Til the cows come home.

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.

Gheorghe Coldea, Rasca farmer.

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.

Now that’s what I call a jetway!

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.

Right at home in Rasca.

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.

An orphanage for disabled children in Cluj.

A rare picture of Gina indoors.

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.

The real beneficiary of Gina’s heifer: young Johnny Rosu.

Angela and her amazing boletus mushrooms.

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.

Natalia, Lenuta’s mom and baby 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.

Natalia and the new baby heifer.

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.

The refrigerator of the orphanage, packed with the bounty of Irish bovines and their farmer-owners.

And you can milk that for all its worth.

Categories: Animals, Farming, Food, Heifer International, Photography, Romania, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

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19 thoughts on “Til the cows come home.

  1. Kevin

    What a beautiful place with beautiful people! One of my places to visit, thanks for sharing Betty! Miss ya 🙂

  2. Oh Betty. That’s it. That’s all I can say about this post. Oh, Betty.

  3. teresa

    I love cows, and this is such a wonderful and amazing story. Bringing in cows from Ireland, a country who’s own histroy with child poverty is so fresh makes this gift even more meaningful. Giving to these poor families and allowing them the diginity to give to orphants is a real 2fer. Lovely pics….Why a female cafe? and why the first one?


    • Teresa — great questions! Beneficiaries are always required to give a female offspring (at the same age they received it) so that the reproduction cycle can continue. They are also required to give the first one so that more animals can get in the hands of more needy farmers as quickly as possible. In cows, although they are worth a LOT (1500 euros for a heifer), it’ll take a long time for a Passing on the Gift– 9 months of pregnancy, and then the calf has to be about 2 years old before it can be impregnated. So, they want to move things along as quickly as possible (which is why they delivered pregnant heifers from Ireland — and it IS a great story, isn’t it??!

  4. Greg H

    My comment is really a question(s). Are they required to give to the orphanages? How do they keep this thing rolling? In the US the expectation would be for more hand outs. Do you find any of that in the countries you’ve been?

    • Greg – Thanks for the question!! Yes, the farmers are required to give 300 liters of milk over 18 months to the orphanage. Angela and Olimpio are the extremely competent leaders of the community organization and they are very good at keeping excellent records — and Heifer is very good at working with the community organizations and helping them make accurate accounting for every gift and passing on the gift. The hope in ALL the villages is that the Heifer programs will continue and that more people will receive livestock, and of course, poor people around the world are desperate for help… the beauty of the Heifer programs (in my humble opinion) is that they are always about self-reliance and accountability … and all the trainings are focused on teaching people what they need to do and know to be successful and create opportunities for themselves. It’s very powerful… and sustainable!

  5. Isn’t it interesting how much people make out of so little?

    • Yes, and so inspiring, too! I love that when you open the door of opportunity for so many of these poor farmers, they will really take off. Gina bought a sow with some of her milk money and had 11 piglets, sold 8 for 50 euros each and is building a concrete pig sty for 200 euros so she can buy and sell more and more … it’s just SO promising to me to see that!

  6. Great post, Betty. And my favorite line: “Allowing a poor recipient to become a generous donor is a transformative act of dignity and a powerful example of competence.”

    • I’ve thought about this a lot, Renee, and it’s a VERY big deal for someone who has really struggled just to feed their family to be able to give away something so big (and these animals are huge assets for a poor family). It builds so much cohesion in the community but on a personal level, you can just see how proud they are to do it. It makes me choke up just writing about it, actually ….

  7. Martha Radatz

    Another haunting story. I had a hard time getting past “orphanages that take in 80,000 to 100,000 abandoned and orphaned children every year”. Every year? Really? Why? The picture of the beds at the orphanage was particularly poignant. Please, I know it’s not Heifer’s way, but could I send Anca some paints?

    • Martha, you have a very big heart. Let me check with Laura, my Heifer Romania contact, and see if that would be okay. Anca is really depressed and had to drop out of school because she was so unhappy. When we talked to her, she was mortified that her family is so poor and can’t buy her nice clothes or paints…. She’s a wonderful artist and it was heartbreaking to see Gina so worried about her, but frustrated, too. Gina and Antonio have a really sweet house and you can tell they work like crazy to grow food and raise the piglets, etc. and because Gina was raised in such dire poverty, I’m pretty sure she thinks Anca is being too sensitive and should realize how fortunate she is (sound familiar to any parents of teens??) But the family had a setback when their horse died in childbirth last year (that’s 400 euros gone and all their transportation for hay from their far-away fields) .. but Gina is determined to find a better school for Anca where hopefully she’ll be happier. I’ll check with Laura about the paints!

      • Martha Radatz

        Yes, please let me know what you find out! I have a son who is an artist, so this really struck a chord with me.

    • Oh — the orphans. YES the numbers totally freaked me out, too. Apparently after communist rule ended, a lot of people abandoned their children to the state, feeling that the institutions could take better care of them. At one point Romania also had the highest rate of HIV in children in Europe (80% of Europe’s cases) from careless blood transfusions and birth transmissions that are easily preventable, and those children were orphaned or abandoned. Many Roma (gypsy) people apparently abandon children with disabilities because they can’t take care of them. The beds in that orphanage and the mentally and physically disabled children we met just broke my heart. I have no idea how to reconcile the idea of a loving God with a 20 year old blind child who’s never been out of bed. I just can’t make any sense of it at all. (But the orphanage was very sweet and the staff totally loving to those children.)

      • Martha Radatz

        I know what you are saying, it is heart breaking and befuddling. But I do believe a loving God is in the hands of that loving staff, and in your hands as you engender compassion in your readers through these posts.

  8. I love, love, love what you are doing, Betty, to share these stories, to teach us so much about these countries, and to shine a light on these beautiful people and what is possible with Heifer’s help and the help and ingenuity of others. The woman who bought the hearing aid to hear her children’s voices . . . . that is truly moving. And I need to email you separately about something. Thank you, thank you, thank you for all you do and all you are.

  9. Lenuta was very special, Pattie, and I was very worried about her family. Her cow had mastitis which had not been treated (Olimpio could have cured it with antibiotics easily) and lost the use of two milk teats — and the calf wasn’t as big as it should have been. Lack of experience with animals is a big drawback — and that’s where Heifer, Angela and Olimpio are such godsends .. they can really intervene, check on the family and animals’ progress, and keep things moving forward. xoxooxo B

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