by Mary Lynne Mountjoy
The woman wept. She had never had a coat before. Her boy loved his new sweater and would wear it to school the very next day. But it was more than that. The husband was also visibly moved.
It was such a simple thing to give a bag of clothes. We get donations sent by people who want to give some of what they have to help others, whom they have never met. We sort them and we do our best to give them out responsibly and make sure they all go to where they will be of most benefit. This time, there were donations to be cleared out to make room for more to come, things that didn’t really fit with what was needed in the hospital Baby Closet. Someone had a coat they no longer wore, I had some things outgrown by my girls, and those got added in to the mix. Then someone asked.
There was this family they knew, and they were struggling. Winter is coming on, and the boy needs to go to school. There are no uniform requirements for schools, and these days Roma children are entitled to an education as much as any other child, but that doesn’t stop the bullying, the mocking of boys who might have to wear girl’s clothes, or of children whose clothes are torn and stained and don’t fit. And then there’s the problem of keeping children warm and dry in a cold and wet winter climate. If they get wet on the way to school, they have to stay wet. I get the impression that Roma children have it impressed on them from an early age that they don’t matter, nobody likes them, life is hard because that is all they deserve. I’ve seen the bullying in the streets, and it’s not only from other children.
Today, the father of that family probably walked miles into the woods wearing his new jacket, but still wearing only half a sole on one shoe, to cut and carry poles of wood as he works to support his family. He cuts, peels, and seasons the poles, then cuts and gathers twigs to make traditional birch brooms, used to sweep leaves, grass clippings, or snow. It’s an effective tool, made from a renewable natural resource, used and replaced regularly in most Romanian households, and it is how this man supports his family, selling his hand-made brooms for 10lei apiece. He and his family moved from another area back to the area where he grew up and, as he works, he is saving money towards the 350lei fee he needs to pay in order to change their local residency and apply for child benefits. Until he can pay that fee, the money from his birch brooms is all they have. But he works hard and saves hard for a special purpose, as well. Once he has paid the fee and changed the family’s official area of residence, he can also apply for extra benefits to pay for treatment for his disabled daughter. The help is there, if only they can afford to apply for it.
A wife, a hardworking husband, a son who helps in his father’s work, a little sister… and then the baby of the family. A little girl who at two and a half wears eighteen-month size clothes, needs constant care and careful medication, and has often had to be in hospital. They worry about her. If only they could get the extra money, maybe they could find help for her. They want her to be a part of their family life, not sentenced to life in an institution.
So they have so little, but save everything they can toward the hope of help for their baby. And winter is coming, and the boy needs to go to school. A bag of clothes was all we gave them.
A bag of clothes. In a place where it would be so easy to give up a disabled child to an institution, and more than enough reasons to justify doing so; in a place where there is so much need, where it would be easy to turn away, to say “We do enough already.”; in a place where a certain minority, even a certain small portion of that minority, are blamed for their own problems, commonly considered to be beyond help, not worth the trouble – a bag of clothes from strangers who cared enough to look through some boxes and check sizes. That was the reason for the tears. Somebody cared. Someone had thought of them. Strangers had thought them worth helping.
I thank God for that coat, for those clothes that one person or another didn’t need anymore, for the shipments of donations we get, for all the tedious sorting and resorting that gets done, for the timing, for the conversation that led to the question “Do you have any..?”. I thank God for the grace for each of us to say “yes” to one more need, to one more person, to do just one more thing at the end of the day; for the chance to show someone that they are worth thinking of.