Like many recent graduates, Katie Grott knew she wanted to travel after wrapping up her degree at NYU in May – after all, there’s only so much time to explore the world after a full-time gig kicks in. But instead of choosing a more traditional route, like touring Europe or backpacking around Southeast Asia, Grott put her master’s degree in social work to good use and volunteered at a hospital in Romania through a two-week Projects Abroad program.
As we wrap up our own voluntourism contest (we need 5,000 Facebook fans to send two generous travelers abroad – help us out!), we chatted with Grott about the challenges of volunteering across the globe and how even short, two-week contributions can impact communities worldwide.
Why did you choose to volunteer in Romania?
I wanted to see a part of the world that I wouldn’t have visited without volunteering, and the Romania project seemed completely different. I looked at Costa Rica projects and a few others that seemed more standard – people I know have gone on them. I’ve never met anyone who has been to Romania, and as I learned about the culture, I became fascinated.
Where did you work?
I was placed in Brasov's Sacele Hospital, right outside one of the largest gypsy communities in Romania, and I worked with infants and children. Many children in that area spend a large portion of the beginning of their lives in the hospital, due to illness or lack of care from their families.
In the gypsy community, having children is part of the culture – many start as early as 14. I even met a woman who was 21 years old and already had five children. They don’t have many resources – there is a huge alcoholism problem, many in the community don’t work, and few are educated – so many moms will drop children off at the hospital for simple issues, like diaper rash or diarrhea.
I met lots of children who had been there for weeks and months; there were certain infants who were revolving door babies - they would be in and out of the hospital all the time. One baby became kind of the star of the hospital. Everyone loved her, but she was about 2 years old and had basically grown up in the hospital.
How did you provide care?
I arrived every morning at 9am, would walk into the nursery, and all the babies would be wide awake. The ones who could stand would get up and be really excited to see us; if they were hungry, we fed them. Then, we would change their diapers and dress them for the day before heading to the small playground, where some of the older kids would join us.
What changes did you see in such a short time?
Younger babies really live in the moment, which made it easy for me to help. If I weren’t there, they would have sat in their cribs most of the day. Instead, I was able to give them the love that they might not otherwise get, and being nurtured and cared for has a huge influence on child development. In that short amount of time, I was able to love them. The hardest part was that you get attached so quickly – you end up wanting to adopt them all.
Projects Abroad typically sets volunteers up with a host family. What was your homestay like?
I lived with a Hungarian woman in her sixties named Elizabeth. She didn’t speak perfect English, but she knew just enough to help me get by – and make me eat. Romanian food is a huge part of the culture. If someone invites you over for dinner, it’s an honor, and you accept, and you clear your plate. Leaving food behind is an insult, but during my first few days I couldn’t finish my meals. Elizabeth would look at me and say, “You have to eat! You have to eat!” She was very caring and always made sure that I was taken care of. By then end, I did clear my plate. I expanded my stomach.
How does volunteer travel differ from typical vacations?
Instead of doing something on your own, you have the support of Projects Abroad. I felt safe from the minute I boarded the plane to the minute I returned to America. While in Romania, I talked to people who actually lived in Brasov and could tell me where to go and what to see. My time there, though brief, was really well utilized. I gained a real sense of the culture, because I became a part of it instead of just vacationing in it.