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Inside an institution: Saint Nicolas, a children’s home in Bucharest

© UNICEF Romania/ G. Pirozzi/ What’s for lunch today? The children pick the menu and deliver the goods.

In the last twenty years Romania has gone a long way towards reducing the number of its institutions and most of those that still exist have been successfully modernised. A home like Bucharest’s Saint Nicolas is a case in point. A large institution, established in 1989, it is home to thirty-eight children, aged four to nineteen years.

A quarter of the children in residence have been identified as artistically gifted and receive regular music and art tuition. The director of the centre, her deputy and staff devote much of their free time to escorting the youngsters to competitions, concerts and gatherings of young talent in Bucharest, fostering self-confidence and aspiration among children who joined Saint Nicolas thinking the worst of the world and themselves.

‘They don’t love me!’ In a loud and clear voice fourteen-year-old Dragut sums up his relation with his biological family. ‘But I have a girlfriend in my new school. She is from another children’s home in town. We go places together and she laughs at my jokes. My best friend here, Anton, is much quieter than me and I like going to the park with him. As soon as we are back from school in the afternoon we go out to feed the ducks and watch the skaters and cyclists. I love my food and want to become a waiter in a posh restaurant.’ Dragut is a live wire, full of chat and devours at lightning speed the slices of freshly sliced lemon, which the matron has brought for our tea.

His roommate, nineteen-year-old Malik, owes his emerging career as a stunning countertenor to the professionals working at Saint Nicolas. Malik moved here a year ago from a small family style home which closed down due to the budget cuts. He found it hard to adjust at first. As a form of comfort he sang himself to sleep every night. But this was no ordinary comfort singing. It was not long before a neighbour from across the road complained to the management about the incredible sounds at night. It was then that the director established that Malik had a rare singing talent. He was swiftly presented to the specialist music high school and admitted exceptionally in his final year of studies. Up until then he had been studying economics. The shrewd and helpful staff not only spotted his talent but did everything in their power to give Malik the chance of a lifetime. He has burst onto the city scene as one of the hottest young opera singers, looking forward to a future on the world stage.

© UNICEF/ K. Holt/A young boy misses his family although he has all mod cons in Sf Nicolae

Institutions cannot replace the intimacy of a family for any child but they can do a good job of providing a safe and pleasant environment for looked-after children. At Saint Nicolas’s, over and above their remit, the staff inspire the young people to nurture their special gifts and become tomorrow’s high flyers. The living conditions in the home are clean and comfortable and the children benefit from a varied daily menu. They are allowed to order their favourite specials. The rooms are well kept with a maximum of three beds. They have their own TVs, a computer room and a library. Their washing is done for them and they are even allowed to keep pets. There are numerous after-school activities, summer and winter camps, indoor and outdoor parties and regular visits from well-meaning individuals. Many of the kids own label clothing, electronic gadgets and sports equipment owing to the strong connections the centre has formed with private donors. The humane and efficient services it provides are also generously supported by local government.

‘If anything, our children are too spoiled,’ confides the deputy director. ‘I often worry what is going to happen to them once they are out of full-time education and leave us to start fending for themselves. We have many success stories. One of our former residents is a social worker in the district who puts back in the home what we gave him years ago. Another travels the world working for NGOs. One of the girls became a big-time financier and we have several superstars in the making at the moment.’
First impressions are crucial, often indelible. For a couple of generations the appalling sight of pre-democracy orphanages will be a dominant one but a lot of water has gone under the bridge and now Romania has institutions which are examples of very good practice. Ideally, no one wants a child in an institution, but if they absolutely must be there while alternatives are being developed, then Saint Nicolas serves as an example of the way such a place should be run. The danger right now is that the economic crisis will undercut the standards they have established, and also impact on the expansion of family-based alternatives.



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