Rural Romania is so beautiful, it can be hard to see the poverty that is staring you right in the face. But make no mistake, it’s there in almost every village; in the orphanages that take in 80,000 to 100,000 abandoned and orphaned children every year; and in the deep lines etched in the faces of farmers who possess a few hectares of land, maybe one horse, a small house, and work like crazy through 5 months of summer to survive the 7 long months of Transylvanian winter, with virtually no way to get ahead or make an income.
So Heifer International, Rotary and Bóthar , a wonderful Irish charity working in Eastern Europe and Africa, decided that things would start to change for these Romanian farmers when cows fly… literally.
Following the success of their predecessor program, Farmers Feed the Children, Heifer & Bothar established Milk for Orphans and air-lifted into Romania 140 pregnant pure-bred Friesian cows (famous for producing copious amounts of milk and beef). These heifers were distributed to the poorest members of rural communities that lie in the hills around Transylvania’s capital of Cluj-Napoca last November and this May.
These farmers will raise the heifers and pass on the first female offspring to another impoverished family. In addition to feeding their own families and having milk to sell for income, the farmers will also provide fresh 300 liters of fresh milk, yogurt, sour cream and cottage cheese to institutionalized orphans and disabled children, whose state food allowance is about $2.50 a day. Ultimately, the program will benefit more than 1,000 children every year.
What a beautiful program to witness in action! In the village of Rasca, Gina Rosu (one of 14 children raised in abject poverty) had big plans for her mama heifer and baby calf, and was using the milk income (Friesian cows produce about 20 liters of milk a day, compared to local cows’ 10 liters) to buy piglets, build a new concrete pig sty, and establish other sources of income.
Gina and her husband are unemployed but very hard-working and totally focused on giving their two children a far better educational future than they had. (Though Gina has only an 8th grade education, she’s managed to teach herself English and Spanish.) And just like American parents, they are struggling with the teenage angst of their artistic daughter Anca, for whom they don’t have money to buy paints, and the high energy antics of son Johnny who’s a musician like his dad.
Angela is Rasca’s Milk for Orphans community leader and her house and barns are spotless; clearly, she has a gift with cows and her home is the milk collection center for the village. She also buys the boletus mushrooms and arnica that everyone hunts in the hills surrounding the village to sell in the Cluj market. With Olimpio, community leader and Heifer-trained animal health worker, Angela is the go-to person for help with any animal issues in the village. In fact, while we were visiting, Olimpio got five calls for artificial insemination. (Once a cow secretes the fluid that tells you she’s in the mood, you have 8-10 hours to get her the goods. Clearly, we were like Michael Bolton for the female cows of Rasca.)
While clouds piled up in the Rasca sky, and Olimpio went to work making the way for more cute heifers, we went to visit the last family of 25-year old Lenuta and her husband Adrian. They were the poorest couple we saw in Rasca.
Lenuta has a severe hearing problem and all the money from last year’s hay crop had been spent getting her a proper hearing aid so she could hear the voices of her children Natalia and Darius.
The family lives in a one-room house on Lenuta’s father’s land, but luckily their Irish cow had given birth to a female calf (that would be passed on) and Darius was flourishing on all the fresh milk.
In the one tidy room the family lived in, Lenuta laid out a lovely, modest meal for us but I was ashamed to eat their precious food, despite being touched by their hospitality. Everywhere we went in Romania, we were lavished with food – which made me realize how important it was to ask the beneficiary farmers to help feed the orphans. Allowing a poor recipient to become a generous donor is a transformative act of dignity and a powerful demonstration of competence.