orphanage where they have been since their youth. Motrocean was underweight when she arrived at the institution 10 years before. She is still slight, but not from lack of eating. In return for answering Gianina’s questions, Motrocean negotiated a favorite food at the facility, yogurt with cereal, and kicked her legs back and forth in anticipation.

Seven-year-old Cristi lives in an orphanage with 21 other children who are supported with milk and yogurt from Heifer Romania.
Seven-year-old Cristi lives in an orphanage with 21 other children who are supported with milk and yogurt from Heifer Romania. He has been at the orphanage since age 4, when his grandmother abandoned him at a market.

At snack time in a small private orphanage in another part of Cluj-Napoca, youth as young as five and as old as 25 scrambled to the kitchen. After grabbing a yogurt and crackers from the main table, they settled themselves on the kitchen’s benches. Seven-year-old Cristi placed a dollop of yogurt on the tip of his nose and tried to reach it with his tongue. He was four years old when he was brought to the orphanage, a converted home that serves 22 street children.

The fate and whereabouts of his parents are unknown, said János Molnár, whose family runs the orphanage. Cristi’s grandmother left him in the market. Nicu’s father is alive, but uninterested in caring for his children, according to Molnár. Nicu is 11, and like Cristi, has been at the orphanage since he was four years old. A studious boy, he answered without hesitation when asked where the orphanage got its milk.

“A cow,” he said.

When asked again Nicu replied, “the milkman.”

Molnár knows it is more complicated, but still far simpler and more reliable than the convoluted bureaucratic process he used to have to go through to attempt to obtain government help to get milk.

“From the very beginning when we had the possibility to have milk (through Heifer), here is a miracle,” he said.

That was in 2001 with Farmers Feed the Children, a program that has since ended, though many former participants continue to donate milk and dairy products. A decade later, orphanages were still struggling, so Heifer Romania and its partner organization, Bothar Ireland, developed Milk for Orphans. Bothar Ireland supplied the program with 136 purebred Friesian heifers via two different airlifts.

One hundred cows went to families in the impoverished Carpathian region of Transylvania, and 36 went to Felix Family Village for orphans. Each family who received a cow is required to donate about 80 gallons of milk a year. The families regularly take the milk to a local collecting point where it is measured and noted then taken to a dairy to be processed and turned into cheese, yogurt and other products that are then delivered to a dozen orphanages in Cluj-Napoca. From the beginning, Spinu said, farmers “gave more than the contract and obligation because they wanted to assist the children more.”

Siblings Cassandra, 10, Samil, 1, and Daniel, 5, arrive in time for yogurt from a Heifer delivery.
Siblings Cassandra, 10, Samil, 1, and Daniel, 5, arrive in time for yogurt from a Heifer delivery. Read more about the struggles faced by other children like them.

It is not an easy choice. The farmers are not wealthy, and the extra milk can provide needed income. Lenuta Rocas lives in a one-room home that belongs to her brother. She has her own home but does not have the money to make it habitable. It will cost $400 to wire the place for electricity. A stack of old tiles is piled in the “kitchen,” a room she dreams of painting pink. The “bedroom” has a dirt ?oor, an anvil and a large stack of wood. If Rocas didn’t donate milk, she could save for the repairs. But she doesn’t resent her obligation.

“I don’t mind if I can help,” she said. “At least I have my children with me, what would have happened if those (orphans) were my children?” 

Milk is not just for yogurt; many families use to to make homemade cheese. Visit the World Ark blog to learn how to make cheese with a Romanian grandma!