Pia at the opening of It's Donkey Time! in Bucharest, June 2011

This time I'm heading for Romania with slightly different vibes... Usually I travel alone with a rucksack on my back, inside it the most ragged clothes possible, and with a list of the adoptive and sponsor dogs I need to photograph and evaluate. And prepared for any horrors I might be faced with. This time I'll have to make an effort to look smart and the only list I have is a list of the dogs I will be bringing back to Finland. I also have my 14 year old daughter with me and I want to show her a glimpse of what it is her mother does in Romania, fully aware that this trip has to be suitable viewing for the eyes of a teenager. So nothing too brutal or distressing.

But as the headline states: It's Donkey Time! The purpose for this trip is to represent the Friends of Homeless Dogs at the opening ceremony for the first donkey therapy riding project in Romania. We are one of the sponsors and our honorary assignment is to keep the donkeys in good health by financing their feed and care. It's really amazing that we have the opportunity to be part of an event this historical and significant! This is a small step, but at the same time a very big step for Save the Dogs and other supporters in the work they do in helping homeless animals and people in Romania. Four donkeys saved in Cernavoda have been trained to be used for therapeutic riding and now the children from the Don Orione orphanage in Bucharest will be allowed to enjoy their company.

The trip from Helsinki to Bucharest takes a long time as the flights are delayed due to the renovations at Frankfurt airport, but we arrive only a couple of hours later than scheduled. We are met by Sara and Laurentiu from Save the Dogs, along with the heat of +36C. We also meet representatives from Italy and Selena from Milan, our friend from STD, is sharing the lift to the hotel. On the way to the hotel we get a brief tour guiding of the most important buildings in the city by Laurentiu, a wash proof resident of Bucharest. This is my 7th trip to Romania, but only now I get to see and experience the palace of Ceausescu, the Music hall and the Triumphal Arch. Very impressive and magnificent buildings which have seen moments of glory and horror in the history of Romania! The modern city centre of Bucharest with its Chanel and other designer shops is something completely different from what I've got accustomed to on my previous trips. Thankfully there are no street dogs in sight. In the midst of this traffic not a single one of them would even survive. The dogs appear on the streets at night when it's more peaceful and cooler.

We leave our stuff at the hotel and do a quick sightseeing of the area by foot. It's hot, there’s plenty of traffic and we only see a few dogs along the way and they're all wearing collars. It's something totally new to see so many dogs as pets in Bucharest. We see a Rottweiler, Bordeaux dog, a Newfoundland, some Bichon type dog and a Dachshund being walked by their owners. The owner of the Dachshund is an older man, and I can't help admiring the dog out loud and proud of his little dog he let us stroke this charming little creature. I'm obviously happy that people care for their pets, but at the same time I can't help thinking: why don't you care for the homeless ones, don't they deserve love and care?!

In the evening we meet Laurentiu, Selena and a reporter, a producer and other crew from Italian TV in a Belgian restaurant. The opening ceremony will be filmed for Italian TV. We are joined by a wonderful person, the leader of Padeia, Italian priest Don Fabrizio. We eat and socialize and talk a lot about children; the upbringing, healthy and sick children, and working with children. Now we are professionally in my specialty area. The Italians are passionate in discussion in Italian at times and I get a chance to show some consideration for my daughter who's obviously quite confused in midst of all that's going on. Exhausted we go to bed, as we have an early wake up call to make it on time to the Don Orione centre.

We still find some time to exchange some sparks between mother and daughter by getting lost on the streets of Bucharest on our morning walk. But it's nice to see so many helpful people even in a huge city, especially when you're trying to communicate in Romanian and get a wide smile in return and score some points with the locals! Luckily we find our way back to the hotel half an hour before we're due to leave! I'm sure that Laurentiu would have picked us up from somewhere even if we hadn't.

A crowd is starting to gather outside the hotel, some we know, some from the Don Orione centre. A minibus is taking the Italian team to the centre. My daughter and I, and Karen from the Donkey Sanctuary in England are given a lift by Laurentiu. With me I also have a bag of soft toys for the children.

The trip to Don Orione takes about half an hour and I'm truly surprised to see a large, modern building complex and big lawns. I was expecting something smaller and more modest. There's also a church in the court yard. A beautiful and dominating addition to the yard, the statues of father Don Orione and Jesus; the two people in whose legacy even this children’s home operates.

We are greeted by Sara and there are also many others on the court yard. I'm lost as to who's who, but I recognize the priests from Don Orione, even if some of them are dressed casually. I also meet Hanna Kumpusalo-Tyukalov who is the representative from the Finnish Embassy and together we take a tour of the centre. Most people speak Italian, but we’re joined by the manager of the institution who is telling us about the building in English. I'm trying to ignore the fact that a sound man and a camera man are following us around and that at times the camera is getting a bit too close. I trust that most of the film will be cut out even if they're filming a lot. You need a lot of material just to get a few minutes of TV.

Everything is very modern and tidy. 18 more or less handicapped children live permanently on the ward; families also come here for therapy and to get treatments for their children. There are always 3 children per room and the colors they're surrounded by, are amazing. I discuss the equivalent Finnish institutions with the guide and this centre, built in 1995, is completely at par with the Finnish ones. The truth of the matter is that communal orphanages in Romania are something really tragic, but here children are well and lovingly cared for.

The staff on the ward consists not only of the Sisters of Don Orione, but also child carers, nurses and doctors. Therapists of many kinds are also involved in the work. Downstairs is occupied by elderly people who are either brought in by their relatives or picked up on the streets in bad condition. Many of them already waiting for their final journey. This is the way it is here, just like at the shelters; when on goes, another needy one will replace it. As a former substitute carer for the elderly at Koskela hospital and child carer at Aurora Hospital, it's a very familiar scene but also much more comfortable here. On the other hand the institutions mentioned are purely hospitals.

I ask our guide about international adoptions. Apparently they were stopped two years ago because in many cases there were links to human trafficking and children were being sold on as organ donors etc. No amount of cruelty is enough when you're born under the unlucky stars, be it animal or human! It feels bad to know that there are many orphan children in Romania, with no parents or a home, and that many good, childless couples in Finland would be willing to adopt.

As we finish our tour inside, the children and the elderly are all outside as the weather is nice. The residents get to spend time outdoors daily. There are old ladies and gentlemen sitting in their chairs in the shade and children playing, some independently, some with an assistant (the pictures in this story are intentionally taken so that no-one can be identified).

We gather in the front court of the centre and it's time for speeches and thanks with regards to the project. Among others the ambassador of Italy is present. All speeches are in Italian so I'm missing most of it and I can't help thinking that maybe I should enroll in the night school next autumn! I manage to video some of the speeches even if I'm standing in the row with the sponsors. When it's my turn to speak the video camera is turned off and my daughter takes some pictures with the camera. The funny thing is that I only found out that I was to hold a speech when I arrived at the centre. Sara whispered to me if I knew that I'd be holding a speech there?" I said I didn't, but I do now. :)

It's a good thing that I didn't have time to ponder about what I was going to say, so I just said all the essential things. I want to take the locals into consideration so I introduce myself in Romanian, but continue safely in English which is then translated to Romanian. I'm telling how happy and proud we are at Friends of Homeless Dogs to have the chance to participate, and we're honored to be part of this project. In a few sentences I tell about our association and wish the project success and for as many as possible similar new projects to start in Romania. As I'm talking I wish that everyone in Finland contributing to this project could be here, experiencing this moment. How important and beneficial this is, and how thankful these people are and how well those four donkeys are doing and will continue to do. Their lives really have a purpose. And for all this, making it possible to do our share, we have the Finnish sponsors of the donkeys to thank. Without the sponsors we wouldn't be here! THANK YOU!

The feeling when you've collected funds and you get to see them used for the right purpose and helping so many, gives you goose bumps just from all the emotion and satisfaction. I'm trying to think of ways to continue bringing people the facts, the good news and gratitude for joining us, and how to keep this amazing project going? We Finns have the duty to keep the donkeys alive and well, these four donkeys that have started their new careers: Boss, Ioan, Sile and Claudio. Abandoned, saved by Save the Dogs, they now are beneficial to many. But I believe and trust that we can do this!

After my short speech it's the turn of Karen from the Donkey Sanctuary. She tells us the story of a child, who among other problems refused to speak. With donkey therapy the child slowly started to come out of her/his shell and the first word she/he spoke was "donkey".

After a joint prayer and blessing of the donkeys, we headed for the stables that had a big red ribbon and bow around it, whilst some long ears were rising in curiosity and four pairs of nostrils were sniffing the air, wondering who these people approaching their paddock were. After the priest held a blessing and said a prayer, a small girl with her carer opened the big red bow and now the time of the donkeys has begun! Applause and cheers! A sign is attached to the top of the stables with all the logos of the sponsors. Including ours!

We get a sample of a riding session and the donkeys kindly start their service. The children are laughing and smiling as they go along.

The official part is now over and we are served drinks and food in another one of the buildings at the centre. Tables are abounding with cheeses and local pastries. I pour myself some juice from a jug and drink it on one go to quench my thirst, and realize its wine! Oh well, I don't spit in a glass anyway. The teenager next to me comments: "Like you didn't know it was wine...” well, I didn't!

We're discussing various things with Hanna from the embassy. She's a very pleasant person and interested in the situation of the animals in Romania. She patiently answers all the questions, for example what's it like living in Romania and how Finns there celebrate midsummer. Soon she has to return to work, and Sara says goodbye and thanks her for coming.

I take a few more pictures outside and then Karen and we are driven back to the hotel by Laurentiu. It's a shame I don't get to say goodbye to Selena, but we’ll speak on the phone again. Selena and the other Italians are going back home tonight, our flight leaves early in the morning.

Despite the heat and the exhaustion my daughter and I decide to go and get thoroughly lost once more on the streets of Bucharest. :) A visit to the pharmacy saves my blistered feet and outside the Pedigree store I consider getting some presents for the dogs, but for certain reasons I decide to boycott the store. In the street corner an older lady, leaning on a stick and dressed in a dressing gown, asks me for money for bread and I give her a few lei. On the way back to the hotel we're met by the same lady, and she greets us happily.

The evening is spent packing and resting, the alarm goes off at 3.50 am and the nice lady at the hotel orders us a cab. There have been so many warnings about con cabs so even if I see that the cab that's pulled up is the real deal, I choose to speak in Romanian to do business. Just in case, because the driver doesn't know how much or how little Romanian I actually speak.

As we step out of the cab at the airport, Save the Dogs' van pulls up in the car park. Andreea is waving happily as Marius is moving the boxes. Big hugs to all and getting the dogs ready for the flight. This time three dogs come home with us: Lora, Valerie and Lonely. Lonely has been given a sweet new name to replace the sad one. Her new owner, Arja from our association, has named her Rosie.

All the dogs are always lovely and great and it’s especially great that they’re coming to Finland. But I have to admit that sometimes a dog will pull your heart strings more than others. You try really hard to have a neutral attitude to a certain level when visiting the shelters. There really is no room for a new dog in my own pack of six! Nevertheless last time I visited, the small, chunky, short legged Lora hit me like a bullet. Last time I was in Medgidia I promised her that I would find her a home in no time, and that's exactly what happened. A week later I bumped into her future owners at a fair! I had the honor to bring Lora to Finland. She shared her box with another sweet girl Valerie, who also got a really good home. On the same flight was Dor, who'll get a whole new life in Finland. Marianna and Samuli from our association were at the airport too, which was good as there were enough work to go round. Not to mention taking pictures!

A few days in Romania always contain so much. This time I feel a bit hollow as I didn't visit the shelters at all, but next time it's time to concentrate on the dogs once again. I have to admit that it's also good for your own mental well being to sometimes see just the joy and the positives side of things. We all know for a fact that Romania is full of sad and cruel stories. But this trip gives hope that there is progress. If only we believe, participate and help. Not everyone is able to travel to Romania and that's not even necessary, the main work is done here in Finland. All donations always reach their destination and enable for the operation to continue. Thanks to you all for that!

Pia, 26.6.2011

© 2012 Kodittomien koirien ystävät | Hemlösa hundars vänner | Friends of Homeless Dogs | info@koirienystavat.com