I’m Erin Patton, and after coming to Romania as a short-term volunteer each summer, I’m currently here long-term. Over the years, I have volunteered with FFR, and also connected with other services and charities who support people with disabilities. As an Occupational Therapist, my passion is to enable people to participate in the occupations (activities) that give meaning and purpose to their lives.

A typical week for me here in Romania involves seeing children and adults with disabilities in many different capacities. This can often be overwhelming, but also immeasurably rewarding.

My time at the hospital loving and caring for the babies will always be one of the closest projects to my heart. Many of the children have delays from spending prolonged periods in the hospital, or from health conditions that compromise their development. There are lots of opportunities for me to throw in strengthening exercises or muscle stretches, along with working on skills like sitting, walking, and using their hands to play. I’m always happy to provide some suggestions or information to my fellow volunteers, because even a simple positioning strategy can make a big difference in helping a child progress.

My time at the orphanage for children with severe disabilities is so very hard and so very beautiful at the same time. I’ve watched the children grow over the years, and have come to know their likes, dislikes, and communication styles. These children teach me how to find joy in seemingly joy-less situations, that no skill is too small to be hugely significant, and that simply having someone sit beside you is often enough. Working with these children does bring tears. Tears from witnessing a child who is almost three years old crawl for the first time, from getting a fleeting smile from one that has lost his interest in living, or from almost feeling the neurons fire in a child’s brain as she processes a new experience for the first time. Tears from watching yet another child that I love slowly deteriorate, from having to back away because by simply being in their room I’m upsetting them, or from seeing that holding their hand or rubbing their foot is too overstimulating for them.

My time at the day centres and weekly programs is hope-filled and fun. Having the opportunity to work with the children and adults in a stimulating environment is truly special. Being able to provide activities that encourage them to participate and learn is an important goal. Some of the children have never been in a group setting before, and their excitement over exploring a new place is contagious. I share therapy ideas with their caregivers, and adapt activities so they can succeed in something they never thought would be available to them.

My time visiting families who have a child with a disability in their homes is eye-opening. It is a privilege to be invited into their lives, and to gain a perspective of what their day to day involves. Choosing to raise your child with special needs at home is a major commitment, due to the lack of resources and supports available in the community here. Seeing these children receive the love of a family and be an integral part of their family is something that is guaranteed to fill my heart. I can offer a new way to bathe the child, a blender to puree food, or a meaningful activity to decrease boredom and negative behaviour. These things seem so small, but can have a big impact on the child and family’s quality of life.

I’m pushed out of my comfort zone daily. I often think “surely I’m not the best one for that job” or “what about the language and cultural barriers.” But each time, God gives me the knowledge and resources that I need to provide just a little bit for these people, and a little bit can go a long way. I also have the support of the FFR team who provide the encouragement that helps me continue. Sometimes this even requires them to collect recycled items for me to turn into craft and therapy activities! Recognizing the needs, being open to assisting where I can, and connecting with different organizations has helped me continue to serve where God asks me to go.

Having a disability in Romania is beyond hard. I’m honoured to be a part of each of the children’s and adult’s lives that I have met on this journey. To see the determination and motivation of the people themselves, and also of the caregivers and staff that serve them, is inspiring. I am no doubt learning and gaining much more from them than I can ever give to them.

~Erin Patton